Despite the rapid rise in popularity of electronic books, nobody thinks physical books are dead–not quite yet. And that means there may be a market for this oddly retro device from U.K. bookseller Blackwell: It’s an on-demand printing mill. You simply choose a book from its catalog, push a button and wait for your printout.
Blackwell is dubbing it the “Espresso Book Machine” because buying a book from it is roughly equivalent to stopping at a coffee shop counter for a quick burst of Java. Inside is all the technology required to produce a physical copy of a book from a digital archive–a printer that churns out 105 pages a minute, and all the paper handling, folding and cutting machinery needed to fashion the book from the printed pages and then finish it with binding, gluing and a cover in about five minute.
The idea is that it should speed up the process of getting your hands on a difficult-to-find, or even out of print book. The device, on trial in a London store, has an archive of some 400,000 texts but Blackwell hopes to expand this to a million in the Summer. You can even turn up with your own novel on a USB stick, and walk away with a professionally bound copy (book tour and reviews sold separately). Pricing is slightly steep, with out-of-print books going for 10p per page–a 300-page work will set you back £30 ($44). Other books will cost roughly the same as a typical book on the shelves.
Blackwell is planning to install EBMs in shops across the U.K. If the trial is successful, the machine could rival cheap sales of books at supermarkets, and online book sellers like Amazon.
But does the espresso book machine have a future in our increasingly digital age? Yes, I think it probably does. While it’s all very exciting to read an e-book, and there are efforts underway by Google and others to bring archives of out-of-print texts to the internet with just a click, it’s just not the same as a real book. The physical interaction you have with a book you’re reading is very powerful. Losing $350 worth of electronics when you take it out in the rain is very different to having to dry out a paperback book over a radiator for a day. Personally I spent a month last year digitizing every photo, DVD, CD and even birthday card we’d been hoarding in drawers, in a geekish effort to take my family’s life all-digital. But I balked at digitizing our library, and not just because of the effort involved: I love books.
Good luck to Blackwell–it’s great to see a neat bit of retro-futuristic thinking employed by a bricks and mortar bookstore.