Tag Archives: On Demand Books

One Small Publisher’s Experiences with the Espresso Book Machine from On-Demand Books

The following blog post first appeared on the Teleread Website:

As a small publisher of literary fiction, I am very grateful to have a retail resource like Espresso On-Demand Books.

Publerati will have three titles available through the Espresso Book Machine Network this spring, and although there are a number of unique challenges to marketing and selling books this way in the current retail climate, I remain optimistic that this, or something similar to follow, will be an important part of future print book distribution. The three available titles are Normal Family by Don Trowden, Dancing in the Kitchen by Susan Sterling, and Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney.

The first thing one has to accept is the eventual disappearance of most standalone bookstores.  Ouch.  I know, that hurts, and as a former bookseller myself I wish it were not so, but all the trends of the past ten years in book and other retailing (e.g., music, software, photos, DVD movies, florists, post offices) point to this reality.

In a future world where only the bestsellers and illustrated books are preprinted and sold mostly not through bookstores but in mass market channels like Target, supermarkets, and Amazon, how will the rest of the industry’s titles make it into print? How many standalone classes of retail trade can you think of in this day and age of the “huge general store”?  Why should books be any different and deserve their own dedicated space in the era of the store-within-store?

I wonder how Big Publishing will distribute the needed quantities of preprinted books when Barnes & Noble is gone. B&N is already barely surviving due to selling more non-book items, while quietly closing underperforming stores, so this trend is established. These trends don’t just simply turn around and change direction suddenly because we hope they will. The only way B&N might survive is to become a general store themselves, with less merchandising space given to lower margin books. Which is what they have been doing and so have indie bookstores. For years.

My experience with On-Demand Books has been excellent.  I received the necessary advance training to learn how to format and upload our titles correctly. Because the machines are so groundbreaking and mostly under-utilized in these early days, the operators at the various locations have been open to hearing from me as a small publisher and working together on store signings and promotions. There is no way I would get similar attention from the current physical book channels.

As a publisher, this changes how books are discovered in a similar way to ebooks.  I don’t have the opportunity for “stumble-and-find” retail book browsing, which I know is very important.  So I have to direct market to my own list of ebook purchasers and opt-in newsletter subscribers  the news that they can now go anywhere in the world where an Espresso Book Machine exists and request a printed copy.

I believe in the digital-first, print-second approach for the future of most entertainment content. Pay less for a digital copy and then only buy a print edition if you want to own it. You know…hold it. Sleep with it. MP3, vinyl. Whatever you’re into.

For Publerati, having all our literary fiction titles available through the most popular ebook channels and then also in print at retail via Espresso On-Demand,  constitutes a new business model I can believe in for the future. And one great benefit of this new efficiency is we can pay our authors the bulk of the royalties while also donating to literacy charities like Worldreader.

— Caleb Mason

Why I Believe in the Future of Print-on-Demand Books

Back in 1995 when I worked in the photo industry, where the existing infrastructure in 35mm film, cameras, and long-life photo paper worldwide amounted to billions of dollars, many of the people working in that industry were dismissive of digital photography and the future of print-on-demand retail kiosks. The costs were prohibitive, the machines were too expensive and unreliable, and retailers would not want them. The list of reasons denying their future viability was extensive.

Today, one finds tens of thousands of these machines in chain drugstores, supermarkets, and mass merchants, albeit producing far fewer prints than in the 35mm heyday of wholesale photofinishing labs pumping out 50,000 rolls a night, guaranteed next-day or free just to add to the pressure. Back then, research showed the typical consumer was pleased with three good prints out of a roll of thirty-six (talk about progress, now they can see what they are getting before printing). That was a lot of photos that went directly into the trash or were stuffed under the bed in a shoebox, before ending up in the trash when future generations wondered just who the hell everyone was back then and why anyone would care.

The success of modern onsite digital photo machines is in great measure due to their role in bringing customers into stores knowing they will buy other goods while there. If you look at a Walgreens today, you will notice they continue to promote two services on the exteriors of their buildings: pharmacy and photo. I HAVE to go into a drugstore or supermarket every week; I DO NOT HAVE to go into a bookstore for months unless I want to buy a printed book in that way. (Sadly, in my experience lately, better independent bookstores are stocking fewer and fewer titles to make room for merchandise I do not care about, so increasingly I shop for books online or at Goodwill, the local bookstore of our time.) Sigh.

