more print-on-demand goodness

An imagined scene:

You: “I’d like Just A Geek, because Wil Wheaton is funny and charming and he smells of lavender and whatever awesome smells like.”

Bookseller: “Oh, sorry, but the publisher promoted that as a Star Trek bio, and since those don’t sell, we didn’t stock it. We can order it for you, though. You’ll just have to wait two weeks.”

You: Well, how about Sunken Treasure?

Bookseller: Sorry, we’ve never heard of that.


Me: [::pained look::]

Anne: What happened?

Me: It’s like yet another person tried to buy my books in a bookstore, and cried out in anguish because nobody stocks them.

Nolan: But with the blastshield down, I can’t see anything! How am I supposed to fight?

Anne and me: What?

Nolan: I just heard you referencing Star Wars and I wanted to be part of it.

Me: I am so proud of you right now.

Man, it’s so vivid and real, isn’t it? I almost put a unicorn in there, but I thought that’d be silly. Anyway, joking aside, it’s really hard for indie authors like me to compete for shelf space in bookstores, which means that it’s harder for our reliable and potential customers to get our books. It’s just a matter of economics, really: there’s a finite amount of physical space in each store, and it makes more sense for booksellers to fill up a lot of that space with multiple copies of heavily-promoted, mainstream stock that’s going to sell like gangbusters, instead of a couple copies each of lesser-known stuff by guys like me that isn’t guaranteed to move as quickly or consistently.

Well, the rules are changing:

Revolutionary Espresso Book Machine launches in London:

It’s not elegant and it’s not sexy – it looks like a large photocopier – but the Espresso Book Machine is being billed as the biggest change for the literary world since Gutenberg invented the printing press more than 500 years ago and made the mass production of books possible. Launching today at Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road branch in London, the machine prints and binds books on demand in five minutes, while customers wait.

Signaling the end, says Blackwell, to the frustration of being told by a bookseller that a title is out of print, or not in stock, the Espresso offers access to almost half a million books, from a facsimile of Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice in Wonderland to Mrs Beeton’s Book of Needlework. Blackwell hopes to increase this to over a million titles by the end of the summer – the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space, or over 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are currently out-of-copyright works, but Blackwell is working with publishers throughout the UK to increase access to in-copyright writings, and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“This could change bookselling fundamentally,” said Blackwell chief executive Andrew Hutchings. “It’s giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon … I like to think of it as the revitalisation of the local bookshop industry. If you could walk into a local bookshop and have access to one million titles, that’s pretty compelling.”

(Emphasis mine, because holy shit.)

I need to figure out how to get my books into the distribution stream for the Espresso Book Machine, because this is a fundamental game-changer for indie authors and publishers like me.

73 thoughts on “more print-on-demand goodness”

  1. This is a truly fantastic innovation for the book buying/reading public.
    As for how this might hurt a bookstore . . . well, if a small bookstore could not afford the machine and another store on the other side of town could (say, a mojor chain with money), then I could see the small guy being squeezed out.
    Of course, these types of situatons can occur in many industries.

  2. I’m not worried about the bookstore owners who love books, because they’re also readers who care about the bookstore experience. I’m worried about the bottom-line-uber-alles accountant mentality that thinks the most important word in “bookstore” is STORE and not BOOKS.
    I afraid that POD will be another step in the commoditization of books–although, as you pointed out, there is an upside in readers’ ability to get our hands on “unavailable” books.

  3. Wil, I just had to tell you. I forwarded the link to this post to an author friend of mine who has been increasingly frustrated with the industry, and with whom I’ve had several conversations about the possibilities in books-on-demand. I knew he’d be very interested to hear about Espresso Book Machine.
    I titled the email “A New Hope.”
    I cc’d my husband, who’s also in publishing (a comic book editor). He says he’d marry me all over again. Heh.

  4. I would like to point out that while such a machine might appeal to some, for many the experience of browsing a bookstore wouldn’t be there. It would break my heart, as a bookseller, to stand alone in a store with a copy machine.

  5. THANK YOU. I couldn’t have said that better myself if I even contemplated trying to.
    Wil, I can’t say that I can completely relate with you about getting a novel published, but I’ve been writing poetry since I was eleven years old and just getting the copyrights for my own material is ludicrously expensive as hell. So far, I’ve only published one out of about 200 poems that I’ve selected out of all of the poems that I’ve written in the past 20 years or so.
    In theory, the Expresso machine sounds really cool. At the same time, I have no idea what it would cost to self-publish my own effing work, and that one fucking poem that I published was for some sort of scam operation that would probably publish one of my Pre-Kindergarten students’ scribblings just to turn around and say “You can buy a copy of your poem for $50.00 in this generic assed piece of shit publication.” Never underestimate the trappings of naivete, as I so harshly found out after I had already submitted my poem. Man, that pissed me off, and the person I am pissed off at the most is myself for even falling for that scam.
    But getting back to my original point, a bookstore without any books? Seriously? If anyone even were to attempt that sort of thing, the legions of bookworms around the Globe would riot their asses off. Or at least I would. And find followers. And burn the place DOWN. After stoning the employees to death. No jury in the world would convict us. I’m serious.

  6. I’m right there with you. My hope is that something like this would *add* to a bookstore, give it additional revenue, make it easier for hard to find or non-mainstream authors, but most of all be *in addition to* the things we all love about bookstores.

