The Espresso Machine, an ATM for books: Will e-books suffer if it takes off?

Stop the presses, as it were. The Espresso Book Machine “can print and bind books on demand in five minutes, while customers wait,” according to the Guardian. Currently it has access to 500,000 books, but the British bookseller Blackwell’s

hopes to increase this to over a million titles by the end of the summer---the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space, or over 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are currently out-of-copyright works, but Blackwell is working with publishers throughout the UK to increase access to in-copyright writings, and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

According to maker On Demand Books, the Espresso is “in essence, an ATM for books.”

No word on how U.S. publishers have reacted, but as the Espresso is the brainstorm of American publisher Jason Epstein, my guess is we’ll find out soon. I can imagine brick-and-mortar stores won’t be hopping for joy (according to Douglas A. Mcintyre, the bookseller Borders will be gone by the end of 2009), but Amazon will lap the news up.

On Demand apparently plans to have the machines available at retail outlets in the UK. Is this really going to fly? What if there are 50 people waiting for a book? That would stretch out five-minute quite a bit. Will you have to make an appointment? Perhaps online? In that case, why bother with a retail outlet at all? Why not just order online?

I can envision a warehouse of ever-more efficient Espresso machines churning out the books 24 hours a day, new orders streaming in to be packaged up and mailed out. A warehouse of blank paper and mail clerks. Big-name authors and publishing houses see the writing on the wall and skip the entire traditional print run in favor of on-demand orders. Both eliminating a great deal of waste and leveling the publishing industry. A Netflix of books, if you will. (Meanwhile, the real Netflix is driving big-box rental outfit Blockbuster to bankruptcy.) As Julia at HarperStudio recounts, “I vividly remember an agent I respect sitting in my office a couple of years ago saying “if the Espresso takes off, publishers and editors will be dead men walking.”

Maybe. Or is this yet another business model for Amazon to swoop down on—its acquisition of Lexcycle being the latest?

Of course, if you’re really interested in getting your books quick, fast, and in a hurry (not to mention free if they’re in the public domain), you’d be making the move to e-books. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I imagine if the Espresso machine is widely adopted, a lot of people who might have moved to e-books will stick with print, particularly if “Espresso books” (to coin a phrase) become progressively cheaper. Alternatively, more people might be drawn to e-books, particularly those available with Kindle-like ease. After all, why wait five minutes when you can have a book now?

If the logistics could be worked out, this could also be a great opportunity to offer e-books alongside print books. Package deals. Buy five print books, get one e-book free, say. Opportunities abound, it seems to me.

If the Espresso Machine really does take off, will the publishing industry be agile enough to respond positively? Though their comrades in music and Hollywood don’t offer much hope, with Amazon on the prowl and e-books on the march, it’d better.

Related: Earlier TeleRead items on the Espresso Machine.

21 Comments on The Espresso Machine, an ATM for books: Will e-books suffer if it takes off?

  1. I believe one Espresso unit is being deployed in a Vermont bookstore. In any event, I can see how this would be a good partnership for the small, independent bookseller, assuming the Espresso lease/purchase terms are viable.

    Part of the small bookseller’s problem in competing with Amazon and Barnes & Noble is inventory — they simply cannot stock the quantity of books the giants can. This could level the playing field. I envision a small bookshop that keeps 1 display copy of a book and if a buyer wants a copy, the buyer gets one made on the spot.

    How well will this work? I think very well. Increasingly, people want instant gratification. Why wait 24 hours to receive a book from Amazon that you can get in 5 minutes at your local, friendly, independent bookstore?

    Additionally, Espresso could increase an independent’s profit margin by eliminating the need to maintain inventory and to return books. Plus, if the publishers show some wisdom and Espresso is slightly modified (although I have no clue about the technical aspects of what I am about to propose), Espresso could give consumers both a pbook and/or an ebook on the spot.

