Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

In one week, two things that become ironic side-by-side. Today, I received a copy by the director of Harvard’s library Robert Darnton’s apologia, the Case for Books. The other is that our bookstore has become one of the six bookstores in the nation [sic] to have received an espresso book machine. This enables us to print, for a low cost, any book in the public domain and bind it within minutes (300 pages in 4 minutes). The panels are clear so that you can see the cogs working. (I assume; I haven’t actually seen it run yet.)

There’s an espresso book machine at the Harvard Book Store named Paige M. Gutenborg (the opening was attended by Robert Darnton), one in Vermont, at several at libraries around the country. And there’s one at Third Place Books, north of Seattle.

Of course, this development chilled me to the bone. What will happen to the industries? What will happen to the book? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot? Could it make bookstores obsolete? (Probably not) But Time will Tell. For the moment, I am going to keep my eye on the big lumbering machine in the corner.

Note: I am feeling guilty and disloyal to the store, so I must admit that the EBM does have its attractions. Perhaps I should admit that there is this wonderful website, Internet Archive, which has free downloads for millions of books that are otherwise hard to get a hold of. These are examples of books that will be rescued from obscurity, like Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Present and the Past, or an eighteenth century guide to running the home. Rare books will no longer be restricted to expensive scholarly editions.


Ward W. Vuillemot said...

I work for a large reseller of books; we happen to sell nearly everything else, too. We have developed a device and a commerce/distribution "ecosystem" for the distribution of reading materials that is meant to ignite (ahem) the passion of people to read -- maybe you have heard of it? I am more torn by that and the digitation of books than the shrinking of printing presses.

For myself, I still love the tactility of cold-pressed pages on my fingertips, the encumbrance of the printed word on my lap, the heft of a hard-cover in my hands; something that digital copies cannot convey, only deprive you of.

I suspect that this "espresso" technology may allow small publishers to go back to providing added value in the form of unique bindings, maybe even layout changes that enhance the overall visual art of the book. I also hope it lets readers get permanent copies of long-forgotten tomes from the public domain; so many of which remain in relative obscurity due to the upfront costs of publishing that make economically inviable with current technologies.

I will have a doppio, please!

newpsalmanazar said...

Monstrous! But perhaps not quite as monstrous as the Kindle.

Michelle said...

My gosh, is that what it really looks like? I don't know what I pictured the EBM to be, exactly, but wow.

Let us know how it goes over with customers!