Espresso Book Machine
Image by sukisuki via Flickr

I’ve given a lot of talks over the past few years, and in virtually every one (along with quite a few of the articles I’ve written), I’ve rhapsodized about the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) from On-Demand Books (ODB, a truly unfortunate acronym for a bookseller). I’ve gone so far as to characterize this machine, despite its clunky ugliness, as incredibly sexy — while allowing that, as a librarian, my threshold of sexy may be lower than average — and I’ve said that it has the potential to change utterly not just the nature of the library collection, but the whole world of publishing. By freeing publishers from the tyranny of the print run and libraries from the enormously wasteful practice of building huge just-in-case collections based on inevitably erroneous guesswork about future patron needs, the EBM could greatly increase both efficiency and effectiveness, allowing a library or bookstore to give researchers exactly what they need within minutes of the realization that they need it, all while reducing the clear-cutting of rainforests, the carbon emissions from pallet-laden delivery trucks, and the twin scourges of returns and remainders.

Reader, we bought one.

And almost two years later, I don’t regret it. However, in the spirit of “How We Done It Bad,” I want to share some of the lessons that we’ve learned from our experience so far.

Nothing is ever as good as it sounds. I’m a middle-aged man, which means I actually learned this lesson long ago, and I honestly wasn’t expecting our EBM to really usher in a millenial day of perfectly friction-free access to an unlimited supply of high-quality books. But I did expect that a machine that promises “instant distribution of over 3,000,000 titles” would offer something like very fast production of lots and lots of high-quality books. Technically speaking, the EBM does print books very quickly. It takes about five minutes to print a 300-page book — as long as the machine is warmed up. If it isn’t, you’ve got to let the glue melt, which will take 45 minutes to an hour. And, of course, 3,000,000 titles sounds like a lot of content, but much of it consists of very old titles in the public domain, only some of which represent content that anyone cares about. We knew this going in, but it’s still been a bit disappointing that more current content hasn’t been added more quickly to the database. (On the other hand, one of the great strengths of the EspressNet book database is its depth: shortly after installing our EBM, we were able to find and print an obscure 300-year-old German text for a faculty member who had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a printed copy of the book for years. That EBM-powered serendipity changed the structure of his course.)

Great concepts don’t print books; functional machines print books. We were very fortunate in being the second desert-climate library to purchase an EBM. The first was Brigham Young University, and ODB had to scramble to repair some unanticipated (and, to be fair, probably unanticipatable) climate-related problems. One of the more amusing ones involved static electricity: because the ambient air is so dry, pages wouldn’t pile up cleanly as they emerged from the text-block printer. ODB had to send a technician to Provo to cut a hole in the top of BYU’s machine and install an ionizing fan. By the time we installed our machine in the very similar climate of nearby Salt Lake City, that particular bug had been worked out. But being a young technology, other technical problems remained: we had issues with balky and leaking ink jets, malfunctioning sensors, and recalcitrant cover feeds, all of which have been fixed or mostly fixed at this point. And we’re still waiting for a color text-block printer that will communicate effectively with the machine, despite having been offered that option initially. For now we’re still making do with black-and-white (we can print covers in color without any problem).

No matter how sexy the delivery mechanism, the content matters more. As I mentioned above, we’ve been disappointed (though not shocked) that publishers are generally slow to allow frontlist titles to be printed and purchased through the EBM. To some degree, this can be explained by the EBM’s very small installation base: 45 machines in 41 locations worldwide, 12 of which are libraries (where publishers might not expect many sales to happen). I would imagine that the cost of making one’s frontlist available via EspressNet is significant, and if the road to recovery of that investment is lined with fewer than 50 purchase points, I can’t really blame a publisher for putting off that step until the market has proven itself. This raises something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum, of course.

No matter how sexy the content, a bad search interface will make it inaccessible. EspressNet was hobbled from the beginning by a simple but ineffective Google-style search interface: the only option is to search by keyword. ODB is promising a more advanced search interface shortly, which will be a welcome development — but this brings us to the next point . . .

No matter how sexy the search interface, bad metadata means bad search results. The real problem with search in EspressNet isn’t the inflexibility of the interface, but the abominable quality of its metadata, much of which comes from Google Books. At this point in time, searchers cannot assume that their results are accurate, which is hugely frustrating. Inflexible search is a problem, but bad metadata in a 3,000,000-title database is an enormous problem, one that can’t be solved without significant expense. ODB is a young company with a smallish staff, and it has no realistic way of fixing and upgrading these records itself. In the course of several phone conversations with ODB executives, I’ve strongly encouraged them to contact a wholesale broker of metadata like OCLC, but to my knowledge nothing has yet come of that. Until it becomes possible to search its database of books effectively, the EBM’s incredible promise will remain largely unrealized.

