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August 30, 2007 By:
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I have referenced this remarkable development in the publishing world in two previous articles, and now, at last, The New York Times has written about this fascinating product -- the Espresso Book Machine -- in considerable detail in its Aug. 2 issue.

As the article by reporter Anthony Ramirez noted, books in the Middle Ages were written by hand, and so could take a year to produce. In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg created movable type, and so sped up the process considerably.

Today, the book business is "faster still," but nothing can quite top the Espresso Book Machine, "the product of a high-tech publishing venture that has nothing to do with caffeine." Ramirez described the machine as "a Rube Goldberg contraption [that] produced a book from digital code to hefty paperback in under 15 minutes."

"The book machine," the reporter continued, "which occupies the space of two deli-style ice cream freezers, looks like office photocopiers attached to a tinted stereo cabinet and computer terminal. It hums, makes spitting noises, moans and then belches out a newly glued book, fresh as bread and almost as hot."

The book machine was a demonstration project of On Demand Books, a New York City-based venture founded by Jason Epstein, who once ran Random House, and Dane Neller, former chief executive of Dean & DeLuca, the gourmet food-store chain. Ramirez noted that the machine will be housed at the Science, Industry and Business Library at 188 Madison Avenue until early next month, "producing free books from a small list."

Neller told Ramirez that there are only three such book machines in existence thus far. The other two are in Washington, at the World Bank's bookstore, and in Alexandria, Egypt, at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, "the modern revival of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world."

"Mr. Neller's firm is pitching the book machine, which may eventually sell for $20,000 or more, principally toward the nation's 16,000 public libraries and 25,000 bookstores. A 300-page book costs about $3 to produce with the machine. A bookstore or library could then sell it to customers or library members at cost or at a markup.

"Why bother? The machine, Mr. Neller said, is for the 'far end of the back list,' those books that are out of print or for which there is so little demand that it would be too costly to print a few hundred copies, let alone one.

"With the machine, Mr. Neller said, anything available in a portable document format, or PDF, including Grandfather's memoirs and Ph.D. dissertations, can be printed in minutes as a computer can read it."

As Mr. Neller said to Martinez, think of what this means. It's not just for libraries or bookstores. Think Kinko's, the coffee shop, or a hotel, hospital or cruise ship.

The future -- at least as far as books are concerned -- is definitely here. 

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