16 July 08 | Chad W. Post

Today’s Shelf Awareness points to an interview on Vermont Public Radio with Lucy Gardner Carson of Northshire Books, one of the few places in the country with an Espresso Book Machine.

The EBM was hailed as a way of creating an “unlimited backlist” where customers could come and print out any title they wanted. And as the technology evolved and the machine gets slicker and smaller, it could become more like an “ATM-like bookshop,” with locations throughout the world. . . .

Of course, this idea of preserving old, hard-to-find books and making them available to readers isn’t the cause of the VPR interview:

Since it was installed, some of the store’s customers have been using the machine to produce hard-to-find books from a huge online database of titles in the public domain. But the store has discovered that the machine is most popular with would-be authors who want to turn what they’ve written into a book.

The short piece—complete with Kinko’s like background noise of books being printed and bound—focuses on the people who come in and get their books printed. Some of the titles Lucy mentions are a college dissertation, a book in Russian about World War II, and a genealogical book that someone printed for a family reunion.

Unless the author prevents it, all of these titles are then made available for sale, and the author can set the retail price and receives 100% of the difference between the retail price and cost of production for each copy sold.

First off, I hope Northshire adds on some service fees to that cost of production, so that they can capitalize on this as it becomes more and more popular (and it inevitably will since this allows aspiring authors to avoid the horrible negligence of the publishing industy).

But the vision of a bookstore as a sort of Kinko’s, or a bricks-and-mortar version of iUniverse sends shivers down my spine. I think of bookstores as one of the gatekeepers of culture, not as a one-stop shop where you can buy Ulysses and print that collection of poems you’ve been putting together.

I’m probably just cynical . . . In party because I’ve never really bought into this Espresso Book Machine idea. The future seems to be more in the ebook realm than in a clunky machine that creates cheap paperbacks. Of course, the ebook world will be subject to way more vanity publications that anything else. . . .

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