You can’t predict what people will get excited about. We thought that the EBM would generate excitement primarily for its ability to give people quick and easy access to millions of books, many of which had been virtually inaccessible before. There has been such excitement, and more will likely be generated when some of the issues described above have been resolved. In the meantime, we’ve been startled by the unanticipated ways in which the EBM really has caught people’s attention: there’s significant demand for blank-page journals that we print up on the EBM, bound in covers featuring images from our library’s rich digital collections; we sell these, steadily, for $7. We experimented successfully with printing and shipping the annual proceedings for a scientific society, and have seen great demand for our self-publishing services. We are currently in talks with our campus bookstore about cooperative selling arrangements, whereby the EBM can act as a sort of expanded backlist warehouse. The lesson we’ve learned here is that just as expected opportunities may fail to materialize, unexpected ones will almost surely crop up if you’re watching for them.

Being an early adopter is expensive. We knew that by buying an EBM relatively early, we were going to end up paying more than those who hop on the train later, both because the machine itself will shrink and become more efficient and cheaper over time, and also because buying into a young technology is kind of like adopting a toddler or a teenager: they’re awkward and they eat a lot. The EBM has “eaten” a lot of staff time and energy, and we fully expect that it will continue to do so for a while.

Start-up companies don’t always fully know what they’re getting into. The EBM and its attendant technologies are not only new to us and our patrons; they are also new to the company behind them. My impression is that ODB is still struggling to figure out the right balance between treating the EBM as a retail tool and a library technology. This is not an either/or question, obviously (we use our EBM for both purposes), but ODB faces a significant challenge in figuring out what the right mix of emphases will be, and how it will position itself to serve well those two very different markets. As mentioned above, the company also clearly did not anticipate the importance of quality metadata and is now scrambling to deal with that problem. These are young-company and new-technology issues, and are to be expected.

The bottom line is that I’m kind of cheating by characterizing this as a “How We Done It Bad” piece. In fact, I’m very glad that we bought our EBM. In hindsight, I might have waited a year or two — but given the unpredictable budget environment, it’s not at all clear that we could have done so. Having an EBM has been fun, exciting, and frustrating, and I fully expect that it will continue being all of those things for the foreseeable future — with the mix gradually shifting away from “frustrating” and towards “fun” as the technology matures and as we keep discovering new ways to put the EBM to good use for our patrons.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


49 Thoughts on "The Good, the Bad, and the Sexy: Our Espresso Book Machine Experience"

Would you describe the *output* of the Espresso Machine as “sexy”? Are its perfect bindings as nice as Smyth-sewn ones? Do its ink jets print text and graphics as clearly as offset lithographic presses?

Whenever I order a book and get sent a digitally-printed replica instead, I don’t think “this is sexy”; I think “I’ve been ripped off”.

If what you’re after is a beautiful printed artifact, then the EBM is going to disappoint you. But that’s not what the EBM is meant to produce. If what you’re after is access to the intellectual content of a book, then the EBM works quite well — not perfectly, but quite well.

But the EBM’s ability to print books quite well is not what I find sexy. What I find sexy is the capability (not yet fully realized) of the EBM to make an almost limitless fund of intellectual content immediately findable and then printable in the amounts needed and in the very moment needed by my library’s patrons — who, let’s remember, have historically been dependent upon my library staff’s ability to guess ahead of time what they are going to want and buy it fast before it goes out of print.

Books that are beautiful and valuable as artisanal objects are mostly the province of Special Collections. For the problems I’m trying to solve with my library’s general, circulating collections, the EBM’s output is, in most cases, perfectly serviceable.

Yes, “almost limitless” and “in most cases” are important qualifiers because, for instance, you will not be able to use the EBM to satisfy the needs your library may have for heavily illustrated books in fields like art history.

Of course. Like every other content-delivery mechanism, the EBM is better at delivering some kinds of content than others.

In other aspects, it doesn’t seem that the Marriott Library has accepted mere “access to the intellectual content of a book” and “serviceable” output as its standard, and relegated considerations of quality to its museum pieces. It still asserts that patrons who mark up books are in breach of the rules, and perhaps the law, even though most marking does not prevent access to the intellectual content of the book. And it’s still acquiring cloth-bound books, isn’t it? If the acquisitions department paid for a hardback edition and were sent a paperback, they’d still object, wouldn’t they?

The BYU Espresso machine is located in its campus bookstore. Judging by the books on display around it (and the bookstore’s web page), the machine is being used mainly for self-publishing. The output looks like what a computer user with a copy of Microsoft Word and a sub-$100 printer could produce for him/herself (except for gluing the flimsy cover on, which might be tricky).

Upstairs in the textbook department of the bookstore, I find that the text for one of my Fall semester classes has arrived. For $90, Springer Verlag is providing my students with digitally-printed hardbacks with cheap-looking warped covers. (Fortunately, I bought my own copy a few years ago, before Springer decided to go cheap.) Alternatively, the students can download the book’s pdf for free from the campus library’s website. The value-added by the low-grade printed version seems to me to be minimal.

