February 13 (Bloomberg) -- Vance Alexander sent 35 query letters to publishers and agents to pitch his book, a historical novel about a young slave in 1801 Connecticut who escapes to Canada. No one bit.
So the retired architectural designer decided to publish it himself. He joined more than 100 aspiring authors at the library in Darien, Conn., on a recent Thursday night for a demo of the technology ready to fulfill their literary ambitions: the Espresso Book Machine.
About five feet high and eight feet wide, it turns a manuscript into a warm paperback, bound and trimmed, in under five minutes. Selling a big machine to print books may seem quixotic when millions of readers are migrating to Kindles and iPads. On Demand Books, the company behind the Espresso, is betting on authors like Alexander -- and on the emotional connection readers and writers have with paper pages that bend and tear and make a sound when you turn them.
Alexander (a nom de plume—his real last name is Fazzino) shrinks at the thought of publishing his novel strictly in digital form. "It's too …" He searches for the word. "It's too ephemeral," he says. "I like holding a book in my hand."
While e-books get all the attention, the publishing business is going through a further shift: Digital printing means books can be manufactured in tiny batches, instead of the runs of 5,000 copies or more required to make traditional offset printing cost-effective. A handful of "pay-to-publish" digital presses such as Lulu and AuthorHouse are letting writers pump out new works like never before. In 2010, authors published 133,000 titles on their own, up from 51,000 four years earlier, according to Bowker, the company that assigns books unique identifiers known as ISBNs.
The Espresso links a database of digital book files to a Xerox machine that prints pages, a photo printer to make the cover, and a system that collates, binds, and trims the whole package. In addition to self-published books, it can print public domain works from Google Books and titles that publishers like HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster have agreed to license.
Jason Epstein, On Demand's chairman, published authors like Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov and co-founded the "New York Review of Books" during a half-century publishing career, mostly at Random House. He and Dane Neller, former chief executive of gourmet emporium Dean & Deluca, founded the company in 2003, licensing the technology from an inventor and installing the first Espresso three years later. They've got 90 machines installed or on the way around the world, Neller says.
Both Neller and Xerox, which has distributed Espressos since 2010, decline to say how much they cost, though customers estimate the price at over $100,000. Neller says On Demand's revenue is in the millions. Xerox works with customers to lease the machines at an affordable rate, says Steve Simpson, Xerox's vice president of new business ventures. (The company is an investor, along with Ingram -- a large book distributor -- and Pete Peterson, co-founder of the private equity firm Blackstone Group.)
The challenge for On Demand is that "the technology is still not quite there, as far as its size and its reliability," says Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publisher services for Bowker. "It's like where we first started with computers, before we quite got to a personal computer." To broaden its reach, the 16-employee company has started operating some machines directly, including the one in Darien. New Espressos are on the way to Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., and the Brooklyn Public Library in New York.
At Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., the Espresso patters along constantly, printing about 1,500 books a month. Roughly two-thirds of those are self-published, says owner Jeff Mayersohn. ("Everybody in Cambridge has a manuscript," quips Epstein.)
The machine, which the staff has named Paige M. Gutenborg, isn't quite a moneymaker for the store yet. "It obviously has to advance, the price has to come down, and the speed has to go up," says Mayersohn, a former tech executive. But the promise of limitless inventory is part of why he bought the shop in 2008, and he thinks it will help booksellers thrive.
The store charges authors a $70 set-up fee and $10 per copy for a 200-page book, with discounts for volume. Customers often print books of home recipes, family diaries, or academic theses. One title, a memoir about growing up under Mussolini, became a store bestseller.
For writers whom Epstein would have been unlikely to publish at Random House, his machine is liberating. Alexander says he's done querying publishers. He plans to print 200 copies of his novel, "Expectant Journey," in Darien to sell on his own. "If a publisher reads it and likes it," he says, "then they will pick it up."
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