book publishing is broken, exhibit C

Shelf Awareness has been profiling interesting tidbits from BEA and one of them was a presentation about a New England independent bookstore, Northshire, that offers print on demand services with a rented Espresso machine. People enjoy watching it make books, and the store sells 150 to 200 Espresso-printed books per month. Given the machine costs a thousand dollars a month to rent, requires a full time staff person, plus takes up a 5′ x 15′ plus clearance chunk of floor space (and apparently a fair amount of under-the-breath cursing because it is finicky) the bookseller thinks it still has the potential to provide a comfortable profit, particularly if it could quickly fulfill orders for frontlist books that aren’t in stock.

But what is their Espresso serving now? Mostly self-published titles, which run $10-$15 for a 200-page book and involve staff time providing layout and other services. Lulu is cheaper, but Northshire is high-touch and has local appeal. They’ve essentially become a small publisher, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say a printer who provides some publishing services. They also print copies of public domain books through Espresso’s arrangement with the Open Content Alliance . There’s a theoretical arrangement with Lightning Source to provide mainstream publications, but very few in-copyright back- or front-list titles are currently available, which the bookseller thinks may be related to the  lack of the Espresso’s system to integrate with publisher’s inventory systems. Or maybe it’s one more technical hassle the publishing industry doesn’t want to undertake until it has blockbuster potential.

The new Espresso 2.0 was rolled out recently. (Northshire has the 1.5 veriosn.) You can see it at work in this promotional video printing a copy of Jason Epstein’s book in which he predicted an ATM-like machine that would print books from an electronic catalog on demand. He partnered with the inventor of the machine to founded the company that makes Espressos.

I can’t figure out the math. The machine costs a lot – far more than a $1,000 / month rental would support. It’s available in a handful of independent bookstores – one each in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia; some university bookstores and libraries also have the machines. Are these demos just to get the word out? Though there is a market to produce nicely printed copies of things like reports and conference proceedings, as well as self-published cookbooks, memoirs, local histories, novels, and poetry, the lack of integration with publishers’ lists mean it won’t change mainstream book distribution, not unless things really change dramatically. That means there is no “greener” or more financially efficient book market as a result – just bookstores becoming print shops and adding an entirely new set of services to their business.

I think there’s a significant market that will endure for printed books. I think readers want to have high-quality books that have been carefully chosen, professionally edited and well-designed; hand-crafted, but not home-made. I would like to think there’s a less wasteful means of delivering them to readers that could be nearly as instant as it is with Kindle. (Don’t you think the reason they use a “whisper-net” is so that you can’t quite hear the price tag of that book you just bought on a whim?)  I’d like to think this efficient and fast delivery could be done without some vertically-integrated Wal-Mart of books becoming our one and only bookstore, self-publisher, and e-book vendor. But for every innovation that shows promise for the development of a healthy book culture that isn’t a wholly-owned subsidiary of big business, there are seemingly impossible barriers for making those innovations deliver books from traditional publishers.

It amazes me that publishers rush to do business with Amazon even while fuming that they have artificially depressed the cost of e-books to sell their proprietary hardware and reset the retail price point. Why can’t publishers do more to maximize the potential that independent booksellers have to create a healthy and innovative book culture? There has to be way.

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