When you envision the future of publishing, what do you see? You might think you see ebooks, and all sorts of little digital reading devices, but what you should see is a small machine approximately 2.7 feet deep, 3.2 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. That is the future of publishing.
What I am talking about is the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), currently in version 2.0. This little device put out by On Demand Books is a glimpse of the publishing future. The current incarnation of the EBM is not where the industry will end up, but it is the beginning of the path that publishing will take. Like the crude first airplanes, or the clunky first cars, the EBM is the very birth of a new invention and as such is more clunky and less beautiful and refined than what we will see in ten or twenty years. But make no mistake, it is where the future is going, and what we have now is enough to give you an idea of what the future holds. Already the EBM 2.0 is an improvement upon its predecessors, and the following versions will only be better.
The dawn of the EBM can be traced back to 1999 when Jason Epstein, a veteran editor gave a series of lectures in which he reflected on his experiences in publishing. “Epstein mentioned in his speech that a future was possible in which customers would be able to print an out-of-stock title on the spot, if a book-printing machine could be made that would fit in a store. At the time, Jeff Marsh, a St Louis engineer and inventor, had already constructed a prototype book printer that could both photocopy and book-bind. A friend of Marsh, present on one of the lectures, informed Epstein. The editor together with Dane Neller, former President and CEO of Dean and Deluca, licensed Marsh’s invention and founded On Demand Books.”(1) In 2007 the first EBM was unveiled.
What is the EBM? From On Demand Books own website: “The Espresso Book Machine® 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.“(2) That is version 2.0. As technology improves, so will ability and opportunity.
As this new technology is adopted prices will come down, and availability will increase. As of this writing (June 2010), the EBM is available at only a few handful of locations, and has a list price of $97,500, plus the additional cost of the printer. But in a speech at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Mr. Epstein said, “The eventual cost of the machine will be no more than an office copier.“
This will revolutionize publishing. How? As Mr. Epstein says, “Espresso machine eliminates completely the Gutenberg supply chain by delivering a finished book from a selected digital file to the end user with no intervening steps: no inventory, no warehouse, no delivery cost, no spoilage and no returns.“(3)
The future is an EBM sitting and the end of the aisle in Walmart where the bestselling books are now kept. It is an EBM at the airport, where you can buy a book for your flight. It is an EBM at your local library, to purchase a copy of the book you like. It is an EBM at your local collage, where you can purchase your textbooks. It is an EBM at your local bookstore, where even the smallest bookstore can print you a copy of any book you could find in the largest chain bookstore.
The Espresso Book Machine will completely change not only how books are published, but how they are sold. Now anyone can sell any number of books anywhere. Up until very recently, the news has been about the death of the small bookstore, and the small publisher. The EBM, and any similar device that comes along, will change that.
What does this mean for authors? Broadly, the overall publishing market will shift drastically away from a few bestsellers. Backlists will be increasingly valuable, and authors will see more sales from their older titles. In relative terms, the cost of books could come down somewhat while author earnings per book would go up. There will be a wider audience for more authors to become successful. Self-publishing will become increasingly viable.
What this looming revolution does not mean is that all authors will become successful, rich, and famous. The EBM does not take all the work out of being published, or (more importantly) being successfully published. The EBM will be a huge boon for smaller independent bookstores, greatly leveling the playing field with the large chain bookstores. It will be a great frustration to the large publishing houses, as authors will have more opportunities beyond the traditional publishing route. The greater opportunity will be an advantage for authors, but it should not be mistaken for an utopia. No matter how easily a book can be printed, the two biggest job of an author remains writing a good book, and getting it noticed. Accomplishing both of these still requires hard work.
(1) Wikipedia article on the Espresso Book Machine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espresso_Book_Machine
(2) Espresso Book Machine specifications: http://www.ondemandbooks.com/hardware.htm
(3) Speech given by Jason Epstein at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools Of Change for Publishing Conference: http://www.ondemandbooks.com/docs/TOC%202009%20Speech.pdf
(4) Interview with Jason Epstein and Dane Neller: http://www.forbes.com/2010/05/06/book-publishing-espresso-entrepreneurs-sales-marketing-wharton.html
(5) Wired article on Google using the Espresso Book Machine: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/09/google-books-publish-on-demand/
(6) One publishing company’s new approach: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/0907/opportunities-publishing-clint-greenleaf-book-it.html