Infographic on the History of Printing

The large contraption in the middle is a linotype composing machine from 1886. Wikipedia has a fascinating description of how it works.

The reference to a filmless system in the 1990s shows a Mac PowerBook that looks remarkably like Prometheus, my old 145B from my graduate school years. I still remember people talking about “camera-ready copy” in those days, though.

Ion Audio Invents the Missing Link

A stack of the iPods I now own... included are...

Image via Wikipedia

Thanks to the clever folks over at Windows Secrets, I’ve just found the missing link in the e-book/e-reader revolution.

One thing that fueled sales of the iPod, apart from the convenience of buying songs from the iTunes store, was the comparative ease of transferring your existing music collection onto this little electronic device. By the time the iPod hit the market, music was already digital. You could stick your CDs into your computer and “rip” the music from them into MP3 format in a matter of minutes. There was no need to go out and buy music you already owned in the new format.

With books, we haven’t had that option. If you get a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad to read books on, you’ll do fairly well with regard to new books, since the price of a new Kindle or iBook is less than that of a new hardcover, and many authors like J. A. Konrath make Kindle versions of their books available for less than the cost of a mass-market paperback. (Why not, when he’s keeping 70% of the retail price and thus earning more than he would on a print hardcover?)

But even after many rounds of giving books away, and selling them, I own hundreds of books. Novels by favorite authors, that I re-read about once a year. Professional reference books for my current career. Professional reference books from my previous career. Coffee table books (though I have no coffee table) with gorgeous photographs from museum exhibits or places I’ve traveled. The novels and some of the current reference books, at least, I would like to have on an e-reader if I owned one. (Books with photos would work well on the iPad, not as well on the monochrome versions of the Nook or Kindle.)

Am I going to buy 500 books all over again at $9.99 a pop? Not too likely. Especially if I don’t really own the electronic version, which one doesn’t with the Kindle.

But it’s no mean feat to “rip” my paper books onto an e-reader. It would be an enormously tedious process with my current scanner. It’s not as though I could stuff a paperback through the  sheet feeder.

Ion Audio demonstrated a device at CES that begins, at least, to address this problem. They call it the Book Saver, and it’s meant to scan books quickly without destroying them.


With the growing popularity of e-readers and digital books, ION has created the fastest and most convenient system for transferring novels, textbooks and periodicals to the digital realm. Book Saver allows everyone to easily transfer their favorite stories directly to a convenient SD cards. Once converted, the books can be quickly transferred to a computer or e-reader. Book Saver is the only device needed to quickly make all your books, comics, magazines or other documents e-reader compatible.

Book Saver has two cameras that take separate images in rapid succession of each page within an open book. You can scan 200 pages in less than 15 minutes! Book Saver’s cradle, where the book is placed during the scanning process, is also angled as to not require you to hold pages down to get a flat, even surface. While similar devices require up to seven seconds per one page, Book Saver takes only one second per two pages!

That’s pretty impressive, though it would still be quite a job to scan even my collection of novels. But if I didn’t need to do them all at once, it could be workable. Scan a handful of books before a trip, or take an hour or two every week until they’re done.

According to USA Today, Ion expects to price the BookSaver at $189, which is pretty reasonable, though there’s no price listed on the site.  The BookSaver won’t be available until later this year.

If it takes off, we can probably expect to see other manufacturers produce similar devices, and even some improvement in the technology. Book publishers will likely wail about piracy, but they already do that, and books were  pirated before the Kindle was a gleam in the eye of Jeff Bezos. There’s a sound legitimate use for the BookSaver, and it could boost sales of e-readers among some of the biggest book buyers in the world.

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Should You Start Your Own POD Bookstore?

On October 12, 2008, Paula B from The Writing Show published an episode about Print-on-Demand Technologies hosted by Ricardo from Amigo Audio (known to me from his insightful contributions to the For Immediate Release podcast). Ricardo talked about buying your own printing press in order to start a bookstore that could provide thousands of titles without needing acres of shelf space.

