Slashdot aggregated a short piece on CNN about Espresso, a one-book-at-a-time machine that I have commented on before–five years ago, in fact. So the book machine itself is not news–and similar systems were around before Jeff Marsh announced Espresso in 2001–but this time, the innovation is to put the machines inside public libraries, basically as dispensers of printed copies of out-of-copyright books. (See ondemandbooks.com.) People have been talking about machines like this in the back rooms of bookstores for a long time, and I posited “replenish-on-demand” book retailing in my October 16, 2006 entry. None of that is especially new or novel, though the little video clip of the Espresso machine in action is worth a few minutes to watch.
(One caveat I have: The machine has been announced for five years and is still in “alpha”? This sure sounds like an underfunded basement operation to me, and the machine looks like a slightly haywire lashup of two commercial printers with a binder. This is about all there is on the Web.)
What may be worth pondering is having book-on-demand machines in public libraries, fed by archives like Project Gutenberg. And that's just to get the library systems installed, funded, and used. What happens next might ignite the War to End All Wars in bookselling: Allowing public libraries to sell POD copies of first-run books by contract with publishers. Figure that certain people will take a book out of the library, read it, and then like it enough to want a copy of their own, or one to give as a gift. As a publisher, I'd be delighted with such a system, and I suspect most small-to-medium sized publishers would as well. The war would begin when book retailers realized that libraries are publicly funded organizations and could sell books at very steep discounts. Large publishers don't dare annoy large booksellers, on whom they depend. Small publishers don't get much shelf space in retail stores anyway, so they take sales however they can. A library-based network of unattended POD kiosks would (at least potentially) be a huge threat to booksellers, and their point is worth discussing: Should a government agency compete with private retailers?
I'm on the fence here. It's good to give the public more choices, and retailers cannot stock everything. (They won't stock my novel, for example. Hrmph.) Libraries should be allowed to do anything permitted under copyright law. If the bookstores don't like it, well…their recourse is obvious: Get machines themselves, and “stock” everything. Everything. No exceptions. Everything. [Jeff Duntemann's ContraPositive Diary]