Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
Publishing Guru Bets on Book-Making Machine
Friday, April 01, 2011
In an era when e-books and tablets are gaining more traction, one long-time New York City entrepreneur has stepped into the fray with a device that weds digital storage capacity with the old-fashioned printing press: a book-making machine.
Jason Epstein, 83, is admired in the publishing world; he's worked with Nabokov, Mailer and Roth. But since the beginning of his career, Epstein has also pursued innovation in book publishing.
The Espresso Book Machine — a one-ton machine made of 15 feet of Plexiglas and metal that prints and binds custom books — is his invention, and can be found at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho. Paper flies off of trays, whirls through wheels and gets piled up in stacks. The book takes shape fast.
"Physical books is the way [great texts] have been preserved and handed down for 5,000 years, and I think that’s not gonna end now," Epstein said (Photo right).
A bookstore patron, Shagun Mehrotra, recently marveled over the machine. Mehrotra, a published author of books on infrastructure and climate change, said this machine could enable him to become his own publisher.
"If I have a manuscript and there are 450 pages of text, I could print 20 copies and do my book tour," Mehrotra said, adding that many books on highly technical subjects never find more than a few dozen readers.
The idea for the Espresso Book Machine emerged in the late 1990s, as book texts were being digitized. Epstein asked himself who would want to read War and Peace on a computer monitor?
"There had to be a device that would permit you to receive a digital file on demand and create it in the form of a book," Epstein said.
So he set about creating it, seeking investors and buying a patent for a relatively small printing press that could be installed in bookstores. Epstein likened his idea to an ATM for books.
For a time, the machine got a lot of buzz. Time magazine made the Espresso Book Machine invention of the year in 2007.
But so far, the device has made very little impact. There are only around 50 Espresso Book Machines in operation around the world. Epstein admitted it's taken more time than he had hoped to refine the device. But Xerox recently became a partner, and he insists he is poised to sell hundreds of machines in the next few years.
"And then we'll become the largest distributor of books in all languages in the world," Epstein said.
Epstein has grounds for confidence. As a new hire at Doubleday in the early 1950s, he pioneered the creation of trade paperback books after noticing his classmates at Columbia couldn't afford the books they wanted to buy. (At the time, most paperbacks were cheaply made dime-store paperback pulp, but quality fiction and non-fiction was available in hardcover only).
Epstein suggested creating high-quality softcover editions, and his bosses were willing to give it a try. The trade paperback was born.
"Which was wonderful on that occasion. It's never happened again since," Epstein said, adding that publishers have become scared of change.
Americans now spend more than $1.3 billion a year on trade paperbacks.
In the late 1980s, Epstein started another venture, The Reader's Catalog. The goal was to give book-lovers access to the titles that were disappearing from bookstore shelves as emerging superstores put a heavy emphasis on blockbusters. The venture was unprofitable and was eventually sold. Today, it's seen as a precursor to Amazon.com.
People in the book industry revere Jason Epstein, but they are increasingly skeptical his latest innovation will take off. The Espresso Book Machine is bulky, its menu of books limited mainly to backlist and public domain titles and users can't operate the machine on their own – they need help from trained bookstore staff.
On the day WNYC visited, the machine jammed while producing India in World Politics by Taraknath Das. Dustin Kurtz, a McNally Jackson staffer, searched the machine's computer monitor for clues about the problem while customer Dev Krishan got a coffee from the bookstore café.
"It is a treat if it works. And today I think we're having not a very good day," Krishan said. A few minutes later, Kurtz advised Krishan to come back the next day to pick up his book.
Kurtz said jams do happen, but he’s been able to fix most problems quickly.
But the machine has proven to be a hit with customers. More than 1,000 books were printed on the machine in the first four weeks for prices starting at $8 apiece. Kurtz said the main attraction to the Espresso Book Machine is that it is a tool for self-publishing.
McNally Jackson won't disclose the price it paid for the machine.
"We don't have hard numbers on whether it's broken even yet, and I think we're going to have to increase the volume on it before that happens. But we’re aiming for it," Kurtz said.