Nate, you’re asking lots of discrete questions, so I’m going to try to format this reply in such a way as to answer each of them:

> In other aspects, it doesn’t seem that the Marriott Library
> has accepted mere “access to the intellectual content of
> a book” and “serviceable” output as its standard, and
> relegated considerations of quality to its museum pieces.

Of course we have, if by “quality” you mean Smyth-sewn bindings and offset-printed text blocks. Our circulating print collections are about getting content, not fine-art objects, into the hands of our patrons. For example, we have a longstanding practice of buying books in cheaper paperback printings rather than more-expensive cloth bindings where possible. (I’m pretty sure that HBLL’s policy is similar.) On those increasingly-rare occasions when we replace damaged print books, we routinely do so by buying used copies that are in reasonable condition. By these policies we sacrifice “quality” in the narrow sense defined above; in return, we are able to provide more of the unique content that our patrons need. Of course that constitutes a trade-off, but it’s an acceptable one because our circulating collection is intended as a utilitarian source of information containers, not a museum of the bookbinder’s art.

> It still asserts that patrons who mark up books are in
> breach of the rules, and perhaps the law, even though
> most marking does not prevent access to the intellectual
> content of the book.

Sure, we “assert that” (in the sense that we formally forbid the defacement of library property). But we don’t expend much energy in enforcing that policy, for the very reason you state: markings are obnoxious, but they rarely reduce the functional capacity of the book.

> And it’s still acquiring cloth-bound books, isn’t it?

Where absolutely necessary, yes.

> If the acquisitions department paid for a hardback
> edition and were sent a paperback, they’d still object,
> wouldn’t they?

Of course. And if the EBM promised beautiful cloth-bound books (and charged that kind of price) and then delivered paperbound books of purely functional quality, I’d object to that. But obviously that’s not what the EBM promises, and the prices charged by ODB reflect that fact. This is a non-issue.

> For $90, Springer Verlag is providing my students with
> digitally-printed hardbacks with cheap-looking warped
> covers. (Fortunately, I bought my own copy a few years
> ago, before Springer decided to go cheap.) Alternatively,
> the students can download the book’s pdf for free from the
> campus library’s website. The value-added by the low-grade
> printed version seems to me to be minimal.

Then by all means, don’t buy one. I probably wouldn’t either. On the other hand, a student who wants to spend $90 on a hard-copy version has that option. I have a hard time seeing what there is to object to in this model. (Of course, if Springer is leading its customers to believe that for $90 they’re going to get something better than what they’re actually getting, that’s a problem — but I’m not sure what real relevance this has to the EBM, which makes no such misleading promise.)

(1) It is strange to hear you speak of Smyth-sewn binding and offset-printing as if they’re only for museum pieces or tantamount to, say, the latest goatskin-bound, gold-inlaid volume from Arion Press. Until a couple of years ago, this was the standard way that the books used in my profession were made. As I sit here in my faculty office and look at the bookshelf nearest me, the first 19 books (by Cambridge University Press, Addison-Wesley, Elsevier, Princeton University Press, Oxford University Press, Chapman & Hall, Merriam-Webster, Houghton Mifflin, The MIT Press, and Johns Hopkins Press) were all manufactured through this process (with a pop math book breaking the streak in the 20th slot).

(2) I’m surprised to hear that university libraries are buying paperbacks when they have a choice. The first book on my shelf was the NIST Handbook of Mathematical Functions. If the Marriott Library decided to go cheap and buy its copy of this tome in paperback–I can’t tell from the catalog–then it can expect to be replacing it again before too long because of wear. (Unless they decided to de-cheapify it upon arrival by adding a durable library binding.)

(3) Twice you refer to the (expected) output of the Espresso Machine as “high-quality books”. High compared to what?

(4) Springer and other publishers moving to POD are indeed engaged in deceptive business practices when they use the same ISBN for a well-bound, sharply printed original version and the low-quality POD knockoff later on. At least (on its website) Cambridge University Press is making some effort to clarify which version a customer can expect to receive, but even they are not entirely consistent about it.

(5) As part of my service responsibility in my department, I read most of the comments students submit with their course ratings. I find it heartening that even today’s students object when their textbooks look like they were printed on a 1980s Imagewriter and when their cheap bindings fall apart half way through the semester.

(1) That level of binding quality certainly was the standard at one time, and the result was, in many cases, tremendous waste. People who didn’t need that much binding quality were forced to pay for it anyway, even when all they wanted was access to the intellectual content and would have happily settled for cheaper bindings (or even an online version, had such been available). Maybe that sounds like the good old days to you, but that’s probably in part because you’re not charged with meeting the real-world information needs of several tens of thousands of students and faculty members within the constraints of a severely limited (and functionally shrinking) budget. Here in libraries, being forced to buy scholarly monographs in $100 hardback editions rather than $45 paperback editions would mean that students and scholars end up getting access to very many fewer books.

