Dead Trees Strike Back!

by wjw on May 25, 2012

Someone pointed me at the online edition of Forbes, which features an article about an independent bookstore that is, contrary to about every other independent bookstore in the country, thriving in the current ebook-saturated environment.

Jeff Mayersohn, the new owner of the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, managed to create a bookstore even more efficient than Amazon.

How?  He installed an Espresso Book Machine, a small printing press that can take a digital file and produce a perfect-bound hard copy in something like four minutes. It even takes care of sending royalties to the right person.

(I sorta want one of these for my house.)

The EBM has access to something like five million titles (none of them, I suspect, mine).  And at the Harvard Bookstore, you don’t even have to show up at the bookstore to get your book.

If you live in Cambridge and neighboring communities, you can order online and get any book delivered the same day by an eco-friendly Metroped “pedal-truck,” or a bicycle, as I like to call them.

Even Amazon takes overnight.

There’s been a lot of money and attention sunk into print-on-demand technology— Borders put a lot of money into it, to no discernible result— but here it is, finally. And it’s not just at Harvard Books, it’s at Blackwells, McNally-Jackson, and others.

Can you imagine one of these in every library in the world?

You can now run a bookstore out of a kiosk, and more efficiently than Barnes & Noble in a big box shopping-mall store.  You cut the distributor out of the mix, and— at least in the case of out-of-copyright works— the publisher, too.  More profit for the entrepreneur, cheaper books for the masses.

And in the very near future, the bookstore kiosk sits next to the kiosk with the 3D printer that can print any tool or toy in the world.

Which is next to the pharmacy that can print any drug?  (Yeah, they’re working on that.)

(And which will finally bid a farewell to our stupid drug laws.)

Here’s the EBM in action.

You take your drugs, I’ll take mine.




Sean Craven May 25, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Dude, why not drop them a line and find out whether or not they’re interested? They’d be idiots not to want to take advantage of author’s back lists — file space is not the same as warehouse space. They have nothing to lose.

Erich Schneider May 25, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Sadly, our stupid drug laws will take priority, and the only people not getting by with government-hobbled print-any-drug machines will be organized crime syndicates.

Paul Duncanson May 26, 2012 at 12:27 am

They are interested. The EBM site has a lot of detail on how to make your books available through their EspressNet network. It looks like they actually want to make it easy for you to sell your books through them. You’re probably more than half-way there with the work you’ve done making your own ebooks (they want page layouts and covers as PDFs).

Not Todd May 26, 2012 at 12:55 am

How can something so obvious and useful not have been sued into non-existence yet?

Jack Skillingstead May 27, 2012 at 6:27 am

A couple of local (Seattle) book stores have these machines. It’s fascinating to watch one produce a book. I’m ok with e books, and even own a Kindle. But I am a print lover at heart. This may well peg me as a member of a dying generation of readers. I hope not.

wjw May 27, 2012 at 6:56 am

Erich>> yes, but the drug syndicates themselves will be swamped with locals printing up homebrew. Drugs will be so ubiquitous that enforcement will become meaningless.

I will indeed check these guys out for my own work, for all that I hate working with PDFs.

ken Houghton May 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Amazon delivers same-day in NYC, though probably not by velocipede.

I’m not convinced “efficiency” should be a goal of independent bookstores. They cannot compete on volume/price, so they need to facilitate “browsing.” (I can get a copy of 11/22/63 at Costco If I see it next to Night Shift, I might be more inclined to buy the latter “on impulse”–or both for one-stop convenience.)

Rebecca May 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I worked at HBS for two years when I first moved to Boston. 🙂 I get a little bit dizzy with happiness whenever I see them make the news like this. So many good bookstores have folded over the years, but if any one of them had to survive, I’m selfishly glad it is this one (so far).

It’s a very good place, and the people who run it are wonderful.

Jerry June 6, 2012 at 3:40 am

How about these books’ quality – any idea? Just for the record, I am the guy who – the first time you brought it up – offered to pay whatever you wanted, within reason (more than the forty bucks each you quoted), for beautifully-bound, limited-run, Walter Jon Williams- inscribed copies of some of your masterworks. How about if I say “Pretty Please?” You shouldn’t tease your fans this way!

wjw June 6, 2012 at 6:28 am

The books are, so far as I can tell, perfectly ordinary perfect-bound paperbacks.

I will eventually have all my books available from these folks, as well as in various other print-on-demand formats, but right now I’m concentrating in epub, which actually makes real money. POD would be pretty, but the profits would be pretty slim.

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