For at least two decades, people have been talking about putting book printing right in the bookstore. The approach has the potential to solve a lot of problems: the bookstore (and its customers) can select from a very deep inventory, without having to have all those books (and multiple copies of many of them) on hand. Returns are essentially eliminated. There’s no warehousing, and no shipping costs. The main problems have been: creating reliable hardware and systems that are easy to use but produce high-quality books, convincing publishers to go along with the scheme, and making it sufficiently economical to buy and run the equipment.
It looks like all the pieces may finally be falling into place. On Demand Books (www.ondemandbooks.com), with their Espresso Book Machine, seems to have come up with the right hardware. The company says the machine is printing 100 books per day in the bookstore of the University of Alberta. Their deal with LightningSource (signed in April 2008) might be the key to getting access to a huge volume of books that the Espresso could print in the stores. And, with the cost of the hardware between $50,000 and $100,000 and the consumables cost per book at roughly a penny a page, the economics are at least plausible for a fairly large bookstore.
Officially, the ten sites (including bookstores and libraries) where the Espresso is installed are beta test sites. But the results are promising. Assuming On Demand Machines can eventually replicate the Alberta success in dozens of other locations, I think this marks a change in the book printing world even more profound than the change initiated by LightningSource ten years ago, when it proved that producing single copies of books, on demand, could be profitable.