(2) Your surprise reflects a lack of familiarity with usage trends in academic libraries. That’s not your fault; librarianship isn’t your field. If it were, you’d probably know that for the vast majority of scholarly printed books, the risk of damage through overuse is exceedingly low and has been falling steadily for the past 15 years ( while the cost of books and journals has been growing at a rate far greater than the rate of budget increase for libraries. For that reason, combined with the enormous cost differential, buying paperback versions where possible has become a very common strategy in academic libraries. (And buying ebooks instead of print is increasingly common.)

(3) Look again at the contexts in which I used the phrase “high-quality books.” In both cases, the context was an expression of disappointment that there weren’t more books of higher quality more easily available via the EBM. (And in both cases, “quality” refers to the content, not to artisanal binding and presentation.)

(4) Again, I’m not defending Springer or their marketing practices, but criticisms of Springer’s marketing are irrelevant here; no one is trying to deceive anyone with the EBM.

(5) I’m sure that some of your students complain when print and binding quality are low. It’s also true, of course, that students complain when they’re forced to spend $200 on a beautifully clothbound textbook that they have no intention of keeping beyond the end of the semester and that matters to them only as a container of necessary readings. Given the choice between a $200 hardback and, say, a much less sturdy, EBM-printed paperback at a cost of about $20, many of them would happily choose the latter even if they knew it wouldn’t hold up particularly well to heavy use. (They might even prefer a $50 e-book version.) Some, of course, would willingly pay the much higher price for the fancier version. It seems to me that in a perfect world, multiple options would be available to them. One of the sexy things about the EBM is that it helps move us closer to such a world.

Because offset printers had to compete with digital printers, they dropped their prices, and it was possible for presses like mine at Penn State to do the original cloth edition with the traditional high standards of production usually associated with university press publishing. As POD publishing comes into play sometimes even for the original printing, however, perfect binding will displace Smyth-sewn binding, and quality will deteriorate (e.g., from a dpi of 2200 to a dpi of 600 in the typesetting). Most people have become used to lower standards because they got used to reading 300-dpi photocopies, so it isn’t too surprising that the EBM output can be considered acceptable these days. The history of publishing, it seems, has been a long but steady decline in production standards from the lavish manuscripts of the medieval ages through paper made from sheepskin and vellum bindings in the early days of printing down to the dreary days of cheap acidic paper in mass market paperbacks to photocopy output in coursepacks. Compared with photocopies, i suppose the EBM represents something of a quality increase–but not a whole lot.

Most people have become used to lower standards because they got used to reading 300-dpi photocopies, so it isn’t too surprising that the EBM output can be considered acceptable these days.

Sandy, it’s important to consider that at least some of those readers might well have considered EBM-quality output perfectly acceptable even in the old days. The concept of surplus value is important here. Just because 600-dpi print quality was what everyone bought back when it was standard in printed books doesn’t mean that all readers cared about 600-dpi print quality. Given the option of a 300-dpi book at half the price of a 600-dpi book, I imagine that many would have happily taken the cheaper option.

Maybe we’re getting to the same argument we had about PDA. In this case, I’m wondering where the responsibility lies for preservation? Under your argument, if it’s good enough for present purposes, then why waste the money to get extras like permanent bindings? So, maybe publishers should revert to using acidic paper,which was causing a lot of libraries to lose books that were printed on it. Remember all the money spent of deacidification? If needs are temporary, why spend any money to get the kind of quality that will ensure durability over time? It surely makes no sense for any publisher to produce a few copies of a book using the highest quality just so that a small handful of libraries can preserve these books forever, does it? Just as you looked to the largest libraries to maintain robust and comprehensive collections, are you looking to those few also to get books printed in very limited editions using the best paper and bindings so as to facilitate long-term preservation? is this really feasible?

Just interjecting, but if manufacturing a book has become feasible on a one-off basis, without the need to burn plates, ink a press, set up paper rolls, and do a large and expensive print run, can’t preservation be accomplished through repetition?

Sandy, I think the question “where does the responsibility lie for preservation” is based on two fallacious premises: first, that there is such a thing as “the” responsbility for preservation, and second, that it lies somewhere. In fact, I think preservation is an issue that matters in varying degrees for different kinds of documents, and the responsibility for it is (and should be) taken up in different ways by different entities. As I’ve pointed out before, the general, circulating collection of a library usually serves very little preservation function — books are added to and subtracted from it according to the more-or-less immediate needs of the library’s constituency — whereas the “special collections” areas tend to be focused much more on safeguarding books and realia that are valuable not just for their content, but as artifacts. (That’s not a completely hard-and-fast distinction, but it’s valid in a general sense.) On the other hand, we have traditionally counted on some degree of redundancy between multiple libraries’ general collections as a sort of informal guarantor of a certain level of preservation — no individual library may worry much about making sure that it owns a 1984 printing of Portnoy’s Complaint, but chances are that it exists in some library somewhere. How much we’ll be able to rely on that particular preservation “strategy” in the future is an open question.

