Bookseller Addresses Books-On-Demand: A Winning Proposition?

An Espresso book-making machine at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan

My friend Alan Beatts, proprietor of Borderlands Books in San Francisco, one of the country’s largest science fiction and fantasy specialty stores (with a wonderful attached bakery and coffee shop!), recently carried out research on the feasibility of purchasing an Espresso Books-on-Demand machine for his store. I’m proud to say my blog article on the future of the literary ecosystem sparked his interest in contacting one of the On Demand Books Company’s sales reps and running figures on various purchase and leasing options. Plus, the sales rep shared with Alan utilization figures from bookstores which are already operating Espresso machines.

What Alan discovered makes for very interesting reading, particularly for anyone interested in bookstores, book retailing, and micro-press publishing.

Alan writes that it can be financially feasible, even profitable, for a medium to large-size bookstore to purchase and operate an Espresso Books-on-Demand machine, even given the machine’s not inconsiderable hundred-thousand dollar price tag, plus thousands of additional dollars in licensing fees for the machine’s software. However, the experience of booksellers who have already invested in one of the units indicates that, especially in the earliest years of operation, the bulk of the machine’s usage comes not from customers purchasing commercially available books-on-demand, but rather from self-publishers:

“… (H)ere’s the surprise — most of the books sold are neither public domain titles via Google nor are they in-print titles from publishers. In the first year, 90% of the books printed by the current crop of in-store POD machines are self-published by customers of the bookstore. In other words, someone comes into the store with an electronic file of their book, gives it to the store, and then the store prints it for them on the EBM.”

This finding dovetails quite neatly with my proposition in the comments to my earlier article that “independent book sellers who opt to lease a machine do so in some sort of partnership with a group of regional small presses (and self-publishers) in their area, spreading the costs of the lease across a wider group of benefitted parties.” This kind of partnership, if in an ad-hoc fashion, is already developing, centered on the few dozen bookstores which currently run Espresso book making machines.

Alan makes some very pertinent points, however, about the level of hand-holding required from the owners and operators of the Espresso machine when working with self-publishers and micro-press publishers, versus the considerably lower level of effort and customer service required to simply print out commercially available books-on-demand. He suggests that not all bookstore owners will want their stores and staffs to become equivalent of Kinko’s Copies.

However, some store owners will find ways to make it work, both for themselves, their book-buying customers, and micro-publishers in their area. If enough bookstore owners and micro-publishers move to the model I suggest in my “future of the literary ecosystem” article, economies of scale begin to apply, and cooperative networks of writers, micro-publishers, and booksellers will be able to rapidly multiply.

Read Alan’s article. It’ll get you thinking…

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