Letter from San Francisco: The Espresso Book Machine, by Guy Tiphane

One July evening, I was one of some two hundred people attending the inauguration of a book printing machine at Bookshop Santa Cruz, the beginning of a new chapter in the transformation of the publishing industry (see video here).

Today it is possible to walk in the bookstore and ask for a book to be printed and bound as you wait, but the machine is also a powerful tool for authors to create and sell books. Bookshop Santa Cruz has a consignment program for local authors who can have copies of their books prominently displayed on the shelves. With the printing machine now available, it will be possible to keep one copy on the shelves and print a new one whenever it has been sold.

I see this as very good news for “small” authors who will tell you that sales don't come automatically from being on the Internet. In my last letter I mentioned ordering a book directly from author Vincent Meis, by mailing him a cheque, and he replied that this method of  contacting his readers directly had generated the most sales. I now think of book writing as growing a garden: you need to show up not only for your work as a writer, but also to sell it. Every opportunity to contact potential readers is like sowing seeds in potentially fertile ground. Bookshop Santa Cruz is like the organic farm that also has a community garden.

Owner Casey Coonerty Protti, at the launch event, said there was no way for her to predict the future of bookstores. Someone in the audience made a remark using “the A-word,” talking about the Internet giant seller of everything, which Casey refused to discuss. It reminded me of a novel I read a few months ago, The Witch's Daughter by Paula Brackston, in which the protagonist vowed to use her craft only for the good of others, at the expense of being tormented and her work sabotaged by the devil himself.

The book printing machine may have become necessary as small distributors see their channels dry up.  Perhaps even the larger distributors, having fewer bookstores to distribute to, will have to shrink and consolidate their operations, making it even more difficult to get books into stores. Even then, one should add the costs of maintaining inventory at a store (and its warehouse), so a time may come when printing a book on demand will become the only viable solution.

Another large store in our area, Kepler's of Menlo Park, has closed to reorganize, hinting they will offer solutions including printing on demand and e-book offerings. They will divorce the for-profit bookstore from non-profit events such as book readings. Printing-on-demand is one solution to the very high cost of renting space in Menlo Park. 

Will these new solutions generate consumer demand for books, in an area where people don't hesitate to spend $75 a month on smart phone service and hundreds more on iPhones and iPads? I wonder if books are going to become a luxury. That may be the subject of my next letter.

© Guy Tiphane, 2012

Guy Tiphane grew up in Laval and obtained an M.Sc. In Computer Science from Université de Montréal. He joined the founding team of Logitech, first in Switzerland, then in California, to write innovative software and to include users in the design of software and hardware. He obtained an M.A. in English Literature from Notre Dame de Namur University (Belmont, CA), winning the thesis award for his collection of short stories, Heating up the Fog. He lives in Berkeley.


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