About a year ago I posted on On Demand Books and their Espresso Book Machines that can print a complete, bound book in a matter of minutes. (Checkout the original post for a video of one these machines in action.) It is worth bringing this back up because of a major development in the world of printing while you wait: HarperCollins is now going to make lots of titles available for these machines. (Out of Stock, Still in Luck: Print-on-Demand Expands, Wall Street Journal, Sep 23)
Their vision was aided Thursday by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. which said it would make about 5,000 current paperbacks available to bookstores through On Demand Books LLC’s Espresso Book Machine. …
Though the number of Espresso print-on-demand machines in use in the U.S. is small, the agreement underscores how publishers are rethinking the retail landscape now that Borders Group Inc. is in the final stages of liquidation.
The hope is that the surviving bookstores will be able to boost revenue by selling titles that they might not have in stock. …
HarperCollins estimates 25% to 80% of its trade paperback titles aren’t available in bookstores because of space considerations.
OK, so this is an attempt to support a distribution channel to balance the power between HarperCollins and, say, big box stores like WalMart or Costco which only carry best sellers and Amazon which will carry (or more accurately, distribute) everything. It is also a lifeline to On Demand Books whose installed base of printing machines is way below its previous targets. The article reports that stores and HarperCollins will be splitting the revenue of book sales 30-70, which I think is roughly the split in the “agency model” used for e-books.
Now will other publishers follow suit? That gets to one of the interesting quotes in the article:
One leading publisher who asked not to be identified said his company is unlikely to make more titles available, in part because they are concerned that bookstores with the machines might then order fewer titles. Machines, this person said, don’t help market books.
So I see two takes on this. One is that publisher believe that nothing moves a paperback like a pile of them on table labeled “Staff Picks” and an Espresso machine will lead to smaller or no piles. You are then dependent on readers actively asking for a title as opposed to learning about a title in the store. There is some truth to that but stores would still have some reason to actively market titles. That proactive guidance combined with fulfillment today is the reason for existence for a small bookstore.
My second view on this is that publishers are dependent on retail stores to cover part of their inventory expense. As long as there are economies of scale in standard printing, they will do relatively long production runs. They then benefit from moving those books downstream and on to someone else’s (financial) books.