In this context, I think “quality” is a weasel word. If by “quality” you mean dpi (which is basically an aesthetic issue), then quality is not terribly relevant to preservation. If by “quality” you mean acid-free rather than acidic paper, then it’s much more relevant. So when discussing issues like the EBM and print-on-demand, it’s really not helpful to cast it as a question of “high quality” versus “low quality” — what kinds of quality are we talking about, and how much does it make sense to pay for which kinds of quality under which circumstances? That’s a much more difficult and complex question, but it’s one that recognizes the difficult and complex reality in which we’re working.

That would certainly be a different approach, Kent, but would of course require that some entity store all those digital files and refresh them as needed as the technology changed in order to produce a print book in the future. Who’s to say that the EBM will last forever as a technology? The odds are against it. A book printed on acid-free paper and Smyth sewn, on the other hand, will last more than 500 years and you only have to print it once.

Ok, granted all that you say here, Rick, I’m still curious about how you see the economics of publishing working out in regards to preservation. if libraries are so focused on the present and buy accordingly, what reason do publishers have to use acid-free paper? It would seem that the demand for aspects of quality related to preservation is so low that there should be almost no incentive for any regular publisher to try meeting it. Does this mean that you foresee a special niche business arising for some re-publishers who will license the rights from regular publishers to produce books that will last 500 years instead of 25? I expect that the market will be so small for such re-publishers that it will be very similar to the small market for specially printed Limited Editions. which will mean quite high prices. But, then, if no academic library really recognizes that it has any special responsibility for preservation, then who will constitute this market? Libraries got into trouble with books produced on acidic paper because NONE of the book printed on this paper would last more than 50 years, so the scenario you depict of a distributed responsibility didn’t help/

Let’s not exaggerate, Sandy — I didn’t say that “no academic library really recognizes that it has any special responsibility for preservation.” What I said was that the library’s general, circulating collection does not fulfill much (if any) of a preservation role. But that’s only part of the library. Virtually all academic libraries have special collections departments, which are charged very specifically with preservation. When it comes to libraries and preservation the question isn’t “do libraries have a preservation role?” but rather “what should each library preserve, and how, and in what amounts?”.

But there’s a bigger problem with the questions you’re asking: they assume that book preservation depends on print. I’m not saying that’s always or completely wrong, but I’m not sure we should assume it’s right. One big problem with using paper as a preservation medium is that paper does a good job of providing permanence, but a really lousy job of providing access — and access is the only meaningful purpose of preservation. Also, we have to accept the fact that not all books are going to get preserved — all of them never have, and all of them never will. So I’m not sure the question “in a PDA/POD world, what incentive will publishers have to produce archival-quality books?” is a meaningful or even very relevant one. More meaningful and relevant, I think, are the questions “How will we identify books that should be preserved, and how will we preserve them, and how should preservation responsibilities be distributed?”

Thanks–good to hear a user/owner point of view.
I love the artifact–and anything printed with metal type (and a marbelized leather binding). But I also know the economics of it. SO I do have a shelf of them to peruse and some pieces of metal type and pretty books covers I can see as I type this.

I don’t think of myself as a geek, but since I have bought and sold printing over many years and worked at copy centers too, I am a geek for any machine that rivers of paper sheets or rolls run through. When I first saw the EBM at Harvard Bookstore (a private retail bookseller) in Cambridge, my inner print-copy geek swooned.

I think there will be many tweaks you cannot benefit from as an early adopter
or they come in the course of ownership. Also, this may be the type of equip that is better leased, as copy centers do. Additionally, once the Rights issues with publishers are better organized, it may be easier for them to participate with EBM as a regular part of their business. It would make sense, even if it is not their first priority now. My thought about the tech–it is well suited to do overflow, especially high page count reports for institutional or corporate copy centers or custom course material. I like the custom journal printing, I have wondered about this type of use.

My feeling about paper–better to use less, BUT–if manufactured in America it is well regulated and though they have made great strides it is more an issue of air and water pollution than reducing the amount of trees.
I have wondered–if they are printing 6×9, or 5.5×8.5, when will there be enough demand to make a smaller sheet to feed into these machines as 8.5 x 11 is wasteful. When a book is printed on a press in signatures, the sheets or rolls as well as presses are standardized in sizes that minimize the amount of paper/ink/resource waste. Such as a half inch all around 3 sides.
They are very efficient. Paper is purchased by the pound for conventional printing so waste must be minimized. Living in New England, we have paper issues in the summer with humidity, some dry air issues i winter, but the humidity is more the issue here.

