With the Espresso Book Machine, Suddenly You Are An "Electronic Publishing Company," Or You Are Nothing
The Fiction Circus used to make short-story anthologies at Kinkos when we first started out five years ago. We would deliver our painstakingly-crafted .pdfs or PageMaker files on a CD and they would snap out fifty books for us overnight for something like three hundred dollars. We would sell the books in Austin at the Staple! Independent Media Expo, and sometimes we would make back our printing costs, as long as our table was elaborate enough to attract attention.

It is the Starship Enterprise crashing into a tall, humble tower! We sold more books than ever that year.

At Kinkos, they would tape-bind our fiction anthologies using huge machines in the back that we coveted. Sometimes the Kinko's employees would chat with us about their jobs and ask us why we didn't just buy a printer ourselves.

("Because we have no fucking money. Ha ha.")

I would stare blankly at the greeting cards and stationery while Dr. Future haggled over prices and quizzed the hapless clerk about paper stock and bleeds. We learned about toner, paper joggers, and proper collation. It was easy to see where things were going: soon there would be machines that could do perfect binding on books as fast as tape binding, xeroxing, or scanning. The real mystery was why "printers" were so exclusive in the first place. Books weren't special; we could make rough approximations of full print runs ourselves for cheap, overnight, in Austin, Texas -- a city with fifty functionally literate people.

We sat there in Kinkos watching them print our anthologies, trying to swipe tape, markers, and paperclips, and we argued about the shape of things to come.

("What the hell does publishing even mean anymore?")

Every once in awhile we would try to take up a collection from other people in town with similar publishing concerns in order to buy our own printer. To invest in the future! But it never seemed worth the trouble in the end. It seemed like the real hard work was in figuring how to do everything BUT print books.

These days, publishers stand around clucking over invoices to printers and paper companies, or poking through the ashes of the last batch of remaindered books returned from the latest out-of-business bookstore, and they ask themselves the same question we used to ask: what does publishing even mean anymore?

What should publishing be doing instead of worrying about getting books to a press?

Because suddenly, the machine that makes perfect books in minutes now exists. It's called the Espresso Book Machine, and it is being put through trial runs in England, California, and New York. It can make a book from raw electronic blueprints while you watch. It is the size of an arcade race-car game.

A few of the big publishers are already participating in a pilot program to make print-on-demand selections available from their catalog using this new machine, and are taking royalties from the Espresso Book Machine every time one of these wonder presses prints a new volume at a pilot location for some knee-slapping tourist to take away as a curio.

("A real live book, kids! Printed in an instant!")

From the "On Demand Books" website:

"The EBM is a fully integrated patented book making machine which can automatically print, bind and trim on demand at point of sale perfect bound library quality paperback books with 4-color cover indistinguishable from their factory made versions.

The EBM 2.0 is modular in 2 parts and the core unit measures approximately 2.7 feet deep, 3.8 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. The EBM 2.0 is available with a high speed (105 page per minute) black and white printer, a high speed color printer or a 35 page per minute printer.

The EBM will print, bind, and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes with a high speed printer model. Production cost is a penny a page and minimal human intervention is required for operation. The trim size of a book is infinitely variable between 8.5" x 11" and 4.5" x 4.5" and the EBM Version 2.0 can bind up to 830 pages."

Take a look:

They are billing the EBM as an "ATM for books." But really, if deployed correctly by a cunning nexus of publishers and brave entrepreneurs, the EBM is a jukebox rather than an ATM, and the "playlist" is the internet itself, along with all the creativity and pluck that the next generation of electronic publishers can muster.

Keep the following five points in mind:

1). You can print whatever book you want on the EBM using the EBM's internal catalog, the internet, a CD, or USB drive.

2). Sooner rather than later "self-publishers" will use the EBM to make their books available in print through any companies that jump on board, whether Amazon's CreateSpace initiative, Google Books, or some other company that offers low-cost book hosting and electronic file management.

