By J.D. Hillard
In the near future the sounds of a visit to the local bookstore may include the robotic hum and whir of the Espresso Book Machine, big copy machine-looking devices that allows you to print and buy your own book or any of millions of books in a database.
Bookshop Santa Cruz has just become one of four locations for the on-demand print devices in California. As the store starts to produce orders Silvie-Marie Drescher offers a demonstration. At first it sounds like a big printer, printing and stacking pages, which is most of what it does.
“We have a high-speed Xerox on this side that’s printing the book block or the interior and an inkjet printer on this side that’s going to print the cover,” Drescher says. “And they’ll both met hear where our little robot friend will bind and trim it and shoot it out the other side.”
Drescher is printing a single copy of a book: a creative writing project by a group of people in Australia. The order came in last night. Usually a book doesn’t see print if it doesn’t justify a run of thousands of copies. It’s a new form of publishing, made possible by technology like this shiny new machine. Independent bookstores have received a lot of news in recent years, most of it calling into question their ability to survive. Casey Coonerty Protti has run Bookshop Santa Cruz since she took it over from her father six years ago.
“I would say we’ve undergone more change in the last six years than he probably saw in the 30 years prior to that,” she says.”There are people a year ago who said there wouldn’t even be any bookstores left a year from now because of e-books.”
The Espresso Book Machine is part of the Bookshop’s strategy to stay abreast. There are 8 million books in the machine’s library. Customers can choose a title and the cost varies. Books in the public domain cost about what they would off the store’s shelves. To print your own work it’s five dollars plus 4 1/2 cents per page. Some publishers are putting books that they don’t currently plan to print into the library, but there are no best sellers. It may be that selecting and buying a book from the machine won’t be the draw for customers. Michael Cader is the creator of the publishing industry newsletter publisherslunch.com
“It’s been very clear in all the places where it’s been deployed so far,” Cader says. “That customers have almost no interest in searching a database of a million books asking for something that isn’t on the shelves. Waiting for a book to be printing and then paying 20 bucks for a trade paperback.
This understanding already seems to be incorporated into Bookshop Santa Cruz’s plan. Perhaps it’s ironic, but the goal of the book machine isn’t just to sell books. The store is counting on people using the machine to do publishing projects that are on too small a scale for a print shop. Self-publishing authors, people printing family histories and other small projects. The author may want help creating the design for a cover, registering an ISBN, copy editing. In each case the bookshop assists the publisher and collects a fee.
“The good thing is Silvie’s here and so she can do the human to human connection which is something you can’t get online when you’re ordering books or deciding to print your own books,” Protti says. “We don’t want to forget about the human touch.”
The prospect of self publishing drew Annie and Julie Moultray to the store to investigate.
“I was able to drag Annie along because she says ‘Take me to he bookstore to see the machine,’” Julie Moultray says.
Thirteen-year-old Annie Moultray hopes to be a writer. She already has plans for the book machine: “I’m writing a book right now and I want to get it printed here.”
With the the cover printed and the pages printed and stacked. The mechanisms in the center of the machine press the pages into a tight stack, slather glue on one edge and push them onto the cover. The theater of the machine is not lost on the store: the sides are transparent so everyone can watch as the book is pressed into shape and trimmed. The product comes out a slot on the side. It takes about five minutes. Protti picks up the book and notes: “Hot off the press.”
Above Protti referred to that prediction that e-books would put bookstores out of business. She says what happened was people bought e-books but also continued doing business with independent stores. And with Google eBooks, stores have significant collections to offer from their own Web sites.
Cader says, “It used to be called a bookstore. Increasingly physical books are less of what they sell. But there’s certainly a role for someone locally to help mediate customers reading and writing lives. Are we ever going to call it a ‘readers’ store’ are we ever going to call it a ‘publishing store?’ I don’t know.”
Protti says it’s hard to tell what change could turn the scale against operating a store where people come to discover books. And to survive, bookstores will need to adapt.