By Kevin Meyer
Many years ago Bill and I authored the Evolving Excellence book which was basically a collection of some our favorite early blog posts. To simplify the process we used a new self-publishing print-on-demand outfit called iUniverse, which counted Barnes & Noble as a primary investor. Back then that was a new technology and sort of obscure, and although the book turned out well we did give up some ancillary services typical provided by traditional publishers, like marketing.
Today self-publishing and especially print-on-demand has become widespread, and companies like iUniverse have evolved to provide the full spectrum of services from editing to broad marketing. At the same time I'm being told more and more stories of how traditional publishers are disappointing their authors, particularly in terms of marketing.
Perhaps the Espresso, a self-contained print-on-demand machine inside bookstores that creates a book in minutes, will hasten the change. Demand-based production in units of one is about as close to lean manufacturing as one can get.
As bookstores disappear across America, some small operators are pursuing a novel survival strategy: The bookless bookshelf. Their vision was aided Thursday by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. which said it would make about 5,000 current paperbacks available to bookstores through On Demand Books LLC's Espresso Book Machine. The desk-sized device can custom print a book in just a few minutes. That means even if a physical copy is not in stock, it's still available almost immediately.
"What I'd like to see is all the major publishers make their titles available so that we can capture the sales that we're currently losing by not having books available," said Chris Morrow, co-owner of the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt., which installed an Espresso Book Machine in January 2008 and prints about 100 books a week.
HarperCollins estimates 25% to 80% of its trade paperback titles aren't available in bookstores because of space considerations.
Of course there's a cost involved, right? Nope.
Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, said that the paperbacks printed by Espresso will list for the same price as the traditional paperback version.
Sounds great… except for one small factor: the rapid shift from reading physical to electronic books. Last year Amazon reported that for the first time it sold more e-books than physical books. I know it's rare for me to order a physical book these days – basically the only ones I read are the numerous review copies I receive. Everything else is read either on my iPad or Kindle.
One leading publisher who asked not to be identified said his company is unlikely to make more titles available, in part because they are concerned that bookstores with the machines might then order fewer titles. Machines, this person said, don't help market books.
Perhaps in the traditional way. But the machine also prevents the usual 25%+ of books that are simply thrown away when bookstores hold too much stock.
Waste that is built into price and therefore detracts from value.