Monday, January 25, 2010

On Demand Books' Espresso Book Machine..the next big thing?

Back in 1999, when POD was barely a three-letter acronym,  Jason Epstein was trying to figure out how to get the great backlist of books easily into the hands of the public via localized, automated printing and binding machines.  So like any good entrepreneur, he sought out like-minded folks to make his vision a reality.  He found inventor Jeff Marsh and a partner in Dane Neller and On Demand Books was born in 2003.

Move forward to the 2009 London Book Fair.  On Demand Books was heralding the new world of book printing via a partnership with Lightning Source and Wiley.  The only problem was every time I went by their booth on the show floor the machine was out of service with a service guy busily working to get it up and running.  I never did see it run during my day at the show, but I saw enough to understand that there still was some ways to go before this technology could run without significant service support.  I saw this as a potentially lethal problem since they were selling the idea of having these machines in third-world countries, where the idea of a bookstore with significant inventory was only a pipe dream.

The issue as I saw it was that this clever machine looked to be mostly standalone parts (laser printer, cover inkjet printer) tied together with a rather complicated perfect binding system.  I had a lot of questions.  Who is going service this thing?  Epson, who made the cover printer? Hardly.  Kyocera, whose printer was used in the model I saw at LBF?  Doubtful. What's the expected up time?  What sort of data line will be needed to stream content to the  system or will there be a server version available?  Lots of questions.

Well, I haven't gotten all of my answers but I can say that On Demand Books has gone a long way toward making this a viable, global product by announcing their partnership with Xerox earlier this month.  This is exactly the sort of move they needed, in my opinion, to begin to reach the promise of those early days of the company.

According to the press release,"Xerox and On Demand Books will jointly market and sell, on a worldwide basis, the Xerox 4112 Copier / Printer together with the Espresso Book Machine - a fully integrated solution that prints, binds and trims books with full colour covers on demand in retail locations and libraries."  So that gives ODB an already baked sales and service organization, which I think is key to its success.  Also, rather than pushing the Espresso as an opportunity to move into new global markets, they are targeting bookstores and libraries, which I think is a very smart move.

This is another in a series of recent good moves by the company, including the hiring of Lightning Source and Lulu veteran Andrew Pate as SVP of Biz Dev.  He knows the publishing and POD marketplaces well and was a savvy hire.

Neller says that there will be around 30 systems installed by the end of Q1/10, including one in my vicinity at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, WA.  One-third of the installations will be in university book stores, which looks like a sweet spot to me. The new partnership with Xerox can only help to make the installed base grow even more.

As Xerox's VP of Publishing John Conley said in an interview with Print CEO, "[The Espresso Book Machine] reinforces the theme of producing books at point of sale and gives you the largest bookstore in the world sitting in a 9′ by 12′ space.” Game changer?  May be.  But no doubt that the ODB folks have doubled down and are ready to see just how far they can take their invention into the print marketplace.

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