Saturday, June 23, 2007

Automatic book- making machine a ‘ revolution’ in publishing

Once technology is in place, ‘ there’s no going back’, says one independent publisher


NEW YORK — Beginning July 2, the New York Public Library will operate a 750 kilogram, Internet- connected bookmaking gizmo that can deliver a 200page paperback in six to eight minutes — although mine took 12.

Through the Web, the “ Espresso Book Machine,” from New York- based On Demand Books LLC, has access to 200,000 titles in the public domain — that is, books that aren’t protected by copyright.

On Demand is trying to secure arrangements with publishers so its 2.5metre- long machines can eventually print and sell virtually any book published.

“ It’s kind of a funny- looking revolution,” co- founder Dane Neller said at the NYPL’s Science, Industry and Business Library, where the machine will be displayed. “ But it is a revolution.”

Neller’s partner, Jason Epstein, publishing entrepreneur and former editorial director of Random House books, said he started thinking about a company to deploy an automatic book machine after lecturing at the library about his career and the Web’s potential for distributing books.

After the lectures, Epstein found that a man named Jeff Marsh was already developing the technology, so they joined forces, and Neller signed on with the company in 2005. Early versions of their book machine are at the World Bank in Washington and the Bibliothecca Alexandrina in Egypt.

This year, they’re leasing one to a bookstore in Manchester, Va., and selling one to a campus bookstore at the University of Alberta.

“ We are in discussions with a large printing company,” Neller said. Neller added later they’re also talking about linking with an equipment manufacturer, in order to turbocharge their printing process. Currently it prints 20 doublesided sheets of paper a minute, or 40 pages.

The machine comprises an offtheshelf blackandwhite laser printer to create the book’s pages and a color printer for the cover. On Demand has pate n t s o n t h e technology that a u to m a te t h e process. Version 2.0, planned for next year, will be smaller than the current setup.

To flourish, On Demand needs cooperation from publishers. Some are wary they’ll lose control of their business, Neller said. But he and Epstein claim that decentralized printing will enhance book sales and human knowledge. Some publishers are game. “ For us, it’s a tremendous opportunity,” said James Atlas of independent publisher Atlas Books, who was at the library. “ Once the technology is invented, there’s no going back.”

The New York Public Library will give away the books its Espresso Book Machine prints. To avoid the inevitable gridlock as visitors decide among 200,000 books, it’s limiting titles to 20.

They include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick and A Christmas Carol and Epstein’s Book Business.

Following the press conference, I requested Book Business. Though several other books had already come out fine, the technology proved to be imperfect. After about 12 minutes, my copy of the 187- page memoir and treatise came out legible and tightly bound — but with a mangled cover.

No matter. Neller and Epstein are betting that you can’t judge a book — or its potential to disrupt a business — by its cover.