The printing press, in this case, would be one of two devices, either of them smaller than the HP Indigo printers used by many POD houses and the new MagCloud services. The first is Instabook Maker, which when assembled is 7 feet long, 3 feet high, and 2.5 feet deep.

Instabook Maker III

The second is the Espresso Book Machine from On Demand Books. The new 2.0 version is 3.8 feet wide, 2.7 feet deep, and 4.5 feet high.

Either of these could fit in a good-sized office or a modest-sized storefront. (Ricardo even talks about the possibility of installing such a press in a van and creating a new, improved bookmobile.)

When listening to Ricardo’s recording, I had a hard time imagining myself, or most of the authors I work with, wanting to start a bookstore. Devices like this do have the potential to give independent bookstores—a dying breed—an edge they haven’t had before and an opportunity to make a wider range of books available to their customers, including titles that have now gone out of print. But most non-fiction authors don’t aspire to running a bookstore or even a printing press. Come to that, I don’t know any novelists or poets who do, either. In fact, most independent publishers have someone else do their printing.

Then there’s the caveat that even if the quality of the paper, printing, and binding do in fact stack up to those of commercially published books, producing a professional-looking book requires good design and good editing in addition to the correct technology.

And if you want to be able to reprint books from other authors and publishers, there has to be some kind of arrangement about rights and royalties, which could get complicated.

But then I got my October Michigan Today, and what should be in it but an article about an Espresso Book Machine recently installed in the Ugli? (Excuse me, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. But when I was in gradual school at U-M in the early 1990s, we all thought “Ugli” was only too appropriate.) U-M was one of the first libraries to get involved in digitizing books as part of the controversial Google Book Search project, so it’s not surprising they should be quick to adopt other new technologies.

The Espresso Book Machine makes perfect sense as an investment for a research library. Academic books tend to have small print runs and to go out of print quickly, but those out-of-print books remain important for scholars. U-M is a research university famed for its library collections. They even have a papyrology collection; I worked there one summer. (Yeah, I know, you thought U-M was all about football. I was in Ann Arbor for 5 years and never went to a single game.) And libraries only need a few copies of any given title, but they need to restock them due to wear and tear.

So when I read the article and watched the video, I thought “Now that is really cool.”

Espresso Book Machine

Do I want to open a bookstore? No. And I don’t think either Instabook or Espresso is likely to be a good investment for anyone who wants to print large runs of single books. Nor is owning such a device enough to make you a publisher (assuming you can afford one, and the prices are such that you’d better be independently wealthy, a large enterprise, or have VC backing). But the potential really is tremendous, if the intellectual property issues can be worked out.

Magazines on Demand

A couple of months ago I wrote about storing your data “in the cloud.” Now Hewlett-Packard wants publishers to store magazines in the cloud and make them available on demand. These days, a “publisher” is anyone who posts content online, so that means you.

Thanks to colleagues in the Northern California chapter of the National Speakers Association (NSANC), I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on MagCloud at HP Labs today. NSA member Ian Griffin used MagCloud to create the first issue of Professionally Speaking” and send it to NSANC members.

MagCloud prints on heavy 80-lb matte stock rather than the flimsy paper used by most magazine publishers. I compared “Professionally Speaking” with the assorted business magazines piled up on my desk and with the Better Social Media Communication Results newsletter my colleague Lee Hopkins published on an offset press. The MagCloud product compared favorably to both, particularly for printing photos.

The text didn’t seem as crisp or black as that in the BetterComms newsletter, but that may be a function of the resolution of the PDF file uploaded to create “Professionally Speaking,” or perhaps the font color or style, because the body text in HP’s own MagCloud Publisher Guide is as clear and sharp a black as anyone could wish for. (You can download a free PDF version of that to help you set up your own MagCloud publication.)