  2. From Amazon’s perspective, I don’t see how this makes any difference at all. They already offer POD technology that, almost certainly, offers a cheaper per book price. After retail markup, the price of a book printed with Espresso has to be at least as high as a traditionally printed book. So, I think Rich is right–the primary purpose of Espresso should be to help bookstores increase their inventory.

    That said, I’d rather spend my time pitching eBooks rather than coming up with a more efficient way to operate horse-drawn carriages (to badly mix a metaphor).

    Rob Preece

  3. The higher cost and time involved with making a book through espresso makes it a nice service for gift-buying, but certainly not much of a draw for most average readers… accordingly, I don’t think it will threaten e-book sales.

    And if paper/ink costs go even higher, it will see less and less business (remember, “We need trees and fresh water more than we need paper”…e-book promotional phrase #4).

  4. This technology is unlikely to take off. It has some of the same flaws as e-books…it’s not attractive.

    Furthermore, the finished book is a little crappy. It’s like a bad paperback and doesn’t have great durability.

    From a library’s perspective, if I have a high school student who needs a print copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and my library doesn’t have it for them, this would be great to print out for them in five minutes.

    However, I’m unconvinced that people would use that instead of a regular print book. In fact, I think people would use e-books more than this type of machine.

  5. My best friend once told me: “Mike, your driving would make Alfred Hitchcock nervous.”

    The Print-on-Demand companies — and the online book sellers — must be looking at the Espresso Book Machine, and getting very very nervous.

    If you must have a paper copy of the book, then this is a good idea.

    It saves shipping costs, and all the wasted resources associated with shipping.

    It frees consumers from Amazon’s near-monopoly. And if a publisher can get their titles into the Espresso database, then they avoid Amazon’s 55% middleman cut.

    If the Espresso cut is less than 55% (for inclusion into their database of available books), then this could give a bigger share to authors and publishers, or reduce the price of the book — or both.

    This machine could also be deployed in libraries, and help make some money for libraries, which are much in need right now. And independent bookstores might be looking at this machine reverently, as a mechanical messiah.

    The quality, for most books printed by the EBM is typical P.O.D. quality, equivalent to Lightning Source, CreateSpace, Lulu, etc. Espresso offers many more trim size options than any of the P.O.D. services above.

    The cost to print is one penny per page.

    I think we will see more of these types of machines in the near future. Certainly, IBM is watching attentively, and thinking about a lower cost, miniaturized X-gen P.O.D. printer. I told my wife I want one for my birthday, but she’s already said “No!”.

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks

  6. Great points, Michael. As big a booster as I am of E, I see lots of potential here. What’s more, print quality is bound to improve. David

  7. This is still early-generation technology, like those early laser printers that were the size of a VW Beetle. In a few years, the quality will improve, the costs will go down, and the machine will shrink, so perhaps someday the book will come out of a machine not much larger than an ATM.

    Even so, I expect that it’s as others have said: this will be mainly a bookstore fixture, a way to augment the inventory they can carry on their shelves.

    It’s not outside the realm of possibility that in a few years we might see bookstores maintaining an in-stock inventory of just one or two copies per title, even of the stuff they do stock physically—when when that copy is sold, they just print out another. The customer doesn’t wait, but the store doesn’t have to keep inventory.

  8. “Bookstore fixture” ? … Au contraire, mon ami! This little machine is an entire bookstore !

    The goal is universal access: every book ever written, available — your choice — either as an ebook, or as a paperback (or hardcover) printed while you wait. And (eventually) in your choice of book size, font size, font face, cover image, and so on.

    All that’s needed is a database of titles, and a repository of files. … It seems that this is too important to place in the hands of one private company. Whoever owned this would become master of the publishing universe.

    With that information tucked on your hard drive, you could run, literally, “the planet’s biggest bookstore” from a large closet in your living room.

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks

  9. “With that information tucked on your hard drive, you could run, literally, “the planet’s biggest bookstore” from a large closet in your living room.”

