The Espresso Book Machine is called it the ATM of books – when it first debuted in 2006, On Demand Books, its parent company, invited the public to imagine one in every corner bookstore, ready for a consumer to insert a credit card, punch a button and receive a bound book, ready to read. If you’re not familiar with EBMs, check out this video.
See what I mean? Super-cool. You can see understand why Time Magazine hailed it as a one of the best inventions of 2007. But if you aren’t familiar with it, you’re not alone. Since their introduction, EBMs haven’t exactly become a household name – five years later there are still only a few dozen machines in the country. (And let’s not get diverted by a discussion of disappearing corner bookstores – it’s too depressing.)
I first heard about the Espresso Book Machine in an article written by Steve Almond, author of “Candyfreak.” (Between his name and the book name, there must be a joke about Almond Joy candy bars, but so far it’s eluded me.) He was high on the ability to self-publish; as he explained it, even though he had a conventional publisher, he had book ideas that his agent was less than enthusiastic about, and the EBM allowed him to produce them without investing a fortune.
I year or so later I had a chance to buy one of his self-published books at a conference. Almond assured the audience that these books were only available in person, from him, and he only took cash. Who could resist such a sales pitch? After the talk, I queued up with a group of eager readers in the front of the room. It felt like I imagine buying crack would, with all the furtive crumpled bills and change negotiation, but I walked away with a slim volume of essays and short stories.
Almond’s self-publishing venture probably worked financially because he was publishing a small book and selling it himself (all that cash!) rather than through a distributor who would need to take a cut. I’ve heard other stories about self-publishing on the EBM that haven’t turned out so well – the books cost so much that it’s difficult to make a profit.
But I want to see EBMs succeed, and I think they can do so by providing a valuable link between print-on-demand publishing and customers. Imagine you’ve self-published a book, and that it could be printed on an EBM – your customer would not have to special-order a book and come in later to pick it up. Instead, they could order book contents that would be delivered electronically and special-printed on an in-store EBM. (It would be another nail in the Post Office coffin, but I don’t think one more will make a difference at this point.) If you have a chance to see an EBM in action, let me know if you got a book out of it and how you liked it.