Technology on display at the book industry convention in Chicago earlier this month promises to make book warehouses a thing of the past and bring old titles back from the stacks.
The industry has heard these promises before - notably from Xerox - but now the world's largest book distributor, Ingram, is making the promise, and publishers are paying attention.
Lightning Print, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ingram, debuted a new "on demand" printing system from IBM that can almost instantly produce old or new books as they are ordered.
The process promises benefits far beyond the gee-whiz factor. Traditional publishers must estimate each potential market carefully. If they print too few copies of a title, they miss potential sales; if they print too many, costs for returning, storing, and disposing can swallow a book's profit. That risk discourages publishers from printing or holding titles that aren't expected to sell quickly.
"On demand" printing could allow books to remain available even if they sell only a few dozen copies a year. The process also promises new life for books that have gone out of print. As long as a single copy exists, the book can be scanned for about $150, stored indefinitely in a digital library, and reproduced along with its original full-color cover for less than $5 a copy - far below the typical cost of storing a supply of books or bringing a title back into print.
At the start of one demonstration, a publisher said, "We won't really be interested until you can produce high quality books like this." He didn't realize he was pointing to a flawless reproduction made that morning.
Larry Brewster, vice president of Lightning Print, says, "Using this system, publishers won't have any incentive to take books out of print. They'll just move books into a digital library" and call for copies as they need them. "Publishers won't have to miss an order because they don't have a book on hand."
David Valenti has an even more radical idea in mind for publishing. His new company, called NetBooks.com, hopes to bypass publishers, distributors, shippers, and even paper itself.
Surfers to the NetBooks Web page can browse titles, read author biographies, and watch brief video interviews with authors. If they like what they see, they can order a book with a credit card and immediately download the text onto their own computer. Transmission of an average-length book takes about 10 minutes.
"We brought 12 authors on originally, and now we're getting ready to bring on another six," says Mr. Valenti. "At the convention we've talked to 40 or 50 authors who're interested, and we're already sitting down with publishers to establish relationships."
Valenti admits NetBooks is a tiny player at the moment, but he says the software giant Microsoft Corp. has expressed an interest in releasing audio books through his company.
At least one printer isn't fazed by these moves into the electronic ether. Martin Pugh, who represents a Hong Kong publisher in Denver, says there will always be a need for specialty printers.
Among other things, Mr. Pugh's firm prints a series of children's books with glass eyes imbedded into the pages by hand.
"Lots of people in the publishing world are frightened by any changes," Pugh says while one of his books stares at us. "But if you do something well, you'll survive."