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Amazon, Beware: How Print-It-Yourself Technology Could Save Publishing

In just a few minutes, two technologies can print a sold-out or out-of-print book (or one that a reader simply wants to personalize) that looks exactly like the standard issue. Is this a game-changer for the publishing industry?

An Espresso Book Machine in NYC
An Espresso Book Machine in NYC
Alain Beuve-Méry

PARIS — This was without a doubt one of the main attractions of this week's 35th annual Paris Book Fair. Two renowned publishers in France, La Martinière and Presses Universitaires de France (PUF), have publicly introduced two machines that readers can use to print their own copy of a book in real time.

The Espresso Book Machine, presented by PUF, is an American technology that's been around for 10 years. And at La Martinière's stand, Orséry co-founder and chairman Christian Vié offers his "solution for printing books in bookstores," which uses machines by Japanese firm Ricoh, the world leader for photocopying machines.

The technology is ripe. For example, it is now possible to print — in just seven minutes — the 220 pages of Edouard Louis' novel En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, one of France’s most successful 2014 fiction books with more than 200,000 copies sold.

Handwritten copy of Alice's Adventures Underground being printed by the #espressobookmachine

A video posted by @courtneycosmos onOct 19, 2014 at 7:31pm PDT

With its white cover and red edges, the book printed in front of us is an exact replica of its big brother from the publishing house. "You can add a personal message, make the characters bigger, write in which bookstore it was printed," explains Vié enthusiastically. At 17 euros, it will cost exactly the same price as the standard edition.

These new technologies can solve many traditional conundrums within the publishing industry. On-demand printing is the right solution for small print runs, which "have always been a thorn in the publishers' side," Vié says. It's also a solution to the tricky issue of sold-out new books as well as for older, out-of-print works.

In the U.S., the Espresso Book Machine can be found in a few bookstores and universities. This device can print a personalized book in just a few minutes, from a pocket edition to a larger format on thick, coated or offset paper, in black and white, and so on. McNally Jackson Books in lower Manhattan has one. The store encourages its clients to wait by offering them a cup of coffee, which is just enough time for a book to be printed.

Presses Universitaires de France (PUF) and its main shareholder, reinsurance company SCOR, were both seduced by this project. An academic with a passion for knowledge, SCOR CEO Denis Kessler notes that "with immediate on-demand printing, economies of scale will disappear." In fact, for small print runs from 1 to 300 copies, the cost of printing per unit becomes independent from the number of printed copies. "We will be the invisible hand that will adjust the market," the economist concludes.

PUF's director-general Frédéric Mériot characterizes the impending revolution as "printed books taking revenge on e-books." Initially, digital books were seen as a threat to the industry, but the technology now provides authors, publishers and booksellers with a large array of opportunities. Because with on-demand printing, every book printed is a book sold, a work can become profitable much more easily. Sales uncertainty disappears, and stock management is made easier.

What's more, with over 30,000 new works published every year, this technology offers an eco-friendly and sustainable solution.

Experimental but game-changing

Founded in 1921, a publishing house such as PUF is a real knowledge temple. It has more than 4,000 active titles, from mass market books to works of philosophy, sociology and psychology. But every year, some 300 works fall out of the market by natural attrition. This evolution is no longer inevitable. With the Espresso Book Machine, obscure works can resurface and find a new audience.

For now, these projects are merely experimental. One of the challenges will be to inform both booksellers and readers about what these tools make possible.

One of the downsides is the size of the machines, knowing that space is an expensive commodity for booksellers. Another is the price — about 80,000 euros ($90,000) — which leads printers to rent them to interested bookstores.

Photo: Espresso Book Machine Facebook page

Vié has developed an economic model that lets the bookseller keep 33% of the price of a book printed in his shop. "The goal is to give the opportunity to rematerialize what's been dematerialized and to create a service that would be the writers' YouTube," explains Hubert Pédurand, leader of the Irénéo program that develops the Espresso Book Machine's European patents. One of the projects being considered is a pocket edition of online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Many different economic models could be considered, but the most crucial part will essentially rest on the ability to convince publishers to centralize their files to allow for a global offer that's as large as possible.

With his Orséry solution, Vié has established contacts with several publishers, including La Martinière, and he's trying to convince Hachette, the largest French publishing company, to join them.

"Publishers are very cautious people. They always wait to see what the others are doing," notes Hervé de la Martinière, who sees in this sort of initiative "not a panacea, but an interesting mutation that can also compete with Amazon."

In a way, this system could give bookstores and publishers a new momentum. As Frédéric Mériot notes, "our world has become so virtual that more and more people feel the need to touch."

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Brian Cahn/ZUMA
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