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A shot of Espresso at BEA

June 1, 2009 |  9:08 am

If only the crowds had parted, I would have gotten a better photo of the Espresso Book Machine 2. With a high-speed printer attached on one end and a high-end color printer on the top, the Espresso can print and bind a book from electronic files in four minutes flat. At the end -- whoosh! -- it slides down that chute on the bottom.

The machine is designed for bookstores -- the front is glass. As if to prove that watching a book being made is kind of magical, when I was there, a girl about 8 years old pressed to the front so she could get the best view (I'm pretty sure that she and her mom were not part of the exhibit).

Because the distribution of books -- including the return of those that go unsold -- is considered one of the industry's trouble spots, the idea that books from major publishers could be printed on demand at the site of sale seems to be a smart solution. What if when Oprah picked a new book, the publisher didn't have to print and ship to every bookstore in the country, but each bookstore could instead whip out as many copies of "A New Earth" as they might need?

That's not exactly how Vermont's Northshire Bookstore has put their Espresso to use. The first independent bookstore in the U.S. to boast an Espresso (a first-generation version), it offers a set of publishing services to "authors of fiction, poetry, cookbooks, family genealogies, local histories, corporate reports, custom course textbooks" and more. Northshire's Chris Morrow gave a presentation at Book Expo; he said the project has been successful but he noted a simple but telling problem: paper jams.

There's a whole new skill set that comes with making a book, and although I haven't tried it, I can guess that paper jams are only one of the small things that can go wrong when trying to wrangle a big complicated machine. And is now the right time to ask booksellers to go into the book production business?

Booksellers have been feeling the pinch for a while, and some don't think they can last. Another Vermont bookseller at BEA, Lynne Reed, told the Washington Post, "In 20 years, there won't be bookstores." With the feeling that they're heading toward extinction, it's not likely that many bookstores can invest in the Espresso 2, which retails for $75,000.

Some publishers have seen that it makes sense for them -- it's in at least one publisher's warehouse, so they can do short print runs to swiftly meet production needs. Too bad about that glass front -- so far, not many 8-year-olds will be able to watch the magic of a book being born.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The Espresso Book Machine 2. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg