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.