HP Indigo Printer (cutaway view) MagCloud Publisher Guide

Many POD book publishers use the same HP Indigo printers that produce MagCloud’s magazines. We looked at an Indigo 3000 in the Color Lab, but that’s already been superseded by newer, faster models that push the break-even point versus offset printing to 5,000 copies. (That means that unless you’re printing 5,000 or more copies, HP Indigo technology, and by extension MagCloud, is more cost-effective than offset printing.) Even the older model is impressive—more than seven feet tall, yet amazingly compact and tidy for industrial production. Ordinary inkjets, laser printers, and even offset presses use 4-color printing: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (abbreviated “K” for reasons I can’t remember). The Indigos use six colors, either the standard CCMMYK of photo printers like my Epson Stylus Photo 1280, or Pantone spot colors. They’ll print on practically anything, including plastic cards, and the samples we saw were beautiful. I don’t think I will add one to my “covet” list, though: the PG&E bill would go through the roof, and the fan noise would keep me up at night.

Serial Typography

Until now, the burgeoning print-on-demand industry has focused on publishing books. Magazines are actually better candidates for POD, which allows for timely production and reduces wastage. (Some 50% of magazines sent to newsstands are never sold and get pulped.)

The defining characteristic of magazines is recurrence. When you sign up as a MagCloud publisher, you’re asked to enter a title and subtitle for your magazine, and then create your first issue. During the private beta, you’ll need an invitation in order to get a publisher account, and they’ve already had more than a thousand requests, so you may have to wait a while before you can try it out.

Many other print publications also lend themselves to this multiple-issue format: newsletters, annual reports, membership directories, course materials, and the like. So do e-zines and blogs. You might not really want to start distributing your e-zine in print format to all your subscribers, but having a print version to hand around at networking meetings could be useful, and it’s possible that a few of your readers will actually want to order one.

If all you want is a short run of a short-format document, however, you may want to consider another POD service, because right now MagCloud offers you one trim size, one binding, and one text stock. (Cover and text stock are the same.) Other features, like templates to allow non-designers to lay out their own magazines, are still in an extremely rudimentary phase. And MagCloud is not (yet?) in the business of selling ISSNs. (That’s like an ISBN, but for magazines; I remember getting one for my electronic journal in 1994, and if you ever want your magazine sold in stores, you’ll need one.)

If they can find a way to import RSS feeds easily MagCloud will attract bloggers in droves. Right now Blurb’s “blog slurping” function only works with hosted blogs, which is no use to those of us who publish our blogs from our own servers. If Windows Live Writer can access and import from all my blogs, I don’t know why BookSmart can’t.

Pricing Structure

MagCloud’s own business model is to charge US$0.20 per full-color page. That’s one side of an 8.5 x 11 sheet, the same as one page in a word-processing program or one page as a copy shop would charge you. This represents a comfortable but not extravagant markup over HP’s costs. It’s less than you’d pay for color photocopies and probably less than it would cost you in ink to print the magazine yourself on an inkjet printer (assuming you have a duplex printer that handles tabloid format sheets, which most people don’t). Publishers add their own markup on top of this base price.

Magazine length is based on a unit of 4 pages, up to a total of 60 pages. (This is short by comparison with most commercial magazines, but much longer than most corporate newsletters.) A 60-page magazine would have a minimum cover price of US$12 plus shipping—steep compared with what you find on the newsstands. And that’s assuming the publisher doesn’t want to make any money on it.

There is no set-up fee for publishing a magazine if your PDF is ready to go.

Magazines 2.0

Because of the Indigo technology’s advantage in short-run printing, the MagCloud team is focusing its efforts on niche publishers like NSA or the Palo Alto flying club. One person at today’s presentation described MagCloud as “iTunes for magazines.” MagCloud has a lot in common with blogging, podcasting, and niche networks created with Ning. While print magazines already exist to serve a phenomenal variety of specific interests, those magazines also cease publication with alarming frequency as subscriber numbers and advertising revenue drop off and distribution costs increase.

