Under my byline

Instant books

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books by Rrishi on 30 May 2009

Early Christian codex discovered in Egypt, 1945OVERLEAF 31

There’s really no room for revolution in the design of a book. Makers and users — not professional designers — have perfected its form and features over millennia. (The real revolution, if we’re looking for one, was the invention of the alphabet by the Phoenicians 5,000 years ago.) After all, a book is basically a text-bearing surface, organised for convenience.

But now we have to account for the computer. Now that content (text) has floated free of the container (the page), what publishers have been doing ever since Gutenberg intelligently assembled his printing press from pre-existing elements 500 years ago, begins to look woefully antiquated. Why print 10,000 copies of a book all at once, with the hideous input, shipping and warehousing costs? A publisher can only estimate how many will sell, and over what period of time. Inevitably, there is huge waste. These costs decimate publishers’ margins and raise the price paid by the consumer. Why not seize the opportunities of digitisation?

Habits change slowly. But for publishers the many advantages of print-on-demand (POD) technology are becoming irresistible. POD brings just-in-time business techniques to publishing, and moves production away from giant printing establishments to smaller, quicker and closer ones. Now, theoretically, a publisher’s inventory need consist only of, say, pdf files stored on a secure server. This means that the publisher can print exactly as many books as his customers need when they need them, and doesn’t have to warehouse anything. If a bookshop owner says, I want 10 copies of XYZ book in normal format and five in large-text format tomorrow, it can be done.

Before POD has properly kicked in, however, a much greater decentralisation is already afoot. Ten years ago, a well-respected 40-year publishing veteran named Jason Epstein (then aged 71) delivered a series of lectures at the New York Public Library in which he said that what was really needed was a “book ATM”, a machine which would convert computer files into conventional paperbacks in a few minutes. Such a machine, if affordable, portable and ubiquitous, would, he said, revolutionise the book trade.

With investors and an inventor, Epstein founded On Demand Books in 2003, which went on to build the Espresso Book Machine (EBM). The EBM, like Gutenberg’s press, combines existing technology in a novel way to print text and cover and then bind and trim one book at a time. Early versions — large, ugly, imperfect — sit in a few American university towns and in the New Library of Alexandria, printing mostly old books now in the public domain.

Just recently Epstein’s company unveiled EBM 2.0. It looks no worse than a big photocopier, and the manufacturer says it will turn out a 300-page book in four minutes. It costs $175,000, but large bookshops are beginning to take it up. For the moment, it will still print out-of-copyright titles (half a million are on file), but that will change. For one, the opportunities for customisation are infinite — everything from format to contents is open to rearrangement. (Make your own essay collection.)

The EBM, Epstein says in a historically informed, exhilaratingly speculative and, of course, strongly inflationary lecture delivered this year (available at OnDemandBooks.com; I urge you to read it), is the book wave of the future — not expensive handheld “readers” like Amazon’s Kindle, which, the better they get, more closely approximate the conventional codex, or book. To Epstein, the EBM works for all involved, from publishers and authors, whose revenues can still be protected, to small booksellers, who can potentially carry millions of titles without an inch of shelf space, to individual readers.

All true, but is this indeed decentralisation? If Epstein succeeds, our civilisational library, new books in particular, will exist in just one place — online — or as disposable paperbacks. Is this wise? How eternal is online, really?

(Read Jason Epstein’s speech here — it opens as a pdf file.)


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