Jan 25 2009 3:47pm

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.]

Pablo Defendini
1. pablodefendini
I agree completely with your vinyl analogy as an apt one, if not necessarily a complete one (the electronic side of publishing holds much more promise than the analogy of mp3s—as they exist now—allows for). One thing, though. I think POD will be a stopgap measure, a way to cater to holdovers from the age of cheap printed material until reading devices like the successors to the Kindle and such are ubiquitous.

Granted, given the tenaciousness of some people's affinity for print, and their aversion to reading off of a screen (an affectation which will decrease as people my age and older become less relevant), this stopgap will be a long-lived one, I think.

Additionally, there's the amazing benefit that a machine like this can bring to the third world.
piaw na
2. piaw
If you drop by Amazon's Kindle forum, I think you'll be surprised that the early Kindle adopters aren't the usual crowd of 20 year olds, but the 55-and-over crowd. Why? Two big ailments hit you as you get older. One is your eyes don't work as well, and the Kindle's adjustable font size changes that. Two is arthritis, which the Kindle with the big "next page/previous page" buttons are designed to overcome. The wireless PC-less nature makes the Kindle work well even for the most tech-phobic of senior citizens.

The Kindle is an unusual device in that it was designed to thoroughly appeal to the older and avid reader crowd. That makes sense when you think about it, and I think Amazon did a far better job than most people realize.
rick gregory
3. rickg
POD will be a transition device, but that transition may last 10-15 years. The Kindle is expensive, proprietary and the books are DRMed. The devices need to be better, cheap (or not single purpose and still cheap for what they do) and publishers need to accept non-DRMed content or DRM that's so transparent we never feel it. we'll get there, but it's not going to be a 2-5 year process for most people.

I'm not sure the 'one reading copy' idea works in a current retail bookstore environment... it's a barrier to just grabbing the book and buying it and barriers to sales aren't a good thing and most stores are set up to have multiple copies of the books anyway. But that's a nit... I'd LOVE to have one of these hooked up in my favorite bookstores. For example, I want to read some series, but the first book is missing... what do I do now? I don't read the series (John Wright's Golden Age is my current example). Could I order it from Amazon? Sure. But it feels silly to have Amazon deliver a single book (and wasteful too). Library? Yeah I could, but again, that's much more work and I really need to want the book to go to the trouble.

I'd love to be able to see that the store doesn't have a copy on the shelf, walk to a POD kiosk, find it and print it.

On the idiosyncrasies of the book above... I think the white space won't be an issue as the electronic files will end up formatted for the POD sizes (or will flow to variable sizes in the first place. The rest? I can deal with a slight angle on the cut etc.The question to me is why this isn't taking off - is it cost, reliability, awareness??
piaw na
4. piaw
Non-Kindle owners seem to think that DRM is a big barrier to Kindle adoption. Well, DRM-music wasn't a big barrier to iPod adoption, and Kindle's DRM is less restrictive than most imagine, to the point where it's a non-issue for most users. The cost is by far the bigger issue. I expect costs to drop once the Kindle is in stock again.
Bruce Arthurs
5. bruce-arthurs
From the angle on the trim cut, I'd guess that the POD machine doesn't have a pressure bar included in its trimming mechanism.

Back in my Graphic Engineering classes (30 years ago; yikes!), the big trimmer worked by:

1) putting the pre-jogged pages on the cutting table up against an adjustable back-bar, so only the to-be-trimmed edge of the paper projected over the cutting line.

2) Then a pressure bar would come down on top of the paper stack, just behind the cutting line, and squeeze the stack of pages tightly. Tightly.

3) Then the actual cutting blade would come down just in front of that pressure bar; the pressure bar prevented the stack of pages from shifting under the impact of the cutting blade.

Result: a perfectly straight cut.

The trimmer, like most printing equipment back then, was several hundred pounds or more of heavy, thick steel. No electronics, no displays, no laser-guidance, no plastic parts. If it was a fancy model, it operated by electric motors and on-off switches; it was a lesser model, you pulled on a big lever to bring the cutting blade down. But it got the job done, and done right.

