Have We Glimpsed the Future of Book Publishing?
By Michael Stillman
The future of book publishing may be on display at the New York Public Library through the end of August. We say "may" because no one really knows what the future holds. Perhaps we could have foreseen that music would migrate from records to tapes to CDs, but who, a decade or so ago, would have seen it migrating to mps3 files, downloaded from the internet, there never being a physical object which changed hands? Certainly not the record stores. So where is book publishing going?
It is harder to see books being replaced by non-physical objects as records were, because physical presence is more of a tradition with the written word than it is with music. Certainly, the underlying purpose of books, information, is non-physical, so they can be replaced with downloadable files, to be read on a computer monitor. There are books which can be purchased or read this way, and undoubtedly this form of reading will grow. Still, the book as downloadable data file has not caught on nearly to the extent that digitized music has, and this reflects the greater appreciation of the physical form of books. This brings us to the exhibition at the New York Public Library, which is something in between traditionally published books and downloadable ones.
On display is the first Espresso Book Machine to be installed. This contraption is the handiwork of On Demand Books, which kind of gives away what it does. This is the public edition of the behind the scenes equipment that spins out the ubiquitous "books on demand" that have flooded so many listing sites. The intention of On Demand Books is that one day these machines will be located in your local libraries and bookstores. Any book, old or new, so long as it is in the machine's database, will be available in your hometown on a moment's notice, freshly minted, night or day.
At the New York Public's Science, Industry and Business Library, visitors (at least the lucky ones) will get to print from a selection of public domain classics at no charge. It apparently takes only a couple of minutes for the machine to print and paper bind one of these books. While examples of books that can be printed, such as Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick, are readily available elsewhere, in time, and with a large enough database of titles, the Espresso could undoubtedly print off any obscurity imaginable. Just plug it into the internet and begin building your library.
While print-on-demand isn't new, such books now being sold through online listing sites, offering it locally is. This will provide even more instant instant-gratification for those not willing to wait for shipments to arrive (such as students with a report due tomorrow), and probably, in time, the ability to add custom features, like your own cover, or a printed personal dedication from Grandpa to little Billy. Best of all, if print-on-demand books are available locally, maybe we won't see the antiquarian and used book sites filled with these listings which make it hard to locate the traditional books we are trying to find.