Adrian Versteegh

When the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, held a contest last fall to christen its new Espresso Book Machine, no one needed to point out that the name eventually chosen—"Paige M. Gutenborg"—evoked an appropriate combination of wistfulness and Jetsons-style futurism. Indeed, the print-on-demand contraption—which can turn a digital file into a perfect-bound, library-quality paperback in about four minutes—may well signal an end to the literary distribution model that has endured since an impecunious German goldsmith printed his famous Bible five and a half centuries ago.

What forward-thinking authors and publishers are after is a means of leveraging the 'long tail' principle, which holds that declining distribution and inventory costs have made it possible to profit by selling tiny quantities of many different products rather than immense quantities of only a few products.

The significance of such a shift isn't lost on Jason Epstein and Dane Neller, cofounders of On Demand Books, the New York City–based firm that rolled out the first Espresso Book Machine (EBM) in 2006. Epstein, already celebrated as a game changer for having effectively invented the trade paperback format in 1952, calls digitization "the threshold not only of a new way of publishing books but of a cultural revolution orders of magnitude greater than Gutenberg's." Since beta testing the EBM nearly four years ago, his company has entered partnerships with the Open Content Alliance, Lightning Source, and Google Books, giving users access to over three million titles, both proprietary and public domain. The "ATM for books," as Neller describes their device, has so far been installed at about twenty-eight locations throughout North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Africa, including the University of Michigan, McGill University, and the University of Melbourne. On Demand expects the EBM—which sells for slightly over a hundred thousand dollars, depending on the choice of printer—to have found its way into at least forty independent bookstores by the second quarter of 2010.

Academics have been among the earliest adopters of print-on-demand systems. According to Epstein, one EBM at the University of Alberta now prints a hundred books a day, seven days a week, including replacement library volumes, course readings, collections of conference proceedings, and other materials custom-created on-site. For university presses, accustomed as they are to forgoing worthy titles—or else compelled to stick them with prohibitively high price tags—because of the cost of traditional publishing, the benefits of the new technology are clear. The University of Texas Press, for example, recently announced that a wide range of its out-of-print books are now available in print-on-demand editions from Lightning Source. Additional titles, including literary books, will be added to its new program over time.

Beyond academia, print on demand retains its association with self-publishing—and some of the stigma. While R. R. Bowker, the publisher of Books in Print, has tracked a 774 percent rise in the production of print-on-demand and other short-run titles from 2002 to 2008 (the most recent figures as of this writing), the New York Times reports that the overwhelming majority of such books sell no more than a handful of copies—and often then only to the author's friends and family. Because self-published titles almost never carry the same discounts and return guarantees as offerings from major publishers, they're unlikely ever to grace the shelves of most bookstores. And even when vanity presses do offer returns programs—as does, for instance, Xlibris (whose parent company, Author Solutions, signed a deal last December with On Demand)—the task of persuading retailers to stock a particular title, along with the attendant financial risk, falls squarely on the author.

Consequently, the average reader is far more likely to encounter print-on-demand titles online than at the local bookstore. Perhaps the best-established player in this field is Lulu, an eight-year-old publishing platform—and recent entrant to the e-book market—that uses efficient outsourcing to convert uploaded files into bound volumes within days. In place of warehouses and wholesalers, the North Carolina-based company manages what amounts to a vast print queue—an intentionally bare-bones approach that's found favor with scores of no-budget zines and literary journals looking to maintain a print presence without paying for production up front. And while Lulu doesn't provide editorial intercession or even assign a contact person to individual projects, both it and other print-on-demand firms have been scrambling lately to round out their services. CreateSpace—an Amazon-owned initiative that subsumes the soon-to-be-retired BookSurge brand—now offers a suite of editing, design, and marketing packages, essentially positioning Amazon as publisher, distributor, and retailer all in one.

What forward-thinking authors and publishers are after is a means of leveraging the "long tail" principle, which holds that declining distribution and inventory costs have made it possible to profit by selling tiny quantities of many different products rather than—as was formerly the rule—immense quantities of only a few products. By bridging the still-pronounced divide between electronic and "tangible" publishing, advances like the Espresso Book Machine could represent the realization of this model in the familiar space of the bookstore. "Even with conservative assumptions about demand, we will profit from this service," Heather Gain, marketing manager of the Harvard Book Store, told Bookselling This Week. "Also, we've already seen that Paige is quite an attraction, and we anticipate increased foot traffic in the store. The machine provides a great and convenient service, and we anticipate working with small presses, other booksellers, and authors who are looking to satisfy their customers' demands." (Last December, Steve Almond became the first notable author to take up that offer when he published his latest book, This Won't Take But a Minute, Honey, through the Harvard Book Store's EBM.)

But will bricks-and-mortar bookstores have a sustainable role once anyone with an Internet connection can order up a custom print run? "The future of traditional booksellers in the radically decentralized worldwide marketplace is unclear," said Epstein in a speech at the 2009 O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, "but enterprising retailers with limited shelf space but with access to practically limitless digital multilingual inventories and print-on-demand technology will offer readers unprecedented access to titles anywhere on earth, including areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America too thinly settled or culturally isolated to have developed a literary culture during the Gutenberg era."

In the developed world, too, even as e-ink resolutions improve and an era seems to be at a close, we're loath to give up the printed page. At the official unveiling of Paige M. Gutenborg, novelist E. L. Doctorow suggested that the new technology "may indeed be an answer to all the people who foresee the end of the physical book as words becoming ones and zeros and appearing on screens. I hope the little man inside that machine really knows what he's doing." Ironically, it could turn out that the spread of digital publishing is precisely what ensures the survival of printed books for a long time to come.

Adrian Versteegh is the editorial director of Anamesa. He lives in New York City.