Books On Demand: Reinventing the Printing Press

Last week’s post  spoke a bit about the digital revolution taking place in book publishing. Continuing on that theme, here’s an interesting discovery that–in a roundabout fashion–would actually serve to preserve the legacy of printed books:

Imagine being able to hold an out-of-print, highly coveted work in your hands–say, Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice in Wonderland, originally titled Alice’s Adventures Underground (1886). Finding a physical copy would be time-consuming, one would imagine. Certainly you couldn’t procure one for, say under $10 in four minutes flat, right? Well, actually, you can…

In 2007, publisher Jason Epstein, assisted by engineer and inventor Jeff Marsh, released the first Espresso Book Machine to the public. A hybrid photocopier and book binder, this machine has the unique ability to print and bind electronic copies cheaply and quickly. The machine spent its first month in the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry, and Business Library, where “the public was allowed to test the machine by printing free copies of public domain titles provided by the Open Content Alliance (OCA), a non-profit organization with a database of over 200,000 titles.” Suddenly, Epstein’s prediction from eight years earlier seemed to be coming true: that one day, bookstores and libraries could serve as the end of the production line by providing customers with instant prints of the books they want. And with that, On Demand Books was born.

Today, the Espresso Book Machine can be found in 53 locations across 11 countries. One store helping to draw attention to this groundbreaking product is the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, you can not only procure that rare copy of Alice’s Adventures via the store’s EBM, fondly named Paige M. Gutenborg, but have it brought to your doorstep by the eco-friendly bicycle delivery service as well (provided you live in or around Cambridge, that is). Yes, it will cost you, to the tune of a whopping $7.10 and four minutes of your time, but for that you get to hold a very rare book of publisher-quality condition in your hands, lovely, warm from the copier, and made exclusively for you.

And there’s still more to be gained from this machine. Having five million titles, which includes free books from the public domain, at your fingertips may seem limitless, but add to that the capability to print and bind your own work at one of these machines and its potential really is without bounds. Aspiring novelists can print multiple copies of their manuscripts, professionally bound, in almost no time at all. The realm of self-publishing has never been so in the favor of the authors themselves.

Since the printing press was first invented, book distribution has largely remained unchanged; an author writes, the publisher prints, a customer buys. Even the purchase of e-books follows the same centralized supply chain, though the access of buying a book anytime, anywhere grants readers a certain power they never had before. But to be able to order a physical copy of a book, even one a publisher refuses to print, is something truly special, and a technology that I hope catches on. Bring on the revolution!

Found any other interesting innovations or movements that are revolutionizing the book publishing world? Feel free to share below–we’d love to hear your thoughts.


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