Printing plants have been recycling paper trimmings and waste for many decades–there have always been companies that purchased it, even before there was a green movement. Large rolls of paper often leave the mill on rail cars that come right into the plant–so it is fuel efficient or many many tons can fit in a diesel powered trailer. Obviously not requiring these resources is better, but when we do, due to economics and scale, some good efficiencies have been worked out in regard to resources.

I think Rick is being a bit too modest about the EBM quality.

I come at this from two ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, I am a long-time (35 years) book designer and typographer, and former VP of one of the country’s leading scholarly book manufacturers, so I care a whole lot about the appearance of print pages. (I just tweeted a week or so about how reading the Kindle drives me crazy because the pages look so crappy.) On the other hand, I’m an XML and EPUB evangelist who thinks, reflexively (as opposed to reflectively) “why, exactly, are you printing these books in the first place?”

With those two disclaimers, I’ll have to say that I think the EBM has an important place in the ecosystem and produces surprisingly good quality. Most people can’t tell the difference from a conventionally printed and bound trade book, or if the difference is pointed out to them, they shrug.

When a book looks like it was printed from somebody’s Word files, it probably was. The quality problem there isn’t the printing, it’s the typography and design. No printing press is going to make those pages look decent. And yes, most EBM sites will tell you that a big part of their volume is self-ppublished books, memoirs, Aunt Janet’s recipes, etc.

BTW I recommended an EBM to one of my consulting clients a year or so ago as one part of a pretty complex and wide ranging infrastructure — they have it in their college bookstore — and it is producing well for them. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that it’s really useful for coursepacks. That particular client has a large coursepack operation but it is still difficult to anticipate exactly how many copies are going to be purchased for a given class. EBM eliminates that problem–you prints ’em as you needs ’em.

Hi, Bill.

Maybe I can ask you one of the questions I just asked Rick. EBM-produced books are of “good quality” . . . compared to what? What published books do they have better quality than?

The point, I think, is that their quality is sufficient for their purpose. As a setter of handset type in the past, and a meticulous typographer in InDesign today, I love the craft of fine bookmaking as much as the next person (actually, more than most). Though I have a Kindle and an iPad (both the most recent versions), I am just now finally reading Don de Lillo’s UNDERGROUND as a big thick fat hardcover, typeset in Electra, and it’s loverly. But I can tell you that most customers of the EBM neither expect nor want that quality, and the vast majority of them are perfectly happy with the EBM’s quality: it got them what they needed and wanted — a printed and bound book that works just fine for them, that was reasonably economical and unbelievably convenient. (And if it’s well typeset and has a nicely designed cover, neither of which have anything to do with the EBM, it even looks good!) No, it’s not quite up to the level of professional digital printing (Lightning Source, IBT, Edwards Brothers, Bookmobile), not to mention offset printing with good binding (sewn bindings are rarely sewn anymore anyhow, btw). But many folks could not tell the difference, and anyway it is _just what they want_. It’s not a matter of the EBM books having _better_ quality than those, it is that it is perfectly good quality for its purpose. And its purpose is an honorable one.

UNDERWORLD, not UNDERGROUND! Sheesh, sorry about that, Mr. DeLillo, what was I thinking!

This may be as much a comment on the deterioration in quality of commercially published books as it is a statement of praise about the EBM.

This is probably a good time for me to point out that what makes a book look great, to most people, isn’t the quality of the printing or the binding, to which they’re generally oblivious, but the typography and design. There is often very little, if any, difference in cost between good design and bad design. The good design makes all the difference.

One other quick point: as eBook technologies evolve (esp. tablets and EPUB 3) we are finally getting to a place where that mode of publication can be well designed too. (Of course I’m glossing over PDF, which is really mostly a way to retain print design in digital delivery.)

I quite enjoyed reading this summary – the experience was very similar to the one we had. (McMaster University bookstore acquired an Espresso Book Machine in Nov 2008)

And, BTW, I continue to find watching books come off the EBM incredibly sexy. After watching thousands of books come off the machine, it never seems to grow old. But then again, I likely see the world from a similar perspective as you . . .

I was very interested in your experience. I have seriously considered the possibility of moving in this direction for our small independent bookstore — if and when the price becomes a little more manageable. We are the only bookstore in the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas for a 50 or more mile radius, are limited to around 1400 sq ft, have a large percentage of customers who are tourists (which limits our ability to order what they want since they may be gone the next day), have many self-published or aspiring self-published authors, and have several small branches of the TX university system within the same geographic area as our customer base.