So now we enter the era of change for books, similar and also different to the photo industry of twenty years ago. We have early innovators such as On-Demand Books with their Espresso Book Network for printing high-quality paperbacks in minutes, and I expect they face an entrenched group of interests eager to maintain the status quo, hoping they will “simply go away.”  I believe there is nearly as much waste and inefficiency in printed books as there was with those old unacceptable (but accepted then!) “three good photo” stats in the days of 35mm film, when you could not possibly know what you were getting until you held the paid-for print in hand, excitedly flipping through them clandestinely in your car like a lotto ticket scratcher on a bender. (And apparently it was so important that those three good photos arrive the next day!)

I wonder how many books truly need to be printed on the paper they consume. Why not read a book digitally first and then if you love it and want to own it “forever” (or until your kids chuck it once you move on), buy a hardcover or paperback edition, along the lines of what happens with the books we call “classics.” (You know, like Fifty Shades of Grey, which the publishing industry rescued from the seedy world of self-publishing, thank God.)  Owning a print collection of the The World’s Great Novels or the The World’s Great Thinkers makes sense to me; owning a novel or celebrity biography that is just okay or a colossal disappointment to many (which happens all the time, just scan the reviews of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch as one example) strikes me as a huge environmental waste of perfectly good trees.

If you look at the space in a Rite Aid or the Photo Center of your supermarket, you will see most have room for a print-on-demand book machine. On-Demand Books recently announced that a hoped-for relationship with Kodak fell through, but Fuji is in fact the company with the most installed photo machines, precisely because Kodak was slow to the new game, hoping their existing 35mm infrastructure would not collapse as quickly as it did. And they had the largest global infrastructure invested in the century-old ways, racing to get those thirty-three bad prints back to you, whereas Fuji and Konica exited those businesses more rapidly instead of making further investments to gain short-term new business. The book machine at mass retail cost-justification is different than what the bookstore faces, in that drugstores and supermarkets are always looking for stores-within-stores to bring customers in more frequently and raise the average total amount spent, so the machine payback does not need to be as stringent as in the standalone bookstore scenario.

The purpose of these book machines, which will come down in price over time and become more reliable to operate, is to attract more overall business to your store. Fuji, Xerox, and Konica have large field-service organizations already servicing copiers and photo machines in mass market locations, so they can add the book machine to the list of reasons they need to be in the stores (e.g., supplying more paper, getting paid “per copy,” installing and servicing their latest machines, making money off  lucrative service agreements).

I believe this business model will be far better for society, including for many authors, who via the current business practices see their books declared out-of-print prematurely to avoid wasteful publisher returns from retail, a truly preposterous way of doing business. As bookselling consolidated power to the large chains and publishing conglomerates, the time a book other than a bestseller was given to prove itself on shelf was a matter of months, obviously not sufficient time to support a non-bestseller book launch.

Print-on-demand will eliminate the truckloads of books literally bought by the pound on pallets from publisher warehouses to be remaindered and trashed. Those making the case for how special writers are versus other product producers should witness that humbling spectacle.

I expect what will happen over the next ten years is standalone book superstores will be forced to close their doors in increasing numbers if not completely, which will continue the shift of book distribution into food, drug, and mass merchant retail outlets, as well as online. Amazon might buy RadioShack, and install a bunch, who knows?  Print-on-demand machines will become more affordable and offer wider publisher selection to match online inventories, as the machines make their way into mass merchants. The books that truly deserve to be pre-printed will continue that way through fewer and fewer independent bookstores, as well as schools and libraries—children’s books and art books most notably—while fiction and non-fiction titles will continue migrating to digital first, with more print-on-demand in the mix.

As was the case with Kodak, the largest and most channel undiversified of the current publishers will face the fastest declines when the transition accelerates, given their disproportionate stakes in old infrastructures. And similar to Kodak and Polaroid twenty years ago, I can hear them dismissing this line of thought as I type. The two greatest gifts the gods gave man: rationalization and denial, are also two of the most dangerous. Book people, of all people, should know this.

Publishers, unlike Kodak, at least control a great deal of terrific content, so their challenge will be more about managing the distribution shift over time, as well as eventually being forced to pay their authors better royalties in order to keep them from fleeing. If you accept that statement as a given, then they also will need to earn more per copy sold than they do currently, which I believe ebooks and print-on-demand can help them accomplish. Paying a reseller 55-60% of a book’s cover price right off the bat simply does not leave enough operating income to sustain most publishers or authors.