A New Model for Print Advertising

Print advertising is the oldest form (apart from yelling at passers-by in the open market, anyway), and it has long-established conventions that simply aren’t appropriate for MagCloud’s niche publications, any more than they suit most podcasts or blogs. Advertisers buy print and broadcast ads based on something called CPM, which means “cost per thousand.” So for every thousand readers you have, you get X amount.

Naturally, if you only have 500 subscribers—or 50—CPM is a rotten model. Traditionally-published magazines give away free subscriptions to “industry professionals” (meaning anyone who signs up): it helps them keep their circulations numbers high. If you’ve ever had one of these free subscriptions and tried to cancel it, you know how difficult it is to stop magazine publishers from sending endless issues of dubious relevance.

MagCloud publishers who want to subsidize their printing costs with advertising (an established revenue model and one not yet much used in book publishing) can learn important lessons from online content creators. Highly targeted audiences are more valuable than sheer numbers. If the advertiser’s product matches the interests of a magazine’s readership closely enough, sales are guaranteed. For some groups (like the wine geeks who listen to Grape Radio), the revenue per order may be quite high and the return on investment in a niche publication very enticing.

This won’t work for all niches, and finding an advertiser to match the interest of your readership might be a challenge. But MagCloud has some ideas about that, too.

Community Vision

Many POD houses make more money by selling design and editing services than by printing and distributing books. Rather than selling design services directly and overtaxing its creative department, HP Labs wants MagCloud to become a community marketplace where content creators can hook up with (and rate) designers, and publishers seeking content can find writers to produce it. In this vision, subscribers could create their own magazines from individual articles in other MagCloud publications. An advertiser could post “I’m trying to reach Baby Boomers in the financial industry” and publishers could respond with their reader demographics and psychographics.

So far the crowdsourcing and social networking aspects of MagCloud are only at the “vision” stage, however. Users of the MagCloud site have two options: to sign up as subscribers, and to sign up as publishers. Eventually, one presumes, it will be possible to sign up as a designer, a content creator, or an advertiser.

Even in its pre-release state, MagCloud offers fascinating possibilities. Like all great ideas, magazine publishing on demand prompts the question “Why hasn’t someone done this before?”

Bed Books: A New Twist on Book Printing

Most avid readers know how awkward it is to read lying down. You end up twisting either your neck or your wrist—or both—at an awkward angle. Reading while lying on your stomach at the beach is a little easier on the eyes, but not much good for the elbows, and reading while lying on your back is nearly torture.

If you’re enough of a book junkie, you do it anyway, but after putting up with the acrobatic demands of reading in the cramped sleeping space of his camper-van, Darryl Green decided to do something about it, and the Bed Book was born (

Instead of twisting your neck, bed books rotate the orientation of the text 90 degrees, with two columns of text above the spine and two columns below. (See sample page.) If you’re sitting up, you hold the book’s spine parallel to the floor; if you’re lying on your side, you prop the book on its end so the spine is perpendicular to the floor. Then you flip the page down and start at the top again.

This seems very peculiar at first, but it works surprisingly well. And while I personally will probably continue to sit up when I read in bed, the format is something authors, particularly self-published authors, should consider for their own books.

Right now only public-domain classics are available from, but Green is hoping to add on new titles. I asked what he might be able to do for authors who wanted bed books, and he said that as long as they had republication rights on the book, he could take the book document, format it, and add it to the collection available through the online store.

As I understood it, this would work in a way similar to publishing through Print on Demand houses. The author pays a conversion fee, based on page count and hourly labor costs, to create the printable file and would have the choice of furnishing a cover design or using the standard solid brick-red cover with yellow text. (I know which I’d choose.)

There isn’t an “author services” section on the Bed Books website yet, but if enough authors express interest, there will be.

Meanwhile, Darryl Green is looking for authors to contribute short pieces to an anthology to be sold in hospitals, where patients may not have the option of sitting up to read and shouldn’t be forced to rely on television. If you’re interested in contributing to or organizing the anthology, contact him at [email protected].