The Espresso Book Machine seemed like a great way to meet the backlist needs of our customers. It is impossible to carry every mass market series title but when on the beach and in the middle of some five year old series this is what our customer wants – today. So I was discouraged to hear that the backlist is not as extensive as what I may need to make this work for us.

Our other idea to make this become a cost effective addition to our store would be our ability to act as a printer for the many self-published authors that come in our door. The print-on-demand titles are low-margin and take up precious shelf space, yet we like to support our local authors. It would be nice to have one copy or information about the author and book and be able to “print-on-demand” when needed.

Finally, we feature a lot of titles on Texas history, and the possibility of finding some older out-of copyright books that we could make available to our TX history buffs would place us in a unique position. The other specialty market we believe the EBM would help us to address would be our Spanish language readers. Many of our customers come from Monterrey, MX, and while they read and speak English very well they do occasionally want a specific title in Spanish. I thought the EBM would help us accommodate these requests.

Your article has helped me formulate a better list of questions when we become more serious in considering this major investment. I just keep thinking “that a machine that promises “instant distribution of over 3,000,000 titles”, would have to make my business more efficient and sounds pretty “sexy” to me.

Joni, let me clarify one thing — the backlist offerings actually are very extensive. It’s the _frontlist_ offerings that are sparse at the moment. If you want to get a better sense for what’s available via the EBM, you can search their database (if clumsily) at

Good luck!

Have you considered writing to the universities presses in Texas and arranging with them to do POD editions for your customers whose needs are immediate? I suspect they’d be happy to oblige–although some of those books will be highly illustrated and not reproducible well on the EBM.

Fascinating. It seems to me that with these machines we are looking at the sea retreating just before the tsunami arrives.

I work for a library technology company and for the last couple of years I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that POD changes the game. In most other industries stock-holding has been radically slashed over the last few decades. Libraries are still in the 1950s on this. A city-centre library containing thousands of square feet of books is an actuarial nonsense .

POD print quality issues will be sorted. Meta data issues will be sorted. Same content in a choice of POD or e-book will happen if/when the publishers can sort out appropriate business models. The stockless library cometh (a row of EBMs, e-reader docking stations and catalogue terminals. Your choice of book purchase with permanent ink or book loan with rapid-fading ink. Little or no physical stock.)

So what are we as library industry professionals going to do about it? Binding and print quality is, er, not the core issue.

As an active scholar making heavy use of university press books, I can honestly say I could care less what the binding quality and other material characteristics of a book are like. I’m interested in the intellectual content, period, and I need to have it in terms of an economic model I can afford. Libraries have helped immensely, but I have a personal library of some 5000+ books as well. The vast majority of these books, going back to the 1960s, are gradually falling apart from brittle paper, broken spines, and the like. I’m hard on my books–I highlight them, heavily annotate them, dog-ear them, and generally manhandle them from active use. If I had been forced to buy only acid-free, high-quality bound books from de Gruyter, Harvard University Press, Cambridge UP, et al, I would never have been able to pursue the academic career I’ve enjoyed. Like a beat-up, old Pendleton shirt, these tattered books in my library are a badge of honor for me, something I’m proud of. I clearly do not have a fetish for material objects!

Technology has allowed us to enter an era of a “By Any Means Necessary” approach to aiding scholars in finding and gaining access to the intellectual content we need in our research. Google Books, the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and the new discovery tools like Primo and Summon have radically changed scholarship in ways that even the immediately preceding generation of scholars could never have imagined. I personally now have 100s of books on my iPad, but by all means, if someone needs a printed book from the Espresso Book Machine, the more power to him. In talking about binding quality or inks, however, let’s not lose sight of what this is all about–scholarly communication.

And if Google closes down, or Apple goes out of business, what happens to all of your ebooks? And who will refresh your electronic content when the next generation of computer technology comes on line and renders your ebooks unreadable? Remember all those electronic files from earlier eras that are no longer readable by anyone?

This sort of problem will happen but it will be fixed.

These changes are here to stay and we must adapt or go the way of the mechanical watch industry

I gave a talk on the problem of preservation of electronic documents in 1991. The problem has not been solved in the 20 years since then. Why do you assume it will be solved? A book printed on acid-free paper and Smyth-sewn will last for 500+ years. No electronic method of preservation comes anywhere close to that.

Why do I assume it will be solved? Such problems always are. The earliest jet engines needed an overhaul after every flight. 15 years ago dial-up Internet access was far too slow to support e-resources. 30 years ago you couldn’t even network Windows.

It’s right to raise the issue of digital archiving but it is a zillion miles from being any kind of significant brake on the growth of e-resources

Just curious: do you think the problem of computer hacking will ever be solved? Will there ever be such a thing as a completely secure electronic medium?

