Gutenberg’s PC: The Espresso Book Machine

Back in Hammurabi’s day, publishing involved a large pillar of rock. What we don’t often remember is that the pillar itself had to be quarried, carved, hauled, and installed in a prominent location. It was the immensity of the distribution task as much as the rigidity and weight of the medium that put publishing out of the reach of ordinary people. Eventually, paper took on the role of bearing published words to the reading public, and while a printed book is much lighter than a slab of basalt, the business of producing books and transporting them to readers is still a heavy task (as those who have helped us move my personal library can attest). Publishers and booksellers still need to estimate how many copies of a title to print in a factory, store them in a warehouse, ship them, display them on shelves, and deal with returns of unsold copies. Physical, bound paper books are probably here to stay, despite valiant (and ongoing) attempts by the likes of iRex, Sony, Polymer Vision, and Amazon, but we long to find a way for them to have the same lightness, flexibility, and remixability that more virtual media offer. Despite our love of paper, the heft and smell of real books, we long for a better way.

We’ve been spoiled by the fact that our computing technology has been able to perform a trick that the print-distribution industry has not: it has become small enough, and powerful enough, to let individual users shape and distribute their own digital production. We all know how disruptive that change has been to our culture and ways of doing business, but for all the seemingly ubiquitous changes, the core of the book business — producing and transporting heavy paper objects for possible sale — has not really changed.

Until now.

The Espresso Book Machine 2.0 from On Demand Books, printing Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future in 7 minutes.

The Espresso Book Machine takes a PDF file and produces a high-quality printed book in just a few minutes. The book is indistinguishable from ones produced on room-sized presses in modern industrial distribution chains. These books, however, don’t require printing factories, warehouses, or shipping–only a digital file and a machine that anyone can operate. They don’t require shelf space to display, or a return policy in case they don’t sell. This brings the cost of access down not only for already-published work, but for potentially publishable work as well. The Espresso Book Machine brings the flexibility and ubiquity of digital media to the old medium of printed paper books, extending the transformation that Gutenberg’s press began, and putting the final say on publishing a book firmly in the hands of the authors and readers.

Todd Anderson, the University of Alberta’s bookstore manager… says orders come from multiple sources: Some professors order out-of-print textbooks to keep costs low for students. Others order classics, scanned with their own handwritten notes in the margins. Some customers want bound copies of book sections, like the first 10 chapters of a 20-chapter book. Hobbyists make custom books for gifts. A science-fiction writer used it to self-publish his first novel.

“I get calls on this every day,” says Mr. Anderson, who adds that revenue is streaming in. “It’s a symbol for change.”
New Machines Reproduce Custom Books on Demand

Clay Shirky notes in Here Comes Everybody that the “technological story” of internet-enabled self-publishing is

…like literacy, wherein a particular capability moves from a group of professionals to become embedded in society itself, ubiquitously, available to a majority of citizens….

Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring…. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen.

So what will happen when everybody has one of these? How will we decide what gets published, what gets read, what gets recommended? What will happen when your Scout troop, public library, church, airport, specialty bookstore, homeschool co-op, public transportation system, or hunting club makes one of these available to it’s members and customers? When people like Kyle & Brady Baldwin of My Own Book can show up with their literacy team and a Book Machine in a neighborhood where books are scarce?

We’ll need to rethink a few things.



  1. The first Espresso has been installed in Australia at a chain of booksellers. Mitchell Jordan, journalist with industry journal Print21, visited the site and was very disappointed in the results. Because the pages are scanned and not re-typeset, type quality is very poor. It took him 30 minutes to get one book out (Frank Baum's Ozma of Oz). The generic covers are poorly designed and off-center and the spine cracks. The most books they have produced in a day on this machine is 10 – versus thousands of properly printed and bound titles sold over the counter. The concept of 'books on demand' is not new. A bit over-hyped methinks.

    • I’ll admit that it is easy to write starry-eyed “gee-whiz!” pieces about emerging technology, and that this post belongs to that genre. A little critical examination is always a good idea, so thanks, Andy, for sharing some of the story behind the Print21 report from Australia.

      You will note, however, that the “gee-whiz!” of this post is NOT aimed at the current state of the technology, but at its future potential to transform the way we relate to books by making the printed products nearly as lightweight and flexible as their digital counterparts. Yes, there may be technical hurdles to overcome, from the trivial (cover design) to the more serious (cracking glue), but were you impressed with the Commodore 64 when it came out?

      Of course, YMMV. Todd Anderson, quoted above, says his $144K machine paid for itself in under a year, and he is considering buying another. (That same story, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, included some reports of technical hurdles as well.)

      Technology like this creates new business opportunities by severing the link between selling a book and having to schlep it around. For those of us on the customer side of the desk, Print on Demand that means, “We print it at the factory and ship it to you within a week,” is no different from any other online ordering of books that are officially “in print.” Compared with that, even a 30 minute wait in the store is a whole new ball game, especially when there are no shipping delays, charges, or environmental impacts involved.

      And what will happen when everyone starts playing that new game?

  2. Andy McCourt says

    Happy New Year. Agreed, the trend for books on demand is real. Check out Ingram Lightning Source (US and UK) – 50 million+ books a year, all printed digitally, average same-copy run-length 1.8 (don’t ask!). Because they set type and bind properly, turn-around is 2-3 days. Reading is a chill-out activity; maybe this timeframe is acceptable and not everyone will queue up at a 7-30 minute turn-around Espresso machine, eagerly clawing for a copy of my proposed magnum opus: “My Life With Shovels- Digging Into Mankind’s Most Fascinating Tool”?
    (BTW I did own a Commodore 64, and a Tandy TRS80 and before them a Sinclair Z-something. In my techno-naiivite, I honestly thought each was marvellous at the time, and Pong was the ultimate game. So I guess we’re in violent agreement.)


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