LETTER FROM LONDON
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Will the Espresso book machine revolutionize the publishing industry? Last Updated: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | 12:07 PM ET Comments12Recommend54 By Mike Doherty, CBC News
The Espresso book machine prints a book at the Blackwell bookstore in central London. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images) Ever since William Caxton brought a printing press to Westminster in 1476, London has been a paradise for bibliophiles. But today, if you walk up Charing Cross Road, long famed for its bookshops, you'll see a discouraging picture. A sign plastered on one empty shop window commemorates Shipley Books as "A mecca for art lovers" that "closed its doors … on Christmas Eve 2008." The crime bookshop Murder One is described, on its abandoned storefront, as having "thrived for 21 years before being forced to close due to internet competition" earlier this year. Online retailers such as Amazon, with their global reach and massive warehouses, are taking business away from traditional bookshops. Meanwhile, the rise of the e-book is said to be an ever-looming threat to the physical book itself. What would Caxton do?
'Even if you work in the book trade, you don't get to see books being made, so it's fascinating to watch.' —A manager at Blackwell, on the Espresso book machine
Farther up Charing Cross Road, you'll find the likely answer. In the flagship store of the 130-year-old book chain Blackwell stands an apparatus that looks like a glorified photocopier grafted to a miniature car factory. Called the Espresso Book Machine, it can print and bind books in a matter of minutes, and it might help secure the future of the bookshop – and even the printed book. The EBM is manufactured by New York's On Demand Books, which delivered its first model to the World Bank's InfoShop in Washington, D.C., in April 2006. The model owned by Blackwell is version 2.0: it's smaller, faster and more practical than its predecessors, most of which found homes in libraries and university
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bookshops. The EBM offers potential solutions to various retail problems: how to eliminate returns, how to increase inventory despite space restrictions and how to supply out-of-print books. The EBM can also produce books for unsigned authors. The very presence of the machine in a bookshop has been a draw. "Whenever we set it going, we get a little group of people sitting around watching," says Marcus Gipps, the Blackwell manager in charge of the store's EBM. "Even if you work in the book trade, you don't get to see books being made, so it's fascinating to watch. They all get passed around, and everybody goes, 'Oh, look!'" This happens when I visit the store, as Gipps programs the machine to produce a copy of Oxford Poetry, a slender 1915 volume first printed by Blackwell itself. When it emerges, the glossy cover is slightly sticky – a property that ebbs away once the ink has had time to set – but the colour is true. The binding is strong enough to resist cracking even when the pages are pulled apart roughly, and the printing is as clear as one might expect from a digitized version of a 94-year-old book.
A Blackwell staff member reads a book generated by the Espresso book machine. (Neal/AFP/Getty Images) The EBM's transparent Perspex walls make it possible to watch the robotic devices inside as they clamp, bind and shear the pages before the book emerges from a plastic chute and is deposited, quaintly, into a wicker basket filled with bubble wrap. While it's tempting to get right up close, there's a four-foot wall surrounding the machine to keep customers out. Gipps explains that this is because the binding glue reaches 350 F, "and there's a very, very sharp blade with an awful lot of hydraulic pressure behind it, because it needs to do...