Now get off my lawn, you kids.
Chris Meadows
6. Robotech_Master
It's also possible that the particular machine on which this POD copy was made was out of adjustment/alignment in some way, and that it ordinarily would produce a perfectly-aligned copy.

Although I didn't have a copy of a finished book to look at, I talked about the origin and possible impact of the Espresso in this TeleRead post.
charlene barina
7. charlener0
For me (in the Peace Corps in remote Mongolia - which is more remote than the just Mongolia bit) I only really warmed up to e-books since coming here. I like pages, and heft, and what-not, but here I can find virtually no genre books physically. My public library (and project gutenberg) back in the states have saved me with a digital library section that I can check out from afar.

When I get back, after another iteration or two of e-book readers I'd like to get one like this. Especially if it's one of those larger screens that allow two-up layouts and pseudo-page turning like what they have on this book at
seth johnson
8. seth
I'm not a Kindle owner, but I wish I could be. The iPod doesn't compare to the Kindle regarding DRM. The iPod always allowed people to install their own content on the device. The challenge with the Kindle is that I can't currently convert my hardcopy books to Kindle format. If I had some kind of scanner with OCR that would simplify the process, I'd drop twice the price of a Kindle.

There's more of a challenge, though. Amazon is the only vendor you can buy content from for the device. I really don't care about the DRM, but their prices for Kindle content rival the hardcopy prices and don't EVER come close to the used paperback market. And that's where I shop.

_SPIN_ by Robert Charles Wilson (2005, Tor) is $7.99 from Amazon whether you order it in Kindle or new paperback. In used paperback, it's $3.14 from Amazon, but $.50 when I find it at my local used bookstore.

If publishers like Tor and Baen could sell their books direct for the Kindle, then we might also have something exciting. If they could open up their complete back catalog at discount rates, I'd stop hunting and gathering at the used book stores and instead pay those publishers and authors for titles that really aren't turning sales much these days.

Mark Leslie
9. Mark Leslie
Interesting article, John. As an owner of a 1.5 version of the Espresso Book Machine, I thought I'd answer a couple of your questions/musings.

While I have only printed about 1000 books on the EBM at my bookstore (we got ours in Nov 2008, so I'm still a new user), I've never seen a cut on an angle like that, so couldn't even imagine how that happened. I have seen some non-standard sized books fall into the shear area askew which results in a non-square trimming of the book -- that usually happens on the really thin books (less than 100 pages) - my suspicion is that there might be something "off" about the configuration as another commenter suggested or the book perhaps fell funny and was held at a strange angle when being trimmed.

In terms of the text appearing in the top half of the book, I've made that mistake myself a couple of times, and it's easily fixed. When "loading" a book to the EBM, there's a process by which you must center the text on an 8.5 X 11 PDF. The user who loaded this book must have failed to do that -- they can easily fix and re-load the source file so that it is centered and completely resolve the problem -- the solution would take less than 5 minutes.

Similarly, users of the EBM have the ability to, within certain parameters, custom define trim sizes of books they load to meet the needs of the source material. We've done books from as small as 4.5 X 4.5 to as large as 8 X 10.

In terms of implementation, yes, there are a variety of ways the EBM can be used. We've implemented it into a campus bookstore and are using the machine to serve several different purposes:

1) Ensure we're ALWAYS in stock (or within minutes of being in stock) of adopted textbooks for courses -- for January 2009 there are 3 different books (2 of which are out of print) that our students have access to for their study and which full royalties are being remitted to the publishers for. (Oh, and since we're saving 30% off the original retail price of these books, we're passing that saving along to the students) This is a great situation in which the author, the publisher, the bookstore and the customer all benefit.

2) Special orders - publishers who make their POD titles available through us or On Demand Books' ( allow us to turn special orders around (at least for Trade Paperback titles) more quickly than ever -- this allows the local bookshop a chance of competing against the Amazons of the world as well as a chance of having virtual stock of millions of titles.

