October 20, 2010

The Espresso Book Machine

Self-publishing has taken so many forms in the last years that I hardly know where to start. Although I’ve worked with authors who have self-published using Lulu, iUniverse, and offset printing companies that specialize in short runs, I still can feel inadequate when it comes to advising authors about self-publishing. This is especially true now that more books are produced in electronic versions as well as traditional printed and bound volumes. I know other developmental editors who are also trying to educate themselves about the current state of self-publishing, electronic publishing, and print-on-demand technologies. It's complicated!

Fortunately, since this is a blog post not a lecture, I can begin by talking about how I’ve chosen to experiment with one particular means of self-publishing a physical book. One of the people at the Hugo House conference in publishing last April was Vladimir Verano, who prints books on the Espresso Book Machine at Third Place Books north of Seattle. I spent a good fifteen minutes with him at the conference hearing about the machine and looking at samples. I took his card and a month or so later gave him a call and set up an appointment.

The Espresso Book Machine uses digital files to print and collate and bind paperback book—one or as many as you want. Third Place Books is one of a handful of bookstores in the United States with an Espresso Book Machine. For some reason Washington State has three of them, including one at University Bookstore in Seattle and one at Village Books in Bellingham. The machine was first unveiled in 2007 at the New York Public Library. Several other libraries around the country now have the machine as well and their use is spreading.

When I arrived at Third Place Books, I found the machine and Vladimir Verano in a newly created glass-walled office in the Food Court adjoining the bookstore. The machine immediately appealed to me. Perhaps because it had something of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about it. Some of the mechanical parts are encased in transparent plastic so that you can see what’s happening. Though it’s quiet, the machine is large and satisfyingly physical. Vlad was printing some copies of a poetry book during my visit.

Inside the Espresso Book Machine, the cover was printed first, then the pages, rapid-fire, using a laser printer. Then the pages were collated, the cover glued on, and the whole book tidily trimmed. After only a few minutes, the finished volume slid out, a little warm from its journey, like a flat rectangular loaf of bread.

The Espresso Book Machine is not just for self-publishers. You can print single copies of out-of-print books or even new books contained in its database. There are some large and small drawbacks. My handbook won’t have a distributor to start with and should the demand be greater than I expect, I’ll have difficulty filling orders without going back to press frequently. While the price per unit is reasonable, and seems less expensive than, for instance, Lulu, the unit cost won’t change much no matter how many I print. This is unlike traditional printing where the unit costs improve the more copies you order. On the other hand, I'm not tied to this particular format. In future I can try other forms of self-publishing for this handbook.

 For now, since my plan is to only print a relatively small number of An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors and then to reprint as necessary, it seems to suit my purposes well.

Besides that, the machine appeals to me.

You can see a video of the Espresso Book Machine on YouTube.

Barbara Sjoholm

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