A management consultant dreamed of instantly printing books. An editor dreamed of selling classics that are hard to find in megastores. Together they created the Espresso Book Machine. Their only obstacle: glue. Daniel J. Kramer reports on the ATM machine for literature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: New technology has been developed to ensure that paper books survive. Time Magazine and Reader's Digest have just named the Espresso Book Machine one of the top inventions of 2007, though its creation spans nearly three decades.
Costing about 140,000 dollars and the size of a very small car, it's a bookstore, a very, very big bookstore in a box. Daniel J. Kramer has the story of the EBM. DANIEL J. KRAMER: In 1989, Harvey Ross was a management consultant for the communications industry. He was conducting research into how radio, TV and publishing would be affected by emerging technology - when lightning struck. BRUCE FABLER: I remember him sticking his head in my office one day and told me about this idea he had, which is what became the Book Machine. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Bruce Fabler was a long-time friend of the late Harvey Ross. BRUCE FABLER: He came up with this notion of being able to generate a book on demand. He was so captivated by the idea that he significantly curtailed his consulting practice and jumped headfirst into refining, getting a patent and deploying the system. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Ross went looking for people who could make his vision of printing books on demand a reality. In St. Louis he found patent attorney Bill Cunningham, and together they hammered out a concept patent for storing books on a computer and printing them as needed.
But vision only takes you so far. That's where inventor Jeff Marsh fits into the picture. JEFF MARSH: Harvey needed someone that could take the concept and create working hardware. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Marsh had previously worked in the automotive industry and approached the idea of making a machine that can print a book on demand with eyes unclouded by the publishing world. And those eyes saw the biggest obstacle to printing high-quality books on demand - the glue. JEFF MARSH: I started looking at some of the processes that went into making a book, and I recognized that the gluing of the spine, if you will, or the binding process was not going to work for a book machine. And what wound up on that is, is I conceived ultrasonic binding. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Obviously. In traditional bookbinding, hot glue is continuously replaced and refreshed. It's never compromised by being too long on the boil. But in the world of on demand publishing, it's hard to predict how many books will be produced. Glue kept hot for too long gets too thick and less adhesive and also leaves a terrible stench in the air. JEFF MARSH: And that's what drove me to say, hey, we need a way to have glue in its fresh state and then we need to energize that glue real quick and then have it melt into the pages and into the cover of the book and set up real quick. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Marsh produced a machine that hit the glue with a concentrated burst of energy to bind the pages together - from salt. Finally, they had a machine that could print any book in five to seven minutes. This meant in theory that no book ever had to go out of print, following Jeff Marsh's mission statement of - JEFF MARSH: Any book, anywhere, any time. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Ross and company now had the hardware for instant publishing but had nothing to publish. Ross dove into the book world in hopes that someone with enough clout would see how his machine could change the world. And that's where Jason Epstein fits in.
The former editor of Random House was trying to find a way to offer consumers classic literature that had become hard to find in the new mega-mall bookstores of America. JASON EPSTEIN: I created a mail-order catalog with about 40,000 backlist titles in it which readers could order over an 800 number. At first, it was a very successful venture. We sold lots and lots of catalogs and a great many books, and discovered after a year or so that we were losing money on every sale just because it was so expensive to handle individual orders physically. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Epstein folded his mail-order business, but still he knew there had to be a way to get - JEFF MARSH: Any book, anywhere, any time. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Then he heard about Ross' machine. JASON EPSTEIN: I went out to see it and it did exactly what I had anticipated such a machine should do. And I said to myself, well, this now transforms the publishing business. It replaces the whole Gutenberg structure that had existed for 500 years. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Jason Epstein teamed up with an old friend, former Dean & Deluca CEO Dane Neller, to form On Demand Books. They licensed Marsh's machine, dubbing it the Espresso Book Machine. It's like an ATM for literature. Just as an ATM can deliver money in any currency, the EBM can furnish books in any language. Jason Epstein. JASON EPSTEIN: The 40 million Hispanic people in the United States who are underserved by the existing book distribution system would now be able to download books in their own language. DANIEL J. KRAMER: And it can relieve any publisher hit with an unexpected bestseller. Cary Goldstein, director of publicity, Twelve Books. CARY GOLDSTEIN: Our first printing, For God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens, was about 40,000 copies. Within about a week of publishing that book, we went back for print about three times, and we're up to 90,000 copies in print.
Books sold so quickly that there was about a week where books were not available. But having these print on demand machines would make them immediately available to people. DANIEL J. KRAMER: This machine is not designed for the indecisive reader. It's for people who know exactly what they want. But there is a certain pleasure in entering a bookstore with no particular purchase in mind. It's called browsing. E-books and audio books have their place, but we like to touch and smell and see.
Fred Bass owns the Strand in Manhattan, which proudly boasts over 18 miles of books. FRED BASS: There's something that's very attractive about looking at a dust jacket on a book or the color of the book or the way it's bound that makes the book more interesting, determining just by handling the book whether you really want to read it or not. DANIEL J. KRAMER: Currently there are six EBMs in the world. The first one was at the World Bank. Now it's at the Library of New Orleans, where it will help replace the books washed away by Katrina.
There's one at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, another at the University of Alberta in Canada, one in Australia, another one in San Francisco - and the sixth is moving from the New York Public Library to the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. There, over 200,000 public domain titles will be available instantly, thanks to the EBM.
Now, instead of spending years tracking down Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, you just print it out, go home with a copy of it in your back pocket and finally read it.