3) Replica classic editions. Through a partnership with the campus library (and their Kirtas book scanner), we've created replica editions of classic titles from the library archives. It's great for collectors to own a replica of a signed first edition of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine for $15.99. This is a great fund raiser for the campus library and a bonus for book nerds who can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on the real thing.

4) Really inexpensive short-runs for self-published authors.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre
Book Operations Manager
Titles Bookstore
McMaster University
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
Seth @8: You can put unencrypted (as from Baen), and even DRM-locked (as from Fictionwise) Mobipocket books on the Kindle (use the Kindle's serial as the device ID when you buy it). I gather that the process is a little involved, but there are on-line tutorials.
Russ Gray
11. nimdok
Seth@8: My Kindle will happily accept content from just about anywhere. I currently have hundreds of unencrypted titles, most of which I got for free from various sites ( is probably my favorite). I've also got a few books from Baen Books on there, which I paid for, but which are not encrypted.

Also, with a scanner and OCR software I'm sure it would be relatively easy to convert books to electronic format. Whether you'd like to spend the time to do that, well, I don't know. (I also make no comment on the copyright implications if you were to do so.)

So far, for the most part, I've not re-purchased titles for my Kindle that I already own (but I haven't read away from my Kindle since I got it last August, either).

I'm not sure that print on demand will be a stop-gap measure until everyone owns a Kindle or something like it. There is something about "real" books that can't be matched. That said, once the cost of the hardware comes down, there won't be any reason not to own something like a Kindle, especially if you to read.
Pablo Defendini
12. pablodefendini
There is something about "real" books that can't be matched.

For you (and me. As a collector of finely-bound books, I share your passion for the printed codex as a vessel for information). This attitude towards printed books is prevalent among anyone over, say, 20 years old, but I'm not convinced that it's hard-wired into the human psyche—I don't think my children (as-yet unborn, and let's keep it that way for a bit, thanks very much) will have such compunctions about favouring electronic publications over printed ones, especially as reading devices become more accessible/ubiquitous/high-res/etc.

As a matter of fact, as technology progresses, and user familiarity with electronic modes of information gathering increases, I'd venture to say that future generations will look at printed matter as a nuisance, rather than an attractive alternative.
Arachne Jericho
13. arachnejericho
The thing I don't like about print books is that I can't back them up on my Amazon S3 encrypted store, simultaneously on my USB keys, simultaneously on my Kindle (and, soon to be, Kindle #2).

People say print books feel real---they don't feel real to me. Many things don't.

Try losing everything you have except for practically the shirt on your back and one Mercedes Lackey book.*

To this day I regret not living in a time when I could have stored my library on a remote file share or three. I lost a couple hundred books, give or take, some of which are out of print and obscure. A fair amount were hardcovers. They were simply gone.

Naturally that doesn't happen to everybody; but it happened to me; and I don't think it's a fate that nature reserves only for certain people.

I'm over 20 (a decade so) and I have little romanticism over print. Special editions I'm willing to risk for things I love---but then again, I lost three special edition books, no matter how much I loved them, so I'm extremely aware I'm buying things that don't last and aren't backed up (at least not easily).

* Firebird if you must know. It was a hardcover.
seth johnson
14. seth
Robotech_Master @10: The prices at Fictionwise aren't any better than Amazon's eBook rates. That _Spin_ example I offered costs $11.90 on the Fictionwise site. Sure, that's kind of a current title, so I can appreciate the publisher (Tor) wanting to charge a premium price.

It just seems like all the attention in eBook publishing is on recent releases. I'd like to see a smart publisher take advantage of their old, perhaps out-of-print titles and put them out at wildly discounted rates. Even a dollar a piece would make more money for the publisher than those paperbacks are turning for the publisher at used book stores.

I bet it's because they don't want to offer cheap content that will distract readers from buying the premium content. That, my friends, is a monopoly situation where the consumer is victimized by the publishing industry.

nimdok @11: There are zero copyright implications regarding me scanning books and installing them on my eBook reader. I can photocopy my own property for my own use of the copies as much as I like. Fair use.

