The Next Step in Print On Demand

Anna Mantzaris
From the May/June 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

On Demand Books, a New York City–based company founded in 2003, has installed the first beta versions of the Espresso Book Machine, a freestanding device that receives orders through a computer for particular titles and publishes the books within minutes. "It is a way for publishers to go directly to the consumer," says Dane Neller, On Demand cofounder along with Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and one of the founders of the New York Review of Books. "It can produce any book in any language at any time; there's no limitation," he says. A three-hundred-page book is made in four minutes, with a production cost of approximately one cent per page. Currently, covers are printed in four-color, and photos and illustrations are produced on inside pages in black and white.

A three-hundred-page book is made in four minutes, with a production cost of approximately one cent per page.

Machines have been installed at the World Bank, a specialized agency of the United Nations located in Washington, D.C., which works to alleviate poverty throughout the world, and the New Library of Alexandria in Egypt. On Demand plans to install five to ten more machines this year at locations like the New York Public Library in Manhattan, the University of Alberta campus bookstore, the New Orleans Public Library, and the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.

While the eventual plan is to enable customers to order books from any location, including personal computers, currently they must enter orders in a computer adjacent to the machine, which connects to a catalog of available titles. After a customer orders a book, the machine's software retrieves and transmits a digital file, which is then printed. The book is moved via carriage to a section of the machine where a four-color cover is printed and then to a section of the machine where the spine is glued. The book is bound and trimmed. A digital rights management system transmits royalties to the content owner.

"As soon as visitors see that the Espresso Book Machine works, they are excited about it," says World Bank publisher Dirk Koehler. Located in the organization's InfoShop, which is also a bookstore, the machine has produced several thousand books since it was installed last spring. Users are charged 75 percent of the book's original cover price. Currently World Bank uses the machine for its own titles, but for a special celebration later this year the organization will make available a selection of titles provided by more than fifty African publishers.

Koehler also hopes to use Espresso Book Machines in the future to help eliminate shipping costs to foreign countries and solve other logistical problems. "Currently we send five copies of a book to Singapore or Nairobi. In order for [the books] to arrive there in time, we have to send them by courier, which is very expensive. It would be much better for us to have a machine in these places; we would send the electronic files and the books would be produced locally."

The Espresso Book Machine offers publishers the advantages of any print-on-demand technology: a more efficient production process and no returns, with the additional advantage of saving time.

"The publishing world is still operating within essentially a five-hundred-year-old supply chain, with a centralized production system where the printers and distributors and retailers dictate to the publishers, and it's very inefficient," says Neller.

The machine benefits consumers by enabling them to purchase a book at the point of sale and, if the files are available, to order backlist titles that are often out of print or difficult to find.

But Epstein sees even more potential for the Espresso Book Machine. "Eventually every book ever printed is going to be digitized in every language," he says. "People all over the world will have access to those books."

Anna Mantzaris is a freelance journalist.