— Caleb Mason, Publerati

Espresso Print-on-Demand at Books-a-Million Maine Store

Sometimes living in Maine has unexpected advantages beyond lobster, seaside air, and friendly people, as I discovered yesterday when learning one of the newest beta sites for the Espresso Print-on-Demand system was being unveiled at a South Portland Books-a-Million store. Publerati is located in nearby Portland. 

Oddly enough, Maine was also a test-market back in 1995 when Time Warner was rolling out its national Road Runner program, which I got involved with when working for Konica in the photo industry, who had a photo processing plant in South Portland. TW Cable was eager to see if a high-speed photo system would have consumer appeal. And now we have Facebook.

 
I stopped in to snap some photos and visited with the nice people running the machine as well as a rep from NYC working with Espresso On-Demand and the local PR agency Burgess Advertising. There was a ribbon-cutting event, music, and food. Well done. Some kids were crawled up on the floor watching intently as the demo book passed through the machine, very cute.
 
Here is a photo of the store-within-store On-Demand space, which is very similar to what Fuji and Kodak did fifteen years ago in supermarkets, drug stores, and mass retail, set off in a corner:

Here is the machine combination, which in this case is a Xerox book assembly, gluing/binding machine that allows you to watch like an old-fashioned taffy machine, and then a Konica Minolta printer. I was told different configurations are being tested but given that I worked for Konica years ago, I know how strong their R&D and onsite service people are so would not be surprised to see them in the wider rollout over the coming years. Not many people know that the founder of Konica and the founders of HP were friends in the 1950s and several Konica patents are included in HP products.  Here is the machine combo up close:
The Konica printer is the black machine on the right that looks like a woodstove, perfect for life in Maine! Wonder how many BTUs that thing throws off in wintah? That would close the deal for many around here for sure.
 
Here are some books, which take on average 7-10 minutes to produce from soup to nuts, including this color example of a Peter Rabbit public domain book, which looks great when done. All the paper is archival quality, similar to how the photo machines in mass retail now provide long-life paper you cannot get off your home printer. I was unable to find out about the longevity of the inks, however, which would be important to know for all these POD books.
Okay, so possibly you wonder why this matters? My own view is it will matter more in other types of retail formats than it will in current book superstore configurations, but for now it allows a retailer to print books for self-published authors as well as out-of-print books for large publishers, such as HarperCollins. 
 
It allows any book that is provided through Espresso On-Demand in the suitable PDF format (one for the cover, one for the content), to be available to someone who might not otherwise be able to find it. And it allows any individual to have their own books produced, even simple photo scrapbooks, along the lines of how one goes to the Staples Copy Center.
 
This picture shows how the important cross-merchandising can happen in the store:
As the technology improves and the pricing comes down (this is not going to be a break-even venture for some time probably, but I am sure the investors behind everyone involved are willing to float some beta testing units while working out the kinks and building consumer demand), I envision these units in some Starbucks, airports, “A” store supermarkets, which have the highest repeat traffic of any retail format, and some drug stores already printing photos. The advantages these retailers have over bookstores is the average person is there several times a week.
 
I hope the better indie bookstores will be able to offer these as well as they do a great job of buying selected pre-printed books that appeal to the tastes of their clientele while also being able to serve the local market through the new POD capability and author events. 
In photo, more of this business actually went direct online than into retail. We now have Shutterfly and others who have self-service Web ordering systems online (e.g., your computer, tablet, or phone), so expect Amazon to be a player in this space as well. And I would also expect the total number of books consumed in print to decline similar to what happened with photos, where far, far fewer are printed now than fifteen years ago. So the on-demand retail store product mixes will be important to watch and a nightmare to plan for as retail space declines in total for books.
Publerati will offer our ebook fiction through Espresso On-Demand to supplement the delivery we are already getting through the Overdrive system to libraries and some retail. I hope we can do author signings using these machines and retail locations. But I personally believe the majority of books will be read digitally in the future and if you simply must own it and put it on a shelf, that option will exist for those special cases. Just like I choose to own the DVD for “Gone with the Wind.”
 
Bringing this back to Maine, we have seen better than many how the decline in paper consumption has put many paper manufacturers out of business here and cost so many jobs. It is sad, but we need to face the truth, which is the world will spin on its merry way without us and not care a hoot.
I know there is much more about this that I do not know so welcome comments from those with more information. I wanted to share these photos and thoughts realizing this is another instance of technology being early to the game but with the potential to play a key role in a few years. And, go figure, it happened to be going on right in my neighborhood.
 
— Caleb