Monday, 11 May 2009

More thoughts on the Espresso Book Machine

Espresso Book Machine 2.0The more I think about this machine, the more I feel it will ultimately be good news for the publishing industry and especially for authors.

With print-on-demand arriving in retail outlets, we could soon see a seismic shift in the publishing industry. The whole notion of print runs could become obsolete, and the publisher's role become one of gatekeeper, designer, and promoter, with production and distribution concerns falling away altogether. I actually think that this could mean that the publishing house name could become more important, not less. It would become a guarantee of excellence, or of catering to a specific niche, much like Tor Books now.

A bookstore could be a simple home for the machines, or a larger retail outlet, with local favourites already pre-printed for the convenience of customers, looking much like present bookstores. The choices would certainly be fewer, but that wouldn't matter, because they would be backed up by the almost infinite choice of the book machine. I am assuming here that there would be a unique digital distribution channel, with all retailers having equal access. That is a huge assumption. Publishing houses could try to restrict distribution to their own retailers, which would create a very different dynamic.

In either event, I think it is good news for authors. There would be less need to sell immediately, with the current paleolithic returns system no longer distorting sales pressures. An author's reputation could be built slowly, gradually picking up speed, without a publisher feeling obliged to abandon debut authors who don't burst out of the gate quickly enough.

With this greater freedom to take a long-term view, publishers' promotion efforts could be both more focused and more spread out. More focused, because it would be easier to track where and when a book is selling (with up-to-the-minute statistics) and adjust promotion accordingly. More spread out, because we would no longer be dealing with a narrow window of opportunity and a publisher could continue marketing efforts for years, tailoring promotions to specific groups. We get a glimpse of what this could look like in the newsletters put out by AbeBooks, the online "clearing house" for thousands of used book sellers. AbeBooks will respond to current news and interests, featuring books - many decades old - that speak to the same issues. Because they are not restricted to recent releases, they can do thematic promotions much better than retail outlets.

For more information on the Espresso Book Machine, check out OnDemandBooks. I notice that the 2.0 version is already much prettier than the machine seen in the video, although I think they should have chosen coffee colours, myself. The word Espresso and the colour blue just don't go together.

How do you think book machine would change your reading and buying habits if it becames the industry norm, or at least a common utility? And if you are involved in the publishing industry, what changes do you think it will bring to what you are doing? Do the possibilites excite you or frighten you?


Kathryn Magendie said...

Very interesting! I'm curious to see how all this works! I wonder at the expense of the machine - I guess as time goes on it will be cheaper, but small indie booksellers may not be able to get in on it....

Ed Pahule said...

I wouldn't use it, that's for sure. I'm a browser. I have no idea who or what I'm going to buy until I puruse the shelves.

Stick a machine there and say, pick something? Uh-uh. No way. Forget it. I'll hang out at the used bookstores that still sell BOOKS.

Janna Qualman said...

I really don't know how to look at it. Must think on it.

Janet said...

Kathryn, if I were an indie bookseller, I would even now be running to the bank for a loan.

Ed, I understand how you feel, which is why I think there will be a lot of booksellers who will still offer a good choice of physical books. The difference is, they would have printed them up themselves. They could afford to have only one copy of less popular books and replace them as they sold. It would lower their risk considerably, it seems to me. They could also provide terminals for online browsing, or online ordering for later pickup, eliminating delivery charges.

This could kill Amazon dead. Which could also be good news, as they have been strangling some publishers and indulging in bully-boy tactics.

And out-of-print clauses in author contracts would become entirely meaningless.

Janna, that means you're obliged to post on it when you're finished thinking. ;o)

Ed Pahule said...

Online browsing is virtually useless to me. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but I need the physical book so I can go sit in a corner somewhere and scan the pages at will to see if the book is worth my while.

And I never use Amazon unless I happen to already know the name of the book and can't find it at a brick and mortar store.

Janet said...

Ed, I think there are enough people that feel that way that the bookstore as we know it won't disappear. But it will morph.

And of course, there are always libraries. I still use them for finding books I want to buy.

kimmirich said...

Janet, I'm cool with the morphing as long as it doesn't disappear!! : )

Janet said...

Kimmi, I think most of the people buying physical books are going to want to see physical books. But this would also give booksellers greater freedom in what they wanted to stock. It will certainly be interesting to watch how things change over the years. I just happen to think that this particular technology will have a profound impact on the changes.

Alexander Field said...

Janet, this is fantastic. Since I work at a publishing company, I see the Print On Demand prices out there and there dreadfully I hope this machine can hammer the prices down low enough to make this cost effective for all! I love the idea of the bookstore having a few of these in the back...will this make printer irrelevant?

Janet said...

I don't know, Alex. The potential is there. I imagine that it could still be cost effective to do large print runs on very popular books, especially if the practice of returning unsold books is scrapped. But I just don't know enough about the nuts and bolts of the industry to speculate meaningfully.

If the catalogue of available books becomes large enough, the EBM could become a major player in reshaping the book industry, seeing as it's come on the scene when everything is in a state of flux anyway. If I had a used bookstore, I'd certainly want one of those babies. I think it currently has access to a lot of older out-of-print books.

If I were a publisher, I'd be lying awake nights trying to figure out how to best exploit the potential. Most of them will probably resist change, so the more adventurous could be getting a much-needed new revenue stream while everybody else is still lying around moaning. But seeing as they're experiencing a lot of difficulty right now, it will probably make them more open to new ideas. Some of the best business models are born in times of economic difficulty, because the barriers to change are that much lower.

Interesting times, for sure.


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