The deal has been done and print-on-demand Espresso Book Machines will be going into a major retail chain in due course - 60 Blackwells stores will have them, initially version 1.5, but eventually the more compact and faster version 2.0 (via The Bookseller). If the EBM follows Moore's law, you'll be able to buy one for your home in a short while!
Eoin Purcell remarks, in his blog post on this subject, that "When you consider the customer breakdown and the likely purchases that Blackwell encompasses, you see that they are almost ideally suited as a launch customer for the Espresso in the UK!" I generally agree with this assessment, although I think the list of titles available through the machine (1MM apparently) could be more or less skewed to the Blackwells market segment, depending on their strategy. Or in other words, could Blackwells use the EBM to leapfrog Borders or Waterstones in the UK by selling the long tail titles across all segments, categories and genres? Unlikely, I suppose, with just 60 stores, and that idea relies on readers/bookbuyers everywhere being very determined about what they want to buy next, and being constantly on the hunt for relatively obscure titles. Hmm, maybe not.
Oh, and... erm, 1 million titles! Where are they all coming from? Whose titles are they? Do you need a licence to POD? There must be solid answers to these questions out there... bit more googling ahead for me, I reckon...
By the magic of the intergnat, you can watch a POD book machine in action on YouTube (the video title says this is an EBM, but it's not... unless Perfect Book somehow means EBM):
The comments from YouTube users immediately highlight two concerns - how much will a book cost? and how long will the wait be?
These, apart from the logistics of running the machine, are the main challenges ahead of Blackwells: making it cheap, and keeping the customers entertained while they wait, either for the book they're buying, or for a chance to use the machine.
The EBM suppliers, On Demand, seem to be fully aware of this challenge, and are taking the line that getting the machines into stores and being used is the first step, and accommodating that process is important.
The logistics are not to be so lightly dismissed though: ink, paper, power, maintenance, staff on hand to help etc. Anyone who's seen the gradual rape and destruction of the office photocopier will know that complex machines don't last long in the hands of the many.
The immediate benefit of installing POD machines is the ability to sell long tail titles, right? Right. Faber is trying it over the web, with Faber Finds: putting a hook or two into the long tail waters, but only pulling out the fish that they like the look of. Blackwells is offering indiscriminate (within the 1MM title universe) fishing in the long tail sea.
Some people will see this as adding new strength to the self-publishing toolset that web 2.0 has put in the hands of potential authors everywhere (where there's broadband), giving Author X a cost-free route to market. But how will those titles be found? Just being inside the EBM gets you almost nowhere - getting the person in front of it to choose your book is what counts. Still, no small deal.
And that brings me to the point of selection - if I was standing in front of an EBM (which I have not done, and would like to do), what would I choose to print? How simple and usable is the user interface to select the book? What are my options for format etc., if any? Will the ATM of books be the headache of bookshopping, or the gateway to the modern day library of Alexandria?
Photo: Espresso Ahead by Laughing Squid / Scott Beale