Austen on demand: New bookstore's machine prints any book you want

A London bookstore has installed a new machine that will print an entire book on demand in the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee.

Readers choose one of 400,000 titles from a screen, and the so-called Espresso Book Machine, which looks like an exceptionally ugly copier, prints at a rate of 105 pages per minute, clamps and binds the newly trimmed pages to look just like a library-quality volume, and delivers the new paperback book in five minutes. You could also print the book yourself at home, if you want -- just B.Y.O. USB.

What's cooler is that aspiring authors can upload their own work and dash off a copy in minutes: perfect for impressing the ladies at the bar that night. Rare books that no publisher feels like investing in can also be printed. One of the first test volumes was 1915 book of poetry containing an early work by J.R.R. Tolkien, although not all of the available titles are in the public domain. Many are current.

The machine is at Blackwell, one of the bigger stores on London's Charing Cross Road near the theatre district, and it's been successfully running since it was plugged in less than a month ago. The bookseller plans to have a million titles available by the end of the summer ("50 bookshops rolled into one," boasts Blackwell), and if the EBM is a success, it will install them at its outlets across the country. Right now, these print-on-demand books cost about the same as the versions on the shelves, but with time and widespread adoption, they could be priced lower than the discounts available at Wal-Mart and Amazon.

London is already a pioneer of print-on-demand goodness. Its celebrated National Gallery, a five-minute walk south, has sold high-resolution, print-on-demand posters of its masterpieces for years now, and they're brisk sellers. The technology works, and what's more, it encourages impulse purchases.

Printing books on demand is a blend of of technology and reading that I can get into. I'm far from a Luddite, but I'm also not eager to read books on computer screens or hand-held gadgets. I like the turn of the page. I enjoy the ability to easily bookmark, or the possibility of making notes on paper. I also love being able to read wherever I want. A book doesn't brag about wealth, and a book doesn' require batteries, recharging, or protection from the elements.

At first blush, the invention seems wasteful. But in fact, if you only print off the books you want to buy, it will save book publishers from having to manufacture shelves full of titles that are never purchased and wind up pulped and wasted. Taken to its logical progression, the EBM could turn a broom closet into a bookstore, provided customers know in advance which titles they want. Buy a guide book to a new city at an airport newsstand? Done. Grab a copy of the novel a movie was based on as you leave the cinema? Can do. Nab a copy of that sold-out best-seller? Check.

Just make it affordable, and the possibilities for small business owners -- and literacy -- are endless.
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