Fit to print

Will the Espresso book machine revolutionize the publishing industry?

Will the Espresso book machine revolutionize the publishing industry?

The Espresso book machine prints a book at the Blackwell bookstore in central London. ((Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images) )

Ever since William Caxton brought a printing press to Westminster in 1476, London has been a paradise for bibliophiles. But today, if you walk up Charing Cross Road, long famed for its bookshops, you'll see a discouraging picture. A sign plastered on one empty shop window commemorates Shipley Books as "A mecca for art lovers" that "closed its doors … on Christmas Eve 2008." The crime bookshop Murder One is described, on its abandoned storefront, as having "thrived for 21 years before being forced to close due to internet competition" earlier this year.          

Online retailers such as Amazon, with their global reach and massive warehouses, are taking business away from traditional bookshops. Meanwhile, the rise of the e-book is said to be an ever-looming threat to the physical book itself. What would Caxton do?

Farther up Charing Cross Road, you'll find the likely answer. In the flagship store of the 130-year-old book chain Blackwell stands an apparatus that looks like a glorified photocopier grafted to a miniature car factory. Called the Espresso Book Machine, it can print and bind books in a matter of minutes, and it might help secure the future of the bookshop – and even the printed book.

The EBM is manufactured by New York's On Demand Books, which delivered its first model to the World Bank's InfoShop in Washington, D.C., in April 2006.  The model owned by Blackwell is version 2.0: it's smaller, faster and more practical than its predecessors, most of which found homes in libraries and university bookshops.

The EBM offers potential solutions to various retail problems: how to eliminate returns, how to increase inventory despite space restrictions and how to supply out-of-print books. The EBM can also produce books for unsigned authors.

The very presence of the machine in a bookshop has been a draw. "Whenever we set it going, we get a little group of people sitting around watching," says Marcus Gipps, the Blackwell manager in charge of the store's EBM. "Even if you work in the book trade, you don't get to see books being made, so it's fascinating to watch. They all get passed around, and everybody goes, 'Oh, look!'"

This happens when I visit the store, as Gipps programs the machine to produce a copy of Oxford Poetry, a slender 1915 volume first printed by Blackwell itself. When it emerges, the glossy cover is slightly sticky – a property that ebbs away once the ink has had time to set – but the colour is true. The binding is strong enough to resist cracking even when the pages are pulled apart roughly, and the printing is as clear as one might expect from a digitized version of a 94-year-old book.

A Blackwell staff member reads a book generated by the Espresso book machine. ((Neal/AFP/Getty Images))

The EBM's transparent Perspex walls make it possible to watch the robotic devices inside as they clamp, bind and shear the pages before the book emerges from a plastic chute and is deposited, quaintly, into a wicker basket filled with bubble wrap. While it's tempting to get right up close, there's a four-foot wall surrounding the machine to keep customers out. Gipps explains that this is because the binding glue reaches 350 F, "and there's a very, very sharp blade with an awful lot of hydraulic pressure behind it, because it needs to do clean cuts of often 500 or 600 pages." Between the safety precautions that must be taken and the expense (the Blackwell model cost $95,000 US), don't expect a personal version of the machine to be rolled out soon.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the largest commercial splash the machine has made has been in the U.K. Here, literary festivals abound year-round, from the famous Hay Festival in Wales to the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in North Yorkshire. In London, book advertisements are almost as conspicuous as those for films, and on public transportation, park benches, even in pubs, people are poring over paperbacks.

"Many people," says Gipps, "don't want to read [a text] on their mobile phone [or] on their computer screen; they just want to have a nice book which they can stick in their bag and take to the beach." Gipps notes that Blackwell attracts many students, "and you would expect those people to be more technologically [adept]. But even there, you want to scribble notes in the margin; you want to be able to fold the cover over and take it down to the pub."

Dane Neller, the New York-based CEO of On Demand Books, is similarly bullish. "Print books, I don't think for the foreseeable future, are going away," he says. Neller adds that he is looking forward to helping retailers around the world – for instance, by helping African bookstores print local-language volumes.

At the moment, Blackwell can print only out-of-copyright works, with prices from five to 12 pounds depending on the length of the book, and unsigned authors' texts. Agreements with publishers such as Simon & Schuster and U.K. market leader Hachette, however, are in place. In the coming weeks, many copyrighted works should become available. On Demand's web site boasts a potential library of two million, "pending publisher permission."

In this illustration by E. H. Wetomert, English printer William Caxton reads the first proof sheet from his printing press in 1476 in Westminster Abbey, London. ((Hulton Archive/Getty Images) )

According to Phill Jamieson, Blackwell's PR manager, the EBM "offers immediacy. It's a way for us to compete" with the huge inventories of online retailers. However, as is often the case with new technology, there are what Gipps calls "teething problems." On the day I visited the store, a corrupted file belonging to a self-publishing customer caused the machine to break down. It had to be shut down and the software patched up overnight from New York, which left two Spanish tourists' requests for copies of Garcia Lorca, and my own for Charles Robert Morley's Travels in London (1916), unfulfilled. Thankfully, it was the large office printer, rather than the binding apparatus (with its hot glue and sharp blade) that grew "confused," as Gipps puts it.

Despite reams of positive press in U.K. newspapers, not everyone in the British book trade has been swept away. Catherine Neilan, a reporter for London-based trade publication The Bookseller, urges a tempering of expectations.

"If you are in a shop and you can't find a book you want, but could get it on the machine, that would be really great. If these machines were available everywhere, that would be great. But they are not, and I don't expect them to be for a very long time. I suppose it is exciting that the possibility exists, but it would need to extend beyond one shop in London for it to have a significant effect, or for it to revolutionize the book market."

Neller admits his 2007 projection that 500 EBMs would be on the market by the end of 2009 was "overly optimistic." Nonetheless, his company has been fielding inquiries from bookshops in Canada and the U.S.

In London, Blackwell's machine has been dragging customers away from their computers. "It brings people in," says Gipps. "The entire shop feels different. I know my friends in other bookshops are very jealous of us because we've got it first."

Mike Doherty is a writer based in Toronto.