Monday, June 25, 2007

Espresso Book Machine, Part II

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.

Here's why.

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.


Stephen Parrish said...

I think your take on the EBM is correct. It's going to have a profound impact on the industry---when it catches on.

A word on what Sara Nelson said about "the loss of the joy of browsing:" There's no reason a bookstore that employed an EBM couldn't continue to display sample books. There's no reason a library that employed an EBM to generate income would have to empty its shelves.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Printing a book has never really been the problem for self-publishers, though POD makes it much cheaper than before.

The problem is marketing your work, makimg people who might be the potential readers aware of it. Most self-published writers don't have the training and resources to effectively market their work, which is one of the reasons why most self-published books fail.

The EBM doesn't change that at all.

If you're going to use POD, iUniverse and Lulu are already there. The EBM doesn't offer anything they don't, except the novelty of actually seeing the book being made.

Finally, I question Epstein's rationale when he says the EBM will be used to print out public domain or backlist titles. Why, for heaven's sake, of I'm in a library, would I pay to print a public domain title, presumably a literary classic, when it probably is already on the shelf there or can be requested from another branch for free?

If I'm seeking an out of print book that is not in the public domain, I can go to, eBay or and find and buy a used copy for less than what the EBM version will cost.

Lastly, Maya, I'm curious about your enthusiasm for self-publishing. You aren't self-published. Why do you care whether the EBM or anything else makes self-publishing easier, unless you are contemplating going that route in the future?

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I agree with you. Thanks for prompting me to write this now instead of later.

Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: You misunderstand me. If you enter "self-publishing" in the search feature of this blog, you will find that I have repeatedly said that self-publishing has huge obstacles to overcome. The EBM will not change those hurdles.

This post is NOT an encouragement to self publish. I don't think I even mentioned self-publishing beyond the inventor's early efforts to test his machine.

I am talking about a shift in the ownership of publishing houses. I believe that a wave of new publishers will enter the arena. I think that boutique publishers will begin springing up to serve specific niches. I think that bookstores may find themselves encouraging talented writers and helping to print and handsell their books. I think that e-publishers will continue to gain credibility.

Some 550 years ago, the printing press was a tool to help democratize reading. I think the EBM will continue to democratize reading in underdeveloped countries and may well be a tool to help democratize publishing as well.

Stephen Parrish said...

iUniverse and Lulu serve writers, not readers.

There was a revealing article in the 13 May 07 issue of the New York Times: "The Great Mystery: Making a Best Seller."

As an example of "the publishing gamble," the article cites Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, which received a $40,000 advance and has sold 462,500 copies, and contrasts it with The Man of my Dreams by the same author, which received a "considerably larger" advance and has sold only 42,000 copies.

EBM technology eliminates the need to guess how many books will sell. Yes, the same can be said of Lulu, but EBM lets me walk out of the store (or library!) with my copy in hand.

As technology improves, so do prices. It's an idea whose time is overdue.

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: Great point.

The end user of a vanity press like iUniverse is the writer, not the reader.

I actually put Lulu in a different category. I think of them as a true POD operation, not a vanity press. They are far preferable to the vanity presses.

Thanks for the post.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Maya:

You're right and I apologise for forgetting your older posts on self-publishing, which I had indeed read some time ago.

I confused your enthusiasm for the EBM with enthusiasm for self-publishing because it is my strong feeling that machines like the EBM will be used largely by writers publishing themselves.

Maya Reynolds said...

Peter: You may absolutely be right. However, I think the implications are much broader than just self-publishing.