And if the publisher goes out of business and takes its backlist with it, or your library branch shuts down, or your research library is flooded or burns… the thing is, Sandy, we can construct catastrophic “what-if” scenarios for _any_ model of distribution and access. Print solves some problems while creating others; so does the Kindle, and the EBM, and Google Books. The question is: which model (or models) works best, when all positives and all negatives are put in the balance?

The difference, as you well know, is that ALL electronic documents stored on a medium that goes out of date become inaccessible. Just ask NASA. If one library closes, other libraries will continue to have books that last virtually forever.

Of course, formats can become obsolete. That’s a problem that we’re much better at preventing now than we were 20 years ago when you gave your talk on preservation of electronic documents, but it’s still an issue. Like I said, print is a pretty good preservation medium, and you’re probably right that a Smyth-sewn book will last for 500 years (assuming, of course, that your copy doesn’t get lost, or stolen, or burned in a fire, or otherwise made unavailable to the patrons you’re trying to serve). But as I also said before, one of the primary problems with print is that while it’s a pretty good preservation medium, it’s a really pretty terrible access medium. And what’s the point of preservation without access? Rather than betting our future on a format that requires an enormous amount of waste and ends up providing poor access, I think we’re better off working on the problem of permanent digital archiving.

But electronics does not solve the access problem. If you are out in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, all of your electronic devices are useless. If you are in a village in Africa that has no internet access, you’re out of luck. in both instances, a physical book gives you access. Granted, if you live your whole life in a city with good wireless broadband access, your access is considerably enhanced.

But electronics does not solve the access problem. If you are out in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, all of your electronic devices are useless. If you are in a village in Africa that has no internet access, you’re out of luck. in both instances, a physical book gives you access.

What physical book? Do you really think that if you’re out in the Amazonian jungle or in a small village in Africa, you’re going to have access to a physical library collection?

You’re right that online access doesn’t offer a 100% solution to the access problem, of course. All it does is offer a one-million-times better solution than print does.

Sandy, it’s inherent that with all technologies, indeed of all physical objects, we’re going to be able to find weaknesses that will degrade or limit their functionality. This is the point I was trying to make with my falling-apart book library. Of all the books that have been printed over the centuries, only a minuscule percentage have survived; we’ve lost countless 1000s of titles entirely. We could spend a good deal of digital space here talking about all sorts of very serious, debilitating problems with printed books, beginning with the 100s of libraries a year that are struck by serious water damage and fire in this country.

I purchased my first ebook in the 1990s, and that book is still very much a part of my digital library (I can’t recall if I had purchased it from the Microsoft Bookstore, or from Powell’s, which started selling ebooks very early). In fact, I still have all of the important emails I’ve sent over the years, beginning in the 1980s (and some of my postings to various listservs from that era can still be found via Google searches!).

But we’re only talking about one aspect of books here–preservation: what about other critical areas, such as access (I just downloaded a 17th century book from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich), or portability (I throw my iPad in my bag, never having to think again what “book” I will bring–I can bring all of them!), and the like.

We’re still in the early stages of this development with digital scholarly communication (I’m looking forward to Muse and JSTOR ebooks, including those from PSU Press!), and I’m confident we’re going to continue to refine and improve on all these challenges in the coming years. This includes preservation: with copies of my digital library on several hard drives in several places (including some 80 GB in the cloud), I already consider my personal digital collection far more secure and safe than my book collection, and I’m confident that libraries will find long-term solutions to digital preservation as well. It may not ever be perfect, but it will be just as secure as printed books.

And so it goes with all major technology shifts: I think exchanges like this very much parallel what must have happened with our great-great grandparents, when their children daringly decided to buy an automobile: “That’s ridiculous son, those things run out of gas all the time, they’re stinky, and they break down just when you need them most!” “Well Dad, at least I don’t have to buy hay that goes bad and I don’t have to clean up after that ol’ Nelly anymore!”

hi Rick,
The EBM seems like an excellent technology/service for a book jobber like YBP. I’d love for my library to have access to EBM copies on demand when needed.

Regarding a library’s use of EBM, it seems like an intermediate solution to the problem of reading ebooks on a screen. Reading device adoption is becoming widespread. Once ebook reading device adoption is near complete folks will not need printed copies.

What do you think?

POD may, in fact, turn out to be just an intermediate step on the road to a virtually e-only book future, but I think that future will probably be a longish time in coming. Although it’s a poor tool for text interrogation, the codex is actually a very good format for extended linear reading, and there are still many millions of people with a strong sentimental attachment to the printed book format. Who knows, though — the Kindle has demonstrated that a critical mass of book buyers are very happy reading books on an electronic device, and the iPad and its growing number of imitators seem to be demonstrating that people are even willing to read books on a backlit screen. (Remember how everyone used to say “No one will ever want to read a book on a computer screen; it gives you a headache”? You don’t hear that so much since the advent of the iPad.) So the transition may well happen faster and more completely than I think.

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