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The Tipping Point for Print on Demand?

Ondemand_1Print on demand (POD) systems are on the verge of revolutionizing the book publishing industry.  Of course lots of people have been saying this for the last 10 years or so, which means it rivals the notion of convergence on the over-hyped scale.  Without getting too excited though, I think we might finally be closing in on a significant event in the world of POD.

According to this story on and this blog post, a company called OnDemandBooks is about to release a POD system called Espresso that could radically change the rules.  Imagine your local bookstore suddenly having every book in print in stock.  With a price tag of $50K the Espresso system isn't exactly cheap.  But, like any other type of technology we can probably expect that price to drop as volume/demand increases.  The article notes that the manufacturing costs are around a penny a page -- that's pretty darned good although still more expensive than traditional offset printing costs.

If I'm the head of B&N or Borders I'm anxiously trying to figure out how to economically roll this out across my entire chain.  Why?  If one of these babies is available in all my brick and mortar outlets I magically neutralize one of Amazon's competitive advantages ("the world's largest bookstore").  In fact, I wind up tipping the scales in my favor by combining my local presence (e.g., instant gratification) with as large a virtual inventory as any online reseller.

This has enormous potential.  Now will it finally live up to all the hype?...


shel israel

As an author, this sounds pretty exciting to me. But it doesn't necessarily resolve the other B&N, and bookstore problem: price. I bring my laptop to my local B&N . If I see a book I like, I connect to Amazon and see what the price differentiation is. Sometimes it's about $10, so I sit in my local B&N and order my book at Amazon. Of course, B&N gets me for the cup of coffee, I'm usually sipping.

Joe Wikert

Hi Shel. Yes, price/discount is still an advantage for Amazon. However, B&N seems to be closing that gap. It wasn't that long ago that they started giving 40% off their bestsellers. Granted it's not the same discount Amazon offers on almost all their list, but it's a nice start!

Michael A. Banks

Jason Epstein was talking about this several years ago in his book, pretty much the same business plan. I'm glad it has come close to reality. But, Will the machine production cost allow B&N, et al, to run as slim a profit margin as Amazon? In theory, yes, but what about continuing costs, and the cost of amortization? I expect booksellers who try this will want to cover their backs by accelerating amortization by building it into prices.

And how much of the motivation behind the idea is the idea of change for its own sake?

Finally, it remains to be seen whether book buyers will accept it. Perhaps given samples to heft and examine, they will decide to go for the insta-print versions.

I see this as being for some time an augmenting service in bookstores that still stock conventional books heavily.

Lynne W. Scanlon

B&N has positioned itself as much more than a bookstore, so I don't think Len Riggio is too worried about POD.

I think you'd really have to see the shareholders take a serious hit before B&N would be anxious about anything.

I worked as a consultant in the corporate offices in 2004/2005 as the Director of Marketing, Special Sales, for B&N's proprietary publishing company, Barnes & Noble Books, and got a pretty good look at how the B&N machine works. Tough and smart.

Kent Larsen

Funny, I remember reading about another, similar and cheaper system already available. I don't know if it is as good a system, but I am sure that this idea (a good one) has been around for many years, and has been worked on by many people.

Let's hope one of these systems actually gets picked up and installed by bookstores.

Of course, what I don't see here is how bookstores with these machines will actually get the files needed to produce books? Who will be the middlemen that passes securely these files to the stores and collects the publisher's license fees for allowing their titles to be produced in this way?

These machines aren't worth squat to bookstores without this logistical problem being solved.

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