3). You don't have to love books to stick an EBM in your store. Wal-Mart could offer EBM print-on-demand. Starbucks could offer EBM print-on-demand. In fact, a new coffee chain could spring up around the idea of the EBM itself: it would be called "Espresso Books," and it would offer both frothy lattes and frothy literature in your neighborhood next to the post office. While your barista makes your drink, she also punches up the novel you want and both are delivered to you hot and steaming on a tray with a napkin.

4). The EBM will have two pricing models. There will be one price for books that you purchase straight from the EBM catalog that will factor in royalties and the official catalog price from publishers. Then there will be another price to print books directly from your own file (a penny a page). These could be pirated books, perhaps. Suddenly ebooks will be valuable to pirates because they will also be the blueprints for a hot, cheap copy down at the local EBM. The cheap price will also be for books purchased online from a retailer that does not have a deal with the EBM machine, but who still sells books formatted for EBM printing.

5). Some people won't mind only being allowed to buy books that the EBM has acquired through licensing deals. But the vast majority of folks will want to print the books that they can't order anywhere else: they will want to print the books that come from a brand new market that doesn't really exist yet.

From exclusively "electronic" publishers.

So let's say you completely get rid of print costs for a publishing company. Now your job as a publisher is really what it was supposed to be all along: your job is editing, publicity, and design. Since people can already publish themselves for free without relying on you as a gatekeeper, you now have to sell yourself as being able to code better electronic books than they could at home, on being able to better publicize their novel if it is good and worth selling, and on being able to provide better editing than their spouse or a freelancer.

When people buy a book from you, they will buy unlimited permanent access to the electronic copy. They will be able to read this electronic copy on the device of their choice (a copy specifically formatted to take advantage of all of the possibilities of electronic publishing, such as multimedia, search, annotation, and flash), or they will be able to take it to an EBM and print it themselves, in the same way that Victorian gentleman took the rough blocks of their dirty French novels to bookbinders to be cut and bound in handsome leather volumes.

Electronic publishers will not need warehouses, storage space, deals with bookstores, deals with shipping companies, or deals with anybody but consumers. Consumers will buy ebooks directly from publishers, and then it will be up to the consumers what to do with these ebooks, whether to leave them in their original electronic formats, get them printed down at the local EBM, or both.

People fear this model. They fear this model because it seems like publishers will have less control over content. But so what? For the first time in the history of publishing, publishers will make money from their actual skills, instead of by simply being the copy machine that writers must con in order to get their books to people.

There will be an initial phase where writers will think they can "do it all themselves" without the aid of an editor or publishing company. But slowly they will realize the value of having an interested team (with taste) behind their books, and they will join up to do battle in an age that might be the greatest, most refined exploration of the art of the printed word since the first dawn of print media in the 16th century.

Imagine the thrill of working with pure text. Pure images. Pure hard data. Imagine all you can do with an "electronic book" when you know that people will also be able to print up a paper copy at will if they prefer. Movies are a dead medium by now. The real excitement for creative minds is here, in electronic literature.

For instance, last year The Fiction Circus published an electronic verison of my own novel "Rocks at the Cuts" to show what can be done with persistent online versions of books. This is only a sample. The possibilities for creativity with code are limitless, and the Espresso Book Machine proves that it is not an either/or proposition when it comes to ebooks versus print. Electronic publishers will soon be ready to compete with traditional publishers in every area but connections.

Big, clumsy publishing houses will find themselves beat at every turn by these whip-strong, tightly-run electronic publishing mutants. The watchwords of the upcoming print wars will be the same watchwords that the military uses to explain third-generation warfare: flexibility, mobility, and independence.

The Espresso Book Machine isn't magic. It isn't the entire future delivered like a pizza to those in publishing who are fretting about ebooks like silent movie stars in an age of "talkies," wavy stink-lines coming out of their armpits as they sweat over their artistic relevance in an image-addicted age.

But the EBM is certainly a big piece of the puzzle, and it is here today to shock us into doing things differently.

Posted by miracle on Wed, 06 May 2009 10:49:05 -0400 -- permanent link

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