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A man demonstrates the printing of a book from an Espresso Book Machine at Google headquarters in California Photo: AP & Telegraph

When I first heard about print-on-demand books I thought they seems an obvious answer to problems in the book marker – at least from this consumer’s perspective. They seemed to give the ability of obtaining almost any book by getting your bookshop to download the file and print off a good quality copy on-site. And relatively cheaply.

This should have helped support a market for pBooks despite the attractiveness of eBooks to a section of the market. And it would overcome the necessity for bookshops to carry huge ranges of books that might never be sold. And getting rid of the inevitable surplus stock.

It seemed to me an ideal complement to eBooks, one that I found attractive and was looking forward to.

But it didn’t happen! And I couldn’t work out why.

Well, Alan Beatts, proprietor of the Borderlands bookstore in San Francisco seems to have explained why. He initially looked into the economics of running the Espresso, print-on-demand book machine in his shop and had concluded it could take over 11 years for profits to recover the cost of an Espresso.

Now he has recalculated, taking into account the market for self-publishing by patroons of the bookshop. This seems a key factor and can bring the recovery time down to less than 5 years (see Print On Demand Might Come to a Store Near You ). That’s printing one book per hour. If the shop can print 3 books per hour, the machine pays off in a year and a half.

That looks much better. But in practice this self-publishing market becomes very important and tends to be what these machines are mostly used for. Alan Beatts says:

“The bad news is that 90% of the income from one of these machines comes from a process that is closer to running a copy-shop or a service bureau, not a bookstore.  It’s not a process that most of the booksellers I know are well suited to — moderately technical and involving potentially challenging customer service that is totally unlike bookselling (there’s a world of difference between helping someone find the right book and getting someone’s baby . . . I mean, their novel . . . to look right). “

Still, there must be businesses or institutions in New Zealand who already do this sort of thing and should be ideal for retailing print-on-demand books. Or maybe there is scope for cooperation of printing/publishing businesses with book retail businesses. Maybe even cooperation with academic institutes as such a facility would be ideal for conference organisers, or for departments wanting a limited run of special books for students or researchers.

Whatever, I would certainly love to see it. Potentially it could make available in both eBook and pBook format any book that exists as a digital file throughout the world.

And just think, those of you regularly attending conferences may actually get reasonable copies of the proceedings.

See also: Borderlands bookstore owner recalculates; Espresso not so expensive after all.

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