Arachne Jericho
15. arachnejericho
@seth #14 -

No, not all the attention is in recent releases. How do I know? Because I spend hours looking.

On my blog I put quite a bit of effort every week (and more frequently towards the ends and starts of the months; tomorrow is going to be a BIG day) into compiling things that are not just newly released and on the Kindle, but new to the Kindle *period* (i.e., reprints). It's about half and half, and remember that I'm missing some of the reprints because they get published with older dates in the Kindle store metadata (and thus don't turn up when I sort my searches by publication date).

Depending on the individual publisher, the backlist is hitting the ebook shelves as well, because the ideal availability for any author's previous works is *always* and that can only realistically be accomplished via ebooks. However, the machinery to generate ebooks is not in position at most publishers---and yes, it takes quite a bit of effort to produce multiple formats, even for me, and I script a lot.

(For the curious, here's instructions for just one book and one format. I work quickly because I have ruby scripts up the wazoo. Like I said: machinery.)

It's not monopoly at work (which would be ridiculous anyways, since publishing is far from a monopoly; oligopoly, maybe, but the big houses are all rather fiercely competitive with each other). It's we-aren't-there-yet at work.

Just think: in order to really pound out ebooks, you need people on staff who know how to program. HarperCollins has someone like that on staff, or else they outsource to somewhere spectacular, because I see HC dropping 100+ ebooks into the Kindle store on the big release days alone, both new and old books.
seth johnson
16. seth
@arachnejericho 15: Thanks for the insight. I suppose with all the older titles not being in any kind of digital format, there's a dis-incentive for publishers to immediately rush those to eBook format.

I'd love to own a Kindle. I'm just not wealthy enough to pay the premium price for the content. I'm sure the cheapy books will eventually get into eBook format, then I'll be there, too.

Great blog, btw.

Arachne Jericho
17. arachnejericho
@seth #16 -

You're welcome. And thanks for the kind words about the blog. :) I do my best.

Older books are likely to be in PDF format somewhere these days (unless we're talking really, really old). Of course, the key words are "PDF format" and "somewhere around here somewhere". And PDF conversion to HTML (which is what you want to work with for ebooks) is difficult unless you do it on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis, or buy some expensive PDF conversion software that has the appropriate heuristics.

And if you have to scan books, it's a much bigger hit in productivity. The best scanner you can get for this thing is an automatic feed scanner (it's possible to scan via flat bed, but according to the Project Gutenberg wiki that takes a dedicated two hours per decent sized book, and publishers of course have tens of thousands). And even then it requires... the absolute destruction (be-spining, basically)... of a GOOD copy, or at least a decent one. Bad paperbacks no one cares about... no one still cares about.

(I'll note there are special V-style scanners they use for antique books that can't be destroyed like this, where the book sits on a V-shaped platform and a scanner or camera flies over it. Neat set-up. Can be expensive, although digital cameras are getting better every day, so some people have set up their own mechanism in their homes.)

Automatic feed scanners on the industrial-sized scale are expensive, although the price is coming down---most notably there's a consumer model now that will do the feeding for $400-some.

And even after the scan, the thing will be in images most likely, after which you'll need to apply OCR software to interpret the images. Even the best OCR software, I think Abbey Finereader, has a 99% hit rate at best on a clearish sample. Out of a book with 100,000 words, um, you have some correcting to do. (That's why, even though much of Project Gutenberg is either cranked through Abbey or Teseract, the Distributed Proofreaders are still needed. By the way, it's a simple way to contribute to Project Gutenberg if you're interested.)
Mark Leslie
18. kwnewton
I agree with piaw about who is using the Kindle. I own one, and I certainly fit that demographic. It's worth noting that the younger folks are equally on the ebook bandwagon, but they're reading books on their cell phones.