    Two big problems with that, though:

    1) Getting that information on your hard drive – think of all the copyrights, etc., to wade through;
    2) You’ve still only got one machine. E.g., one book at a time. Or, at best, several. I think this will work wonderfully with smaller, underground title, or self-publishing, or, in a small indie bookstore. But for indie bookstores we’re returned to dilemma #1. Would buying an Espresso machine entitle you to the rights for every book ever published, or that would be published? How much would that cost?

    No doubt, as Chris says, in time the technology will improve, so that an Espresso machine might actually be the size of an ATM machine. Assuming the rights issue could be worked out, this would work for an indie bookseller, online or brick and mortar.

    I doubt indies are going to work the rights issue out. (Or maybe a pay-for-each-copyright system could be instituted?) But a behemoth like Amazon might.

    I am optimistic, though, as I said above.

  10. Court, it won’t cost anything at all. … Not in advance, anyway. It’s print on demand, and it’s pay on demand.

    When an Espresso Book Machine in a Vermont library prints a book authored by Court Merrigan, then Merrigan (or his publisher or agent) instantly receives an electronic payment for his share of the book’s retail price. That’s a great deal for the author-and-publisher: much less of the retail price is lost to the middleman.

    All this information is stored “in the clouds”. And that computer in my living room closet (next to my EBM surprise birthday gift — are you reading this, honey?) simply accesses that information. I don’t need to have the megabytes of every book and every database stuffed onto my small and fragile hard drive.

    This (above) is how I’m interpreting the EBM system, based on Jason Epstein’s Book (==Book Business==), and his website, and his many talks on this subject. (I could easily be wrong by a few million miles. Until I actually try this out, I’m just one of the blind men feeling the trunk of the elephant.)

    Epstein shares the ideal of Brewester Kahle: “Universal access to all knowledge.” Of course, there is a “slight” difference: Kahle wants a lot of this knowledge to be free.

    I’ve heard that there is an Espresso Book Machine in downtown D.C. … maybe a D.C. resident who is also a TeleRead reader could try it out some time. And also ask a few pertinent questions about this thing. And request some best-selling books, as well as some obscure ones.

    One more thought: this machine might be a key to the renewal of small and independent bookstores. If the buyer needs to wait 10 minutes — or even an hour or two — for the book to be printed — is that so bad? … You can have a coffee, or just come back later, or the next day. Or, begin reading the free ebook copy of the paperback you’ve just ordered.

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks

  11. Michael, that all sounds excellent. I wonder, though, how does one access the “book cloud”? Since the Vermont library is after all making a copy of the book … I guess the author could agree to this in advance. (As in the case of my, ahem, upcoming novel.) But what about all those books already in print and not in the public domain? How does an indie bookstore obtain permission to print them?

  12. How about instead of all that other stuff…ACTUAL books? Renting the books and getting them delivered to your house?? I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned BookSwim, which is what I’ve been using for my reading. I’m saving a ridiculous amount of money on textbooks and the service has been really great – if that means I’ll be falling into the “new book-getting void”, then I guess…so be it!

  13. Court, these permissions to print (as well as all the other necessary files and information) would be assembled and managed by the Espresso Book Machine company, who would work with the publishers and P.O.D. authors. The EBM company, actually named ==On Demand Books== (ODB), has partnered with Lightning Source.

    From the ODB website:

    “In April 2008, ODB announced a strategic partnership with LSI to share expertise and create a future collaborative digital platform for books. Under the agreement, ODB has the use of LSI’s digital conversion facilities and the right to print LSI’s vast library of titles, pending publisher approval. LSI also provides sales and marketing support for the EBM with publishers and retailers.”

    Change of theme:

    I’m now going over to your website, Court, to sign up for your email list, to learn more about your forthcoming novel.

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks

  14. I should have looked more deeply into On Demand’s website. That’s fantastic, and I hope it works at least something like what you’ve described without the behemoths descending and strangling it in its infancy.

