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June 2019

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Slow-Mo Espresso

I first heard about the Espresso Book Machine in 2001, back when it was called PerfectBook 080. That machine is now old enough to vote, yet...where are they? I was talking about that question in the mid-oughts, and described what I called just-in-time bookstores (which were in fact gumball machines for printed books) in 2006. A recent piece in the New York Post suggests that the machines are indeed out there, and are in fact being installed in bookstores for on-demand printing of books.

Well, it's 2019 and ebooks have raced past the print-on-demand (POD) tortoise at about .25 C. You don't hear a great deal about POD books anymore. I used to sell quite a few in the early-mid oughts, when I mounted several titles on Lulu and Amazon's now-shuttered CreateSpace. As ebooks have become cheap and easy, POD books are a much harder sell. I wish Shakespeare & Co. (see the NYP link above) all the best, but whereas the concept sounds great on paper it may well be impossible to implement as more than an isolated and little-used oddity.

Why so? The bulk of it is simple copyright: Beyond public domain titles, the stores would have to have some sort of contractual agreement with publishers to print books, along with a usable print image. (These are generally but not always PDF files.) Publishers are reluctant for a number of reasons:

1. They don't really know how to negotiate such a contract. How much should the publisher get? How much should the store get? How much would the authors get? Under what circumstances can the contract be terminated? With book publishing in the parlous state that it is, figuring this out would not be easy. Why? Once precedents of this sort are set, they become expectations and are hard to break. Publishers have no history here, and would basically have to guess. Bad guesses could be fatal over the long run.

2. Publishers want to protect conventional bookstores and chains. Publishers and big store chains have a fragile but necessary symbiotic relationship. Small booksellers with Espresso machines would nibble away at that relationship by making big-box bookstores even less necessary than they are today. If Barnes & Noble were to shut down, there would be publisher blood in the streets of Manhattan. Espresso machines in espresso shops would just hurry that apocalypse along.

3. This is probably the big one: If a book's source file(s) escape a bookstore's control, they'll be all over the Internet, and anybody with a laser printer or access to a POD machine can create bootleg copies. This actually happened to me: The publisher print image file for my book Assembly Language Step By Step escaped its publisher's control and was everywhere, just six weeks after the book was published in 2009. Bookstores are notoriously fluky operations, with lots of turnover and quirky people. One part-timer with a thumb drive in his pocket would be all it took. I've studied file piracy in detail over the past twenty years. This is a real fear.

4. Espresso machines are not cheap. They cost about $80,000 and up depending on speed and sophistication. Most firms rent them, with periodic maintenance included in the rental. I have no good numbers for that, but Espresso uses xerographic printers and I was a Xerox repair tech forty-odd years ago. Those machines are messy and touchy. Something gets a little out of line and the machine ceases to work. So it may not be an option for tiny storefront shops, especially if publishers aren't on board.

5. Here's the insight I bring to the issue: Near-term, espresso bookstores are likely to be opportunities for small, very small, and indie publishers. It would cost a bookstore very little to host a print image that might be ordered twice a year. PDF files for mostly textual works like SF novels are very compact. (Heavily illustrated books, of course, require larger files, but not that much larger.) Small/indie press would be far more likely to cut deals with the bookstores than Macmillan or Wiley. They have a lot less to lose, and a whole lot more to gain.

So where does all this leave us? Alas, I'm nowhere near as bullish on POD as I was even six or seven years ago. I attribute this to the promotion of smartphones to mini-tablets. I myself have a "phablet" (a Samsung Note 4) and I love it. I also do exponents more reading on it than I ever thought I would back when I bought it toward the end of 2015. (And this is true evenn though I have other readers with much larger screens.) Basically, almost everybody who partakes of modern life today has an ebook reader in their pocket, and some of them are actually called "ebook readers." People have become used to reading genre fiction on small screens. It's a tougher call for technical nonfiction containing figures, photos, or code. I have read technical books on my Lenovo Yoga convertible, and it's...so-so.

Back in their heyday, the pulps were considered disposable books. You read them once, maybe kept them for a little while (the bathroom was possibly their final redoubt) and then threw them away. Fiction ebooks work like that: People read a novel once...and then, having done its job, it vanishes into the archives. It may never emerge from the archives again, but with terabyte drives in increasingly small devices, who cares? You'd have to read a lot of SFF to fill one of those.

POD will continue to make a certain amount of sense for science, tech, and history books, or any other genre that depends on fixed page-layout specifics. Reflowable tech books are just hideous. The big question is whether that sort of nonfiction is enough of a market to float a maintenance-hungry beast like an Espresso Book Machine in the basement of a bookstore. Given how long that question's been hanging in the air, my guess is that the decision's already been made.

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