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More Thoughts About On Demand Printing

Ann Bartow’s post about the Espresso on demand printing press highlights that change takes time. Ann’s post notes a Guardian article touting the machine as revolutionary and that a publisher in the U.K. launched a service based on the machine in the past few days. Yet, I wrote about the machine (and more importantly Time magazine did) in November 2007. That post compared Kindle and Espresso. So where did Espresso go in the interim?

According to the article, it has been catching on and now a larger publisher is taking a stab at using the device. Yet, the on demand print world has been growing and claiming viability for some time. Amazon has embraced on demand printing with its Book Surge service (rival to Lulu and Blurb) for more than a year (Blurb has been around since 2006). So is the on demand print world still just getting out of the blocks? If so, why hasn’t it caught on more quickly? It may be that this time frame is short for a new technology. Heck, the guts of the Internet were around for quite some time until a few pieces clicked and the hockey stick growth began. I hope we are verging on the same for on demand publishing.

I, for one, would love the ability to print books on demand. If we had a more coherent copyright system (see my paper on descendible copyright for an example of one way copyright is incoherent), one could perhaps find a work, then the copyright holder, and order a book with royalties reaching whomever was entitled to them. Public domain works could be printed in a low cost way. As Time put it Espresso “can churn out a 300-page paperback on demand, complete with color cover, in just 3 min. The $50,000 machine could transform libraries into minibookstores, making hard-to-find titles as accessible as cappuccinos. At $3 a book they might be cheaper too.” So maybe the time has come for universities and/or cities to invest in a machine (or maybe the universities and cities in say San Diego county would invest in and share one machine) so that anyone could find the text and get a copy. One study suggests that inter-library loans costs alone justify spending the money on a machine (total annual cost was above $100k for one university; and another school claimed a cost of $45 per ILL request).

As I write this post, I find I want to learn more about these questions, because I am excited. It seems to me that with on demand printing, we could see a huge cost savings and breakthrough in access-to-knowledge. There should be opportunities and really a market that would drive better copyright clearing systems for print matter. There will of course be some problems and questions (e.g., cost to user, disparity in ability to check out a book for free (or because of taxes) and the possible shift to a pure pay to use model). Nonetheless, we may be seeing a the start of a digitally driven, print revolution.