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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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