    As for my putative novel, it is at this point still very much in manuscript form. Rest assured, though, I’ll be alerting the TeleRead community when it’s ready for eyes other than mine. Thanks for the interest – and you’ve hit upon a very good point. I should get an email list going. For that I’m going to need a real website, as opposed to a free blog. It’s on my list!

  15. Some people who had a chance to get a closer look at an Espresso and its output speak up in this thread on

  16. Currently, in the USA, EBMs are making books in San Francisco, Provo (“Spring 2009”), Ann Arbor, New Orleans, and Vermont.

    There is no EBM right now in D.C.; that was only a temporary exhibit in 2007.

    A complete list of EBM locations is here:

    Michael Pastore
    50 Benefits of Ebooks

  17. I love this idea. Will e-books suffer?-hope so! Not to be mean, but if it isn’t print on paper then it is just so much smoke. I imagine one of the main draws of this machine will be to aquire print copies of out of print material. I am looking forward to researching this!

  18. But this machine produces only softcover books not hardcover books..
    how is the quality of books ?

  19. Nice overview of what is going on with the Espresso Book machine. I’ve added a blink back to your post to the article I just updated at the CCF website. :-)

    I’ve been tracking, on and off, the development of the Espresso Book Machine and am totally fascinated by it. Back in 2006 we posted an article about it to the CCF website and just today we found a press release from the Xerox Corporation announcing that Xerox’ technology is to fuel the Espresso Book Machine. Even more promising for what has been termed “the ATM for books,” is the fact that Xerox’ worldwide agreement with On Demand Books includes global marketing and sales support.

    This technology should be able to help us get our hands on out of print books and it should help small publishers also, as they won’t be forced to keep large inventory of titles on hand.

    I am an author, editor, and bookseller and don’t see the Espresso Book Machine and related technologies, whether they be’s Kindle, etc, as threats but rather as enlarging the water from which readers worldwide can more easily satisfy their thirts.

  20. I think it’s important to separate the concept from the machine – the Espresso Book Machine has just been released in a new version that is meant to overcome some of the problems with previous designs. I was given a personal demonstration of the technology at New York Public a few years ago and the thing mangled more books than it successfully printed. Some of the production problems have been worked out with the latest release, but it is still a very specialized piece of machinery that cannot be maintained by anyone other than a specialist. When the thing breaks, it takes time to get it fixed, and the proprietary nature of the mechanics increase the cost of repair. When it does print a title successfully, the quality is good-it’s a paperback, yes, but the production technology is not unlike what is currently used within many POD shops today.

    As a machine, the technology is improving but still immature. As a concept, I believe this is the way forward… and let’s get serious here, what they are selling ARE eBooks. Furthermore, as others have commented, this is already how many books are sold. Everyone is buying POD books whether you realize it or not. The EBM is the same concept without the volume and shipping components. The titles live in a database as .pdf files and are produced in print on demand. Calling these books anything other than ebooks is a bit like calling a printed email message something other than email, no?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if someone with a much better grasp of production technology comes along and takes the concept to the next level when the time is right (think Xerox). What would that ‘next level’ look like? Well, for academic libraries, it would be a benefit to simply offer a digital catalog of titles for patron review, allow real-time review and selection, then print the book complete with barcode and spine label integrated onto the cover while passing a cataloging record over to the OPAC. Of course, I’m skipping over a dozen moving parts, but this is the type of application where the EBM concept will shine.

  21. Hello Jay, I’ve linked my name on this post to the press release from Xerox that I posted to the CCF site today. I think what you mention in the 3rd paragraph of your post just might happen now that Xerox is on board. :-)

    Mangled paper or not I still envy you the fact that you saw the EBM in action! I agree w/you that it’s a work in progress but the fact that you watched the machine in action is still pretty cool. Years from now you’ll be able to say that, “I was there when…” :-)

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