Self-Serve Books

I’m finally getting around to writing up the output of the Espresso book machine I covered back in October. Jim Ottaviani obtained a copy of Literary New York for me shortly after I wrote the article. The book, from the outside, looks, feels, and smells like a traditional book (no, I didn’t taste it…sorry). The text is clean and the binding is strong and durable.

There are a few production flaws/idiosyncrasies from the process. First, in the upper left-hand corner of my collage you can see that the trimming process cut on an angle. I suspect this is due to the book bending and flexing inside the machine when it’s cut.

Second, in the lower left-hand corner, you can see that the text fits almost entirely within the top half of the page. I have no idea if this represents the original design or not, but I suspect the original book had different dimensions from an Espresso print-on-demand book. For me, this large expanse of white space is distracting, but I don’t know if it would bother most people.

The cover, upper right-hand side, is almost assuredly new for this ‘printing’ of the book since photographic cover art was not commonplace back in 1903 when the book was originally published. There’s little to no design effort put into the cover, but it’s better than just text. The images on the inside, as seen in the lower right-hand corner, are just as clean and clear as the text.

In the comments, Pablo Defendini offers a few thoughts as to wider implementation of such a device. I’m particularly struck with the idea of something like this being put in place in airports, bus stations, etc. where people might want/need to grab something quick to read. Of course, if you’re a proud Kindle owner, you already circumvent the problem of running out of reading material, as long as there isn’t a giant solar storm that knocks out wireless networks. Regardless, I think we’ll be just as likely to see something like this in a B&N or some other bookstore, which Pablo also suggests.

Interestingly enough, digital guru Clay Shirky feels the same way. In a semi-recent article in the Guardian, Shirky offers his thoughts on the future of media, including newspaper, books, magazines, and television. About books, Shirky has this to say:

I think the big revolution is going to be print on demand. Imagine only having one browsing copy of every book in a bookstore. You could say “Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers looks good,” and out pops a brand new copy. Why does a bookstore or a publisher have to be in the shipping and warehousing business?

I still think there will be publishers who do print runs, but they might become something more like the vinyl industry, whose sales doubled last year, while CD sales dropped by almost 35% from 2006 to 2008. Not surprisingly, MP3 sales more than doubled over that same time period. And why the increase in vinyl sales? I think there are people who choose to buy their music as a physical object that appreciate the larger cover art, larger liner notes, and the different sound that vinyl offers. It’s a completely different experience from CDs or MP3s.

And it’s not just a few people—there were millions of albums sold last year. This is more than a small group of audiophiles sitting at home with souped-up stereos looking for the “ultimate sound experience.” It’s a lot of younger people who never grew up with albums who are discovering them for the first time and appreciating the medium for the first time.

And I wonder if that might not happen to books. Will the person who still wants to own a physical object be the type who wants that beautifully designed, unique piece, that thing that’s a little more (or a lot more) special than what gets spit out of the print-on-demand machine down the street?

You already have places like Millipede Press who create absolutely beautiful, expensive books, like their $225 (or $1500) Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (the site calls it The Shadow of the Torturer, but it’s actually the entire Book of the New Sun and then some) or Charnel House and their one-of-a-kind edition of Tim Powers’ Last Call which used uncut $1 bills as the end papers. Those are pretty extreme examples catering to very specialized audiences.  Nonetheless, are we long for a time where the bulk of book sales are either electronic of print-on-demand with only a small dedicated audience looking to buy print-run produced books?

I apologize for missing a whole bunch of Weekend Getaway weekends. It’s been awful busy out here in the Midwest as the Klima household prepares for a new baby in six weeks or so. And even with that staring me in the face, I still think I have time to get new issues of Electric Velocipede together, as well as start and run (much less do all the reading for!) the Gene Wolfe Book Club. I hope to get back on track for the Weekend Getaway starting with next week.

[Images taken and assembled by me; used with my permission.]


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