  7. I’ve been thinking about it and one thing for which I believe it would be really useful are textbooks. Many are produced in small quantities by university presses. It’s one of the reasons why textbooks are so expensive. Also, just poking around at the B&N website, I see that your book is no longer available new and the prices that the used sellers have listed are a bit high. And there’s only four, so I have to take back my promise to make it a staff rec. :( When the SF section was mine to own and have dominion over, I kept your book on the SF table (sadly we no longer have a SF table.) Wish I could accommodate, because I do read your blogs and would like to be useful in some fashion. LOL

  8. You both make good points, I just think that, as people are wont to do, people will take it too far and you will get these things instead of stores and not in addition to or as an enhancement of stores. Once the profit margin kicks in all the companies will start seeing is the dollar sign and that will be the beginning of the end.
    I am not saying it right but I dont really know how to say what I am thinking. Theres a chance, of course, that I am overthinking or paranoid and that this could be the Next Big Thing

  9. Agreed. Marketing is what puts the word out there, but if the marketing is wrong or focuses on the wrong thing, it all goes tits up. They should have marketed it for a wider audience, but they were too damn stuck with the idea of using what you are most known for, which initially looks like a “cheap and easy” way to do it.
    Knowing from my head office, though (and it does sound like it from your experience as well), unfortunately marketing people tend to be the most cocksure buggers in the world… they live in their own little marketing world with little or no contact to reality.

  10. It wouldn’t kill a bookstore. In fact, it would make stock management much easier. There is a massive debate out there that publishers want to move more towards print on demand books, which would be firm sale (which means bookshops can’t return them if they don’t sell), which again would screw bookshops up massively, so obviously they don’t want that.
    However, if they have a printer in-store, it lowers the risk for them massively, and would actually make them more money. It would be excellent for academic shops, who have more people with special interests that are more risky to serve (i.e. stocking expensive specialist books which might be non-returnable and also might not sell, and then end up outdated and dusty in a storeroom).
    The problem is that these printers are expensive, which goes against all business ideas on running high profit on low costs… it might take a while to pay off, because how many people will go and buy risky high cost specialist books? Books that sell themselves would just be cheaper to order and stock the traditional way.

  11. I work for BN in Bellevue, WA. JAG has been listed unavailable for at least the better part of a year sadly, same for Sunken I believe. I was hoping to get a few of those in for when Happiest Days released but alas. Creative lengths and used bookstores seem to be the solution on those.
    Can’t wait for Happiest Days to come out tho, I’m gonna probably throw it on my recommends when it does come in because…well because Wil smells of lavender and awesome. What more reason should there be? Oh and because I was greatly entertained by you at the Con and enjoyed the passages you read. But other than that…Lavender and awesome.

  12. Dude. That will rock. (But then, my library privileges at Saltmine U. are my favorite part of the benefits package.) Which reminds me — here’s an excerpt of Italo Calvino’s awesome novel, If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, in which the experience of going to a bookstore is described:

    Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.

    Which reminds me… I need more bookcases.

  13. IOAWNAT’s opening is my favourite opening of any novel of all time. It talks to you in such a plesant familiar way, and reminds you why you like the experience of reading so much.
    The first time I read it, I was standing in a bus desperately wanting to do as the narrator was suggesting, and put my feet up and relax, but the words were able to transport me to my happy-reading-place anyway.
    Thanks for reminding me. It was good.

  14. Yes, those words will instantly remind me why I love reading, and love books. It’s one of my favorite uses of meta-fiction, ever.

  15. Cost of the machine and the printed books will determine a lot, too. The current cost I noted in a YouTube vid was $.01 per page, which as far as “base cost” goes is okay I guess- but seems a bit high- does anyone know?
    Then they’re going to have to stick a profit margin on it to make the capital cost work, and cover the system cost too.
    Very interesting to see, but it’s physicaly huge and seemingly costly- and I work where we use photocopiers constantly- repair costs and downtime have to be considered as well.
    That said if it gets Wil’s books to me faster (or at all!) then gimme a double-shot of Espresso!

  16. Hi Wil. I said I would check about your book when I was at work, so now I’ll tell you what I found out. I called O’Reilly Media and talked to a woman in customer service who told me that your book is still in print, but there is no indication whether they plan to do another printing run. So all the folks on here who have books on order at B&N are likely not to see them in the foreseeable future. My suggestion is to ask us, your fans, to call the publisher ourselves (being uber friendly and sincerely diappointed when she gives the same info.) The more requests, the more likely a print run could be scheduled. Another idea is to call CRM in your area and express interest in doing a signing since the Star Trek movie is coming out and will be big. So why not tie it in? She can call the publisher and ask about doing a print run for a signing. Just a thought. :)

  17. I didn’t read all the comments, but I did want to let you (and others) know that there is converter software to make PDFs readable on Kindle and other e-readers. So if you offer them the way you did Sunken Treasure, people can convert them to whatever format they might need. Just FYI.
    That said, print on demand books? Oh man, I’m there. As many have already said, big box stores frequently don’t have what I’m looking for. They have ten million copies of crap I wouldn’t touch, but they keep shrinking down the sections and leaving out authors of the genres I do read, all in the name of having more room for the dreck. Bah!

  18. I had nearly the same conversation in a Borders in Massachusetts, so I welcome our new, book binding overlords.

  19. Hey Wil,
    When I couldn’t get your books in the store, i went online and ordered them. I guess where there’s a Wil there’s a way.

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