The future of books

Choose what you want to read and ten minutes later, this machine prints it out. Impressive eh? But the humble book is to undergo even more transformations

  • 06 COPIER Copier.jpg

    Instructions for use:
    1 Pick your author and title
    2 Insert paper
    3 Little elves inside the machine will bind your chosen book together
    4 Bingo! Your stylishly designed novel comes out

    Question: is a book more like a table or a computer? That is to say, is a book a sound and virtually timeless piece of hardware, able to accommodate variations, but remaining constant in its basic purpose and design components? Or is a book a device in need of regular upgrades in order to expand and evolve with its times, living by its wits to escape obsolescence?

    However you answer this, the book as we know it is in a state of flux. Experiments in collaborative online writing and the promise of the universal digital library are breaking down our notions about how books are read, written and accessed. Though attempts to produce a handheld electronic reader haven’t yet found commercial success, a marketable form of e-books almost certainly awaits. And while old-fashioned paper-and-glue books aren’t going away any time soon, print-on-demand technology is poised to transform how they’re manufactured, sold and distributed.

    For instance, if you drop by the InfoShop, the World Bank’s book store in Washington DC as I did recently, you might not take much notice of what appears to be a couple of large photocopiers near the entrance. If you look a bit closer, however, you’ll glimpse the unassuming and, for the moment, unwieldy contraption that could help reshape the publishing industry. This is version 1.0 of the Espresso Book Machine, which allows you to click a screen and, five or ten minutes later, hold in your hands a brand-new soft-cover tome, warm off the press.

    On Demand Books, the company backing the Espresso, will unveil a smaller, sleeker model at the New York Public Library this spring. Each machine will be connected to the archive of hundreds of thousands of digitally-stored books held by the Open Content Alliance, which is pursuing a project similar to Google’s global online library. The eventual goal is to whittle down the Espresso to a size and cost (about $50,000, down from the present $100,000 price tag) that many libraries and bookstores can handle. Right now, print on demand is largely the domain of vanity presses and a few small DIY publishers. But the technology could streamline an industry in which economies of scale dictate four- or five-figure print runs, while also ensuring that no book ever has to go out of print. ‘As long as there’s a digital file available, in principle, you can make a copy on a machine like this,’ says Thor Sigvaldason, chief technology officer for On Demand Books, as the InfoShop’s Espresso hums away behind him.

    Sigvaldason sees the Espresso as a fulfilment of Chris Anderson’s thesis in his book ‘The Long Tail’. ‘As the content becomes available, a little bookstore could do one or two copies of a whole bunch of obscure books all day long,’ he explains. ‘Those onesies and twosies, according to the long-tail argument, really add up. Think about a world where you could go to your favourite run-down, falling-over bookstore and have a virtual collection of 50 million titles to choose from.’ (Of course, the end of the time-worn indie bookstore has also been foretold, though social bookmarking and virtual card catalogues such as are trying to forestall the death of browsing.)

    Another project that embraces the ‘less of more’ philosophy is Caravan Books, which has partnered with several publishers and the Borders chain to offer a diverse ‘menu’ of reading options. Through Caravan, which launches in March, books will be available in hardback, paperback, e-book, and audiobook form, either in their entirety or chapter-by-chapter; a print-on-demand option for readers with impaired vision is also in the pipeline. ‘The project will have succeeded if, in a few years, it no longer has to exist,’ says Caravan’s Gene Taft. ‘All we have to do is show that it’s viable and all the publishers will start doing it themselves.’

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