This is the second of two posts on the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) and its potential impact on the industry.
As I explained yesterday, the EBM is a product of On Demand Books. An article that appeared almost exactly a year ago on
June 26, 2006 in Publishers Weekly (PW) reported that On Demand Books was the brainchild of former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein and former Dean & DeLuca president and CEO Dane Neller, along with technology expert Thor Sigvaldason.
The EBM itself was invented by Jeff Marsh, who "created the precursor to Espresso, the Perfect Book Machine, five years ago. Since then he has printed several thousand titles, mostly self-publishing projects, and has continued to refine the machine, which prints a date and time stamp inside each finished book and tracks each book printed to facilitate publisher payments." (PW)
Engadget reported in December that another iteration of the EBH costs about $50,000 and "can produce two books simultaneously in seven minutes, a time which includes all the printing, binding and cutting involved. The machine even slaps a snazzy laminated full-color cover on its creations. Books top out at around 550 pages, and right-to-left texts are possible. Production cost is about five cents per page . . ."
When PW asked about the EBM, Epstein said, "Our goal is to preserve the economic and ergonomic simplicity of the physical book."
Epstein "laments the disappearance of backlist and ready access to books in other languages. By printing from digital files, ODB hopes to make warehousing—and much of today's distribution model—obsolete.
'In theory,' said Epstein, 'every book printed will be digitized, which means the market will be radically decentralized. A bookstore with this technology, without any expense to themselves [other than the machine] can increase their footprint.' Of course, that also means that Kinko's or Wal-Mart can transform themselves into mini-bookstores, especially given the machine's affordability." (PW)
Sara Nelson had a lukewarm article about the EBM in today's Publishers Weekly. She said, among other things, that the turnout for the unveiling of the EBM at the New York Public Library was not large and did not comprise "many of the industry types who are 'supposed' to be high tech and cutting edge and into gadgets."
Nelson quoted the executives from On Demand Books saying "the Espresso machine is, ultimately, a delivery system, and they expect to license, not sell, the medium-size-closet devices to retailers, libraries and even hotels. Consumers could go to one of these machines and download a book . . ."
Then she says, "But how realistic is this plan? When can we expect it to catch on? Certainly not until copyright issues are addressed . . ."
I think Nelson is short-sighted and that Epstein's comment to the effect that "the market will be radically decentralized" is on target. I just think that this decentralization will start from the ground up, not from the top down.
It's no secret that the trend in ownership of the publishing industry has been to centralize. Over the last three decades, the majority of publishing houses have been bought out by a handful of large media companies. Independent publishing houses are increasingly rare.
But change is on the horizon. While ownership of publishing houses has been limited, the Internet has been fragmenting the book market itself. Consumer choice is increasing. Consumers can now buy physical books, audio books, e-books, or download podcasts.
I've repeatedly said that digitization and print-on-demand technology will break the stranglehold the large publishers have on the system. They no longer are the only ones in possession of the technology to produce a printed book.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, it can't be put back. If the big seven media companies fail to embrace this new reality, the change will come despite them.
Sara Nelson's comment about copyright issues neglects the fact that copyright belongs to the writer. The writer is the one who leases that copyright to the publisher.
Publishing houses need to recognize and understand the implications of digitization, POD technology and Internet social networking. These innovations are already shifting the power base of publishing. Unless big media moves quickly to share more of their profits or provide more services (like advertising) to their authors, the change will begin from the ground up. Authors will find other publishing partners--maybe new, smaller boutique houses, maybe bookstores like Borders or B&N, maybe online publishers.
Sara Nelson ended her post this way:
Maybe, as Epstein & Co. suggest, everybody--publishers, chains, independent stores, customers--will save money thanks to reduced warehousing, printing and shipping costs, not to mention the certain misery and miserable uncertainty of returns. But will that gain be enough to offset the loss of the joy of browsing? Will pricing change? Will 20,000-sq.-ft. superstores be redundant? It seems to me that in a time when new technologies promising revolutionary effects are being trotted forth at a dizzying pace, the responsible thing for their promoters is to envision how we are all going to work with it--or not. Otherwise, the cautious fear that Epstein decries among publishers is perhaps well-founded, and the slim turnout on Thursday understandable.
She did get one thing right--although I believe her statement should be addressed to a different group of people.
The responsible thing for PUBLISHERS to do is to envision how we are all going to work with this new technology.
If they don't, they'll find authors making new deals with new partners.