Near the end of December, habitués of McNally Jackson Books, a six-year-old shop in Manhattan’s NoLIta neighborhood, noticed something strange: A hulking contraption, looking like a cross between an overgrown photocopier and an old mainframe, had colonized the bit of space between the store’s café and magazine section. To say it looked out of place in McNally Jackson’s vigorously analog domain is an understatement, but the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), as it’s called, may be the independent bookstore’s best defense in a digital world, where competing with Amazon can seem like a losing battle. From a catalogue of more than two million open-source and in-copyright titles, the EBM can produce a single perfect-bound, library-quality paperback, complete with full-color covers, in a matter of minutes. It’s promising a different kind of print revolution, one where the digital future of books is still very much about the printed page.
The EBM is the product of On Demand Books (ODB), a company started in 2003 by Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, and Dane Neller, former CEO of Dean & Deluca. (The pair met when Random House published The Dean & Deluca Cookbook.) Epstein is no stranger to innovation: He is credited with inventing the trade paperback format as an editor at Doubleday in the 1950s. A St. Louis–based engineer named Jeff Marsh had already built a prototype of the kind of machine Neller and Epstein were looking for; from there ODB developed the software and forged distribution agreements with publishers as well as content aggregators like Google.
The first two EBMs were set up in 2006: one in the World Bank’s InfoShop in Washington, D.C., and the other at Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the re-creation of the ancient library. A third machine had a three-month trial run at the New York Public Library in 2007. Several versions later, there are now over 50 of them worldwide, in places like the Harvard Bookstore, London’s Blackwell Bookshop and Tokyo’s Books Sanseido.
From an environmental standpoint, the EBM is far preferable to the current system: Overproduction, storage and shipping are no longer concerns. It’s also a way for publishers, who provide ODB access to out-of-print titles to monetize their backlists, and for authors to once again earn royalties on these books (prices are about $15 to $20, the same as a standard paperback).
According to McNally Jackson owner Sarah McNally, her customers’ reactions to New York’s first permanent EBM have been those of “almost universal excitement and glee.” Over the past six years, McNally Jackson’s smart selection of books, knowledgeable staff and frequent author events have allowed the store to flourish even as Barnes & Noble branches throughout the city have closed. McNally’s hope is that the EBM will make her store even more relevant to the community: She envisions schools using it to print collections of student pieces, writers self-publishing their work and universities producing course materials.
At present it has turned her shop into the best kind of used bookstore, where even the most obscure out-of-print titles are available. In the future, as ODB gains access to more in-copyright work, it will make her seriously competitive with the Amazons of the world. “We’d have as many books as any online seller, and you’d only have to wait five to ten minutes,” McNally says. “That changes everything.”
Since the introduction of the EBM, four years ago, the publishing world has had to contend with the rise of the Kindle, the iPad and other e-readers. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, held in January in Las Vegas, 2011 was deemed the year of the tablet, and increasingly tablets are seen as the future of reading. It might seem, then, that just as it’s gaining momentum, the EBM has been rendered obsolete. Neller believes otherwise and says the market research bears him out. “In five years e-books will still only represent 15 percent of the U.S. trade market.” He also argues that it’s wrong to try to predict the future of publishing by comparing it with other industries. “Just because there was an iPod doesn’t mean that phenomenon is going to replicate itself.”
To Epstein, the physicality of books is vital to the continuity of knowledge. A digital file can easily be deleted or corrupted, whether accidentally or, in the case of tyrannical regimes, on purpose. “For those books in which civilization is stored and transmitted,” he says, “printed and bound copies will remain the preferred format.” Epstein sees the e-reader as “a case of reinventing the wheel,” comparing it to the Rube Goldberg–style feeding machine in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which pours soup on Chaplin’s shirt and shoves pie in his face. In short, it’s no substitute for the simple fork and knife.
Despite this skepticism, Epstein and Neller are convinced that the future of the book is a digital one. But as Neller points out, “it could be digital to digital or it could be digital to analog. The notion that it’s going to be only e-books, that’s not what the numbers are saying.”
McNally, too, speaks of the importance of physicality, of books as “desirable objects.” To that end, Google has put her in charge of redoing the standard Google cover, a project that she’s hired several designers to tackle. New covers would allow the books to take pride of place on her shelves and serve as mementos of the machine itself. “It’s such a collision of sensations,” she says, “the idea of a beautiful book dropping brand-new out of this machine.”
Fact: A single Espresso Book Machine can print up to 150 books in eight hours. That’s roughly one book every three minutes.