image_thumb1_thumb[1]WNYC has a look at the Espresso book machine, brainchild of publishing pioneer Jason Epstein. The Espresso takes a digital file, then prints, cuts, and binds it to produce a completed book on demand over the course of a few minutes start to finish. Of course, we’ve covered the Espresso plenty of times in the past, but it’s always interesting to see a look at the device from a new angle.

And the article does point out a couple of things I hadn’t known before, such as that sixty years ago, Jason Epstein invented the trade paperback format. Not all of his ideas have been so successful, however—he also started a books-by-mail catalog in the 1980s that fizzled, because it was about ten years ahead of its time. Later, Jeff Bezos made the same idea a hit with

One thing I note from the article is that the Espresso seems to have made relatively little sales progress since the last time I looked at it. Even though Xerox entered a partnership to distribute and maintain the machines six months ago, there are still only around fifty such machines in operation—about the same as last time. (Ironically, one of those machines is at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the very place I visited a number of times a couple of years ago for treatment of my broken leg. If I had only known, I could have stopped in and had a book made!) They are still expecting to expand considerably over the next few years, however.

I do still believe that machines like the Espresso could be the future of print reading—if print sales fall far enough, it will be less economical for publishers to keep doing large print runs, and machines like the Espresso will be the way that those who want printed books can get them. But I wonder just how long it will take before they start taking off.

(I also wonder how many people who’ve never heard of the Espresso will assume from the article’s April 1 publication date that it’s some kind of a joke. Sigh, AFD.)


  1. I agree that this machine’s day will come. But as you say it needs the paper print runs to start suffering.

    As Eoin Purcell, my countryman, said in an interesting article here in 2010, The first sector of the paper printing that will feel the pinch is small and medium sized print runs. The viability of those runs will be the first to be questioned.

    I would be worried that Epstein’s age could hurt the machine’s progress if he doesn’t make sure the management can continue strongly without him and if I were in his place I would be working hard to continue the development in readiness for scaling.

  2. Some products just take too long to reach the market. If this machine had been available ten years ago, I might have bought one. Five years ago, it might still have had a place in bookstores. Today… frankly, I don’t see it. eBooks have won. This machine is as if, post-Henry Ford, someone had proposed a wonderful light-weight carriage. Sure, they might sell a few, but its chances for success are have passed.

    Too bad.

    Rob Preece

  3. I think the reason this machine is constantly “poised to take off” is that this machine will never be economically viable for anything except commercial use (textbooks, for instance, which can charge high). Individuals won’t find this particularly attractive, as it cannot compete with paperback prices, and isn’t as well-bound as a hardback (yes, I’ve seen one in action), so it’s not great for gifting books.

    The Espresso’s time passed roughly a decade ago, unfortunately… in fact, if high-quality binding gear had been bolted onto the Xerox DocuTech high-speed printers a decade back, there would have been no need to even build this.

  4. Steven – if that is true, and who’s to know you may be right, then what will happen to the enthusiastic fans of paper books when they start to rise significantly in price in a couple of years, due to shorter and shorter runs. Also when those books do not even justify being printed ?
    Will all of those readers be happy to move to eBooks ? or will they be happy to buy relatively cheap paper books printed by this machine ?

    In my view the logic points to this machine having a major role to play during that period.

  5. @Howard: I understand that desire. What I doubt is that the cost of your, say, having a single favorite book printed will be low enough to satisfy you, even as a gift. I don’t see the costs of Espresso printing dropping, I only expect them to rise. Only a store that makes all of its money off of something else you buy will be able to subsidize the Espresso enough to lower its cost to you.

    Long term, I see printed books not quite dying out, but being much harder to find… and I personally don’t have a huge problem with that, any more than I would’ve lamented the loss of scrolls to bound books. Obviously just my opinion.

  6. Steven – but the price of books from the Espresso is already by all accounts very reasonable.
    As the price of distributed paper books rises inexorably, the Espresso price will become more and more affordable and even more than the price issue is a sheer availability issue.
    The unknown factor is the persistence in interest in paper books by the public. If it persists the way many feel it will, then I believe there is a real opportunity for the incorporation of such a machine into small bookshops. And with increased numbers of Espresso’s the production price should also fall.

  7. If all that were so, I think we’d see them in every Kinko’s and Hallmark Store by now. I think the reality is, there are no businesspeople who see how to make a profit from purchasing and running an Espresso, so no one’s buying one. At best, it might be a loss-leader to get people in the door and sell them something else.

    And don’t forget the copyright risk involved: The matter of whether or not a book is legally allowed to be reproduced (or might be resold), something a businessperson may have a lot of trouble establishing on-the-spot, but which could leave them open to lawsuits later. Until that little issue is resolved, I wouldn’t want to run one of those in my business either.

  8. I don’t really follow your reasoning Steven. The prices of paper books has shown no sign of significant increases and print runs have not been limited. Why should it be popular at all yet ?
    On the copyright front why wouldn’t the publishers be happy to do business through OnDemandBooks if they are not printing the paper books to be distributed ? They should be delighted to satisfy the paper community.

  9. There are already books that are not enjoying print runs… Yet print on demand has not taken off for them. Why not? Lack of profit potential.

    The copyright issue should be clear: Copyright holders don’t want their works to be produced (or later reproduced or scanned and OCR’d) without their permission. An Espresso owner doesn’t want to be sued for producing a book without permission, or for producing a book that was later used to create copyright-violating copies or ebooks. Does the Espresso owner have to check each book brought to them to make sure they aren’t violating copyright? The liability issue cannot be ignored.

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