Publishing Guru Bets on Book-Making Machine

Friday, April 01, 2011

Jason Epstein, creator of the Espresso book printing machine. Jason Epstein, creator of the Espresso book printing machine. (Ilya Marritz/WNYC)

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

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.


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Comments [10]

TheBookPatch from Singapore

I visited your site & after visiting i found that it is very informational for everyone you have done really a great job thank you

Aug. 01 2013 05:59 AM
absar from New Delhi(India)

How we can get the EBM in India, and howmuch does it cost.

Jul. 07 2013 07:45 AM
James Igamba from Kenya

This is really innovative especially in Africa. The importation of Text books from overseas is really prohibitive and also the taxes involved and the waiting period. I think clients should be presented with a choice or whether they want ebooks or print. Infact print on demand is the way to go now. It no longer makes sense to stock so many books especially when the customers are not forthcoming. I would love to work with this great Mind and help propel innovation in Africa.

Feb. 07 2012 09:49 AM
Frederick Glaysher from Rochester, Michigan

Ebooks are exactly the technology that is required to reach the global book reader, along with Jason Epstein's Espresso Book Machine, and worldwide POD through Lightning Source.

Right now almost any writer on the face of this earth can publish and market his or her books worldwide for a few hundred dollars.

Here's the proof:

Earthrise Press® eBooks

Printed Books Available Worldwide

The corporate six, since their take-over of the publishing industry in 1980s, driving out many of the older school publishers like Epstein, have in fact done much to destroy literature and publishing­­.

It's time for writers to move on. I doubt that William Blake and many writers of previous generation­­s would have hesitated to join the revolution­­. They would have been delighted to get rid of the exploitati­on of publishers­.

May. 02 2011 08:50 PM
ArtemisSmith from Sag Harbor

Jason Epstein has lived next door to me in Sag Harbor for many years, and I authored and marketed the first desk top on demand novel (ArtemisSmith's The SKEETS Trilogy) back in 1989, and have the correspondence from R.R. Bowker to prove it. His idea of producing desktop editions is therefore not unique, although his Espresso Bookmaking Machine probably produces better looking copies than my continuous-feed dot-matrix editions did. But now it's cheap enough to self-publish on demand through commercial printers without having to burden booksellers with that kind of project. I do agree with Epstein on the printed medium in favor of E-books, though. E-books will never be substitutes for good books in hand.

Apr. 02 2011 03:41 PM

I'm glad Xerox is partnering with them. I think that if Xerox would offer on-site personnel to run the machine (like they do with their other accounts)...and just charge the stores a monthly/quarterly fee instead of making them purchase a quarter-million dollar machines. A chain like Barnes & Noble might be more willing to place the machine in its stores, under such an arrangement. I've worked for Xerox, Ikon, and even Kinko's. It can be done.

Apr. 01 2011 02:26 PM
Phil from NYC

I think that the one trend in publishing that should be obvious to everyone by now is the multi-trend or the fracturing of product demand. People want digital books, and books on their smart phones, and books to hold. As technology has made some parts of publishing faster and cheaper, consumers (including myself) haven't eliminated categories of demand. They've merely added to their menu of preferences, which makes it more difficult for anyone technology or publisher to dominate the market.

Apr. 01 2011 02:19 PM
John T. Cullen from San Diego

I agree whole heartedly. Take the horse, for example. People have ridden the horse to work since early Neolithic times, and there is absolutely no way they will ever ride "automobiles" to work. Sure, "automobiles" are a cute little passing fad, but just consider: the horse has been with us for millennia, so how could that possibly change? I prefer a nice bouncy ride down Main Street, holding my briefcase in one hand and the reins in the other. P.S.: I fear change and hate progress.

Apr. 01 2011 12:59 PM
dan bloom from Taipei

A great idea in 2007 and still even better now. Current research, unpiublished yet, but soon, on MRI and PET scan machines shows that reading texts on paper surfaces, like a book or a newspaper, lights up differetnt regions of the brain than reading off of screens, and that these regions are superior for three vital things: processing of the info, retention of the info and analysis of the info (critical thinking). MrEpstein, my hats off to you, sir. your machine is not only the future, it is the distant future too. We will need it then as now. Screed-reading is not really reading, I coined a new word for it, I call it "screening." Yes, it's useful and convenient and speedy, but it is NOT reading. It is screening.

Apr. 01 2011 04:47 AM
Cathy Macleod from Western Australia

This is the real future of publishing. Ebooks are wonderful but many many readers (including me) prefer a printed book in hand.

Apr. 01 2011 04:37 AM

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