Monday, July 02, 2007

Aborted Print on Demand

On Assignment:

I was curious. While I had attended BookExpo this year I had not taken the opportunity to examine the Expresso Print on Demand machine and when I heard that one was to be installed at New York Public library I thought I had to get a look at it. There is some debate about what the impact of this machine will be to everyday readers and some of that debate focuses on the final delivery; how useful will this be regarded if you are third in line and the process takes ten minutes. Are you going to wait? There is definitely something to that; however, the story of the Expresso is more about distribution and the opportunity to place more books where readers want to purchase them.

Some readers will remember the Sprout machine which Borders thought to place in their [stores and] distribution centers. They believed that via that machine that they could materially add to the inventory available to customers through their stores. Logistical and technical problems ended this experiment almost before it got started but it was surprising that it took so long for a new effort to come along. Sprout did sign up a number of independent stores to use their machine. Here are my notes from BookExpo 1999:

At the BookExpo show, a company named On Demand Machine Corp displayed a book printing system that can print and bind a standard trade paper back in a machine which measures eight feet by four feet. This machine is designed to fit in a bookstore and can both store electronic titles in its memory and call up additional titles from the company head office via satellite. Customers can order the books, confirm the title is the one they want and purchase using a credit card. The transaction takes a little more than five minutes. The first full implementation is scheduled to take place in June at The Tattered Cover in Denver. My guess is you will see similar machines at Kinkos, Airports and other public places in the not too distant future.

As Charkin says this current machine is too big and bulky, but when it gets smaller and less so there will be many more opportunities to leverage the benefits of this machine. Regrettably, my experience was problematic; I visited the NYPL on Saturday only to find the machine unattended and therefore out of reach. Forget anyone in line ahead of me - the place was deserted - and the NYPL desk person was next to useless. There was a printed card with information about the machine and its' smaller cousin and a log book for visitors to sign. I left my mark.

Many years ago while at Berlitz, I hit on the idea of selling our small format travel guides and phrase books out of vending machines. We struggled to get store distribution and I thought this would be a perfect way to place a 'store front' in non-traditional places where travel related traffic could be high but the retail options limited. Moreover, the machines could be moved around from place to place with less difficulty than setting up a traditional store or arranging store accounts and distribution. The genesis of this idea was Kodak's film vending machines. My point is that the Expresso needs to be this functional and 'ubiquitous' if it is to become an additional distribution option. In the meantime I guess I will give the Expresso another chance to impress me sometime in the next few weeks.

(Coda: the vending machine idea meandered: One of my colleagues at Berlitz suggested if she was going to put books in a vending machine she would put in Danielle Steele not a travel guide. This comment was doubly bad since I didn't really care for her - the colleague not Danielle. I did get some vending machine operators interested in the idea but then I left and went to PriceWaterhouse. And so ended the vending machine idea).

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