You may have heard a few years back (See: Highbrow-Brilliant) about a neat device that can pump out made-to-order books while you watch. But in 2006, the Espresso Book Machine was better in theory than in practice — fifteen feet long and achingly slow. Well, EBM 2.0 is three times smaller, three times faster, and half as expensive. And as of this fall, we have it on good authority, New York’s first permanent machine will be cranking out paperbacks at Soho’s McNally Jackson Books.
The store has no comment, and Dane Neller, the CEO of Espresso makers On Demand Books, will say only that “we will have a machine in the fall in a cool New York store and another one in a major New York university.” He concedes that the $75,000 Espresso, currently in about a dozen indie U.S. stores (which usually lease them), is far from its tipping point. “It’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg; the first question a retailer has is how much content we have.” As of now, in addition to “millions” of public-domain books, the machine can only access about 175,000 backlist titles (you’d need to sell a couple thousand copies a year to make it worth your while). But millions of books are being digitized, and, Neller says he’ll have them soon enough. He’s talking to lots of chains, and not just bookstores. “Imagine libraries being a place where you can get books [that is, more books] and Staples, Kinko’s, coffee shops.” In two years, he says, “We’ll be having a different conversation.”
But wait, isn’t the printed page done for? Neller doesn’t think so — why would he? — and insists that his machine will complement the likes of Google and the Kindle. Buyers could order the book on Amazon, pop into their local bookstore that day and pick up the genuine article, free of shipping costs. Everyone wins: Jeff Bezos, HarperCollins, and especially Mom and Pop. (Pity the printers, though.) “Think of the store as a hub where the supply chain collapses,” he says. And if enough books are printed on demand, that means less shelf space, which means fewer New York stores go bankrupt due to astronomical rents. Maybe it’s just a dream, but it’s a dream with a machine — a retro brand of Utopia built on belts and gears instead of endless glowing rectangles. At last month’s BookExpo, On Demand made us a (slightly gluey but perfectly solid) copy of veteran publisher and Espresso creator Jason Epstein’s Book Business. We were entranced by the contraption’s Willie Wonka–ish machinations, visible through a glass wall. Game-changer or not, it’s kinda cool. No exact date on the McNally Jackson arrival as of yet: Watch this space for updates.