Guest blog: Espresso print-on-demand machines jolt the book business

Now you can find just about any book that you want. Is that necessarily a good thing?

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    The Espresso book machine can print, bind, and trim a 300-page book in about four minutes.

    Photo courtesy of On Demand Books
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The Internet took a lot of the thrill out of book collecting. The fun of finding a much-wanted rarity after years of prowling used bookstores was replaced by an instant search and, usually, an equally instant find.

Now that the hunt is no longer the main point of the hobby, though, it returns to what probably should have been its main focus all along: enjoying the books that we can now so easily acquire. With digitizing projects and print-on-demand technology, older or obscure books are becoming not just available, but – in instant new editions – affordable. They don’t come with yellowed pages or leather bindings, the sensory touches that make my collector’s heart race, but the parts that matter still remain.

At Third Place Books just outside Seattle, the lead employee for that store’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine is chronicling this new chapter in the suddenly swift-moving world of publishing. Most recently, he wrote about how the store printed stacks of a Haitian Creole-English dictionary to be sent to medical workers responding to the Haiti earthquake. I’ve been following with interest his accounts of the older books customers are requesting, like “Walking: a fine art as practised by Naturalists and explained by Original Contributions to this Volume, and by Quotations from the published works of those who Love to dally along country lanes.”

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Another Seattle bookstore just acquired the Espresso Book Machine, and the city’s alt-weekly, The Stranger, pointed me to this blog post from a bookseller on the positive changes it could bring to the industry. “Think of it: all the books that Helene Hanff had to write to 84 Charing Cross Road [about] in the sometimes vain hope of her booksellers finding affordable copies for her, can now be reprinted in minutes!” he wrote. “I know, because the list of titles from Hanff's memoir was the first list of titles I checked for availability, and yes, they can all be had through the EBM!”

Of course, without the need for Hanff to write a faraway bookstore to search out those titles, there would have been no long, fulfilling relationship between Hanff and her booksellers, and no “84 Charing Cross Road” book of her own to chronicle those days. Like everything else in the world of books and technology, we give something up for every leap forward.

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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