I find it interesting that in this post on the Expresso POD printer, most of the comments are about ebooks and the Kindle. I blog about ebooks quite often myself, because I think e-readers are going to have a huge impact on reading and on publishing. My Kindle fits in my purse, so now I ALWAYS have something to read. I have read more books in the three months since I got it than I had in the year before that. And I have got a lot of those books either free of very cheaply. Picking up a print book now seems something of a pain. Where is the damn font key!
Paul Durrant
19. pdurrant
Just to follow up on the Kindle and third-party content. If the third-party content doesn't have any DRM, it's very, very easy to get it on the Kindle. Sometimes as easy as clicking a button on a web page. At the website (which sells Baen's (& other publishers') ebooks) there are various download options on each book's web page. There's also an "Email book to my Kindle' link. This even works with the free ebooks. For example, see
Arachne Jericho
20. arachnejericho
On the "one click and on your Kindle even if it's not Amazon's Kindle store" note, has a special Kindle download guide, which is actually an ebook full of HTML links that you download onto your Kindle. From then on, click on a link, and the Kindle's browser automatically downloads a public domain/creative-commons Mobipocket book for you to read. (These books are better structured than similar websites like, because the way you input a book is very structured.)

You can even update the little guide itself, by going to its cover and clicking its update link, which downloads the latest update of the guide. (You still need to delete the old one afterwards.)

Best part of the download guide is once the Kindle finishes indexing it, you can use the Kindle's search function to find books in the guide.

(Indeed, because I do like to chow down on the occasional Epic-SF/F-Is-Epic epic, the search function I like very much.)

Er. Have we co-opted the thread for unfortunate ends yet?
Mark Leslie
21. A.Lizard
POD kiosks are a cool idea, but the only times I'd buy from one would be either something I HAD to have and can't get any other way or if I were going into an environment where I don't feel good about taking my personal electronics, e.g. any trip crossing an international border.

I use a Palm PDA (.mobi / .prc format) and a Linux netbook (any e-book format except Kindle) as my e-readers of choice.

I want to see these kiosks with a low-power wi-fi interface so I can walk up to one, shove a few bucks or a credit card into the kiosk, and download the book I just bought.

This would probably cost under $50 per machine to implement at the hardware level, and every kiosk download is one where the kiosk owner gets to collect the money without having to pay for the production of the physical product.
Mark Leslie
22. J. Ottaviani
Sorry to come in late on this, but to @Bruce-Arthurs@5, Robotech_Master@6, and Mark Leslie@9:

All good points about the print/trim/binding quality. We were having some (known) problems with the EBM at the time, but I decided to get a book to John sooner rather than later so he could get a sense of what it looked like. IOW, proof of concept, more than finished product. I should probably have waited until they were resolved, but I'm succumbed to impatience and excitement.

We're getting some upgrades from the company, which may in fact already be in place (I haven't checked back for a while.) We'll also have a new version of the machine that has a smaller footprint soon. It'll be interesting to see whether this technology follows the arc we've come to expect (or at least bet on): smaller, cheaper, better. Here's hoping!

As for the margins, John guessed correctly: It's an artifact of the original book's unusual aspect ratio. So in that realm, I suspect we're a long way from getting custom sizes out of the EBM.
John Klima
23. john_klima
@22 I prefer to work with impatience and excitement myself.

With the margins, I'd have to assume they scanned the books and were printing images onto the page in the OEM, rather than scanning the text, which could be formatted into any layout proportions. It takes a lot of time and effort to do good OCR on old texts, so it's just easier to make a high-quality image.

At least that's what we did when I worked in book scanning.
Edward Gauvin
24. EGauvin
Oh man... I gotta check out the one in the NY SIBL. Despite the white space having been outed as an error, I'd actually welcome it; I'm an incorrigible marginalian and see it as an invitation to jot. I do a lot of obscure or out-of-print French reading. Used book fetishism aside--pages of uneven height, edges ragged from a paper knife, string-bound and smelling faintly of glue--I wish France would catch up and open up their patrimoine.
But for people who've had the EBM for a while: any maintenance issues? Frequency? Compared to copiers?

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