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Book Machines

The book world changed drastically seven years ago through two very different machines.

One changed the way we read, and the other has aimed to radically alter the book supply chain.

The first machine was a hand-held electronic device that allowed one to store and read books.

On November 19, 2007, the first Kindle Readers were released by Amazon—and sold out in four and a half hours.

Over the intervening period, this new technology would revolutionize reading habits and book reproduction expectations, and permanently alter the book industry.

Recall that nine months after the introduction of Amazon’s “Kindle Reader,” almost a quarter of a million people owned one of the devices. Consequently, demand for e-books skyrocketed—a demand that increases to this day.

In 2008, a year after the introduction of the Kindle Reader, around 63 million e-books were sold. As of last year, that number has ballooned to 512 million.

In fact, today it is estimated that more than 30% of all new book sales are e-books.

As the current dustup with Hachette and the continued growth of e-book sales indicates, Amazon has become a force to be reckoned with in the book industry, especially since this company controls about half of all book sales.

Nevertheless, the release of the e-reader was not the only way that the book world was revolutionized seven years ago. Rather, there was another major announcement around the same time that the Kindle Reader was taking the book world by storm—namely, the release of a portable book production machine.

In 2007, with independent bookstores dizzied by the possibility of people walking around with their entire book collection stored on a hand-held device and worried that the public would no longer need them, the “Espresso Book Machine” (EBM) was introduced at BookExpo America. Widely promoted as “an ATM for books,” this so-called “book machine” was about the size of a large office copier with the ability to print-out a paperback book in about the time it takes to make a latte.

The 2007 version (1.5) of the EBM was about 8’ × 5’ and printed about 40 pages per minute. The subsequent model (2.0) was to be even smaller (5’ × 4’) and faster (80 pages per minute). Initially costing as much as $185,000, but today retailing for less than half of that, $85,000, the book machine was anticipated by its developers to be commonplace in “public and academic libraries, bookstores, coffee shops, university bookstores, university presses, hotels, US post offices and other government offices, reprographic shops, supermarkets, mass retailers, cruise ships, UN agencies, etc.”

Manufactured and marketed by On Demand Books LLC, the book machine was touted as promising “to revolutionize book publishing, distribution and sales.”

Company co-founder and CEO, Dane Neller, former President and CEO of Dean & Deluca (1997-2005), said that he hoped “to have installed over 500 EBM’s by the end of 2009.”

“Bookstores will be able to reconfigure their floor space to sell faster moving, higher margin inventory and rely on the Espresso for mid- and backlist books,” said Neller.

“With the EBM no book need ever go out of print, and any book in any language can be available anywhere in the world,” continued Neller in a 2007 interview. “More books will be published efficiently i.e., supply will be matched by demand.”

The revolutionary rhetoric of the founders was symbolized by their choice of location for the first two public book machine installations.

In April of 2006, the previous year, the first beta version of the book machine was installed in the World Bank Infoshop in Washington, DC. In September of the same year, a second beta machine was installed in The Library of Alexandria, Egypt.

Placing the first machine in the epicenter of the neoliberal economy, the World Bank in DC, and the other at the site of the allegedly greatest book collection of antiquity, the library of Alexandria, symbolized everything that needed to be known about the machine and its co-founders. They expected the machine to dominate the global book market by...