Back in March, I posted about how on demand printing was impacting the publishing industry. The emphasis in that discussion was at the publisher level. Northwestern University Press, for example, faces the choice of whether to print a title conventionally to enjoy low variable costs but hold inventory or to print a book using new technology that has a higher variable costs but can respond to orders on demand. The former makes sense if you have a potential New York Times best seller on your hands. The latter is a better choice if you have a niche product (like an academic imprint might offer) whose volume will be measured in dozens.
There’s an obvious follow-up question to this story. If the technology exists to do this at a publisher’s distribution center, why can’t book printing be done at a bookstore? Given a sufficiently large digital archive, a neighborhood bookstore could offer a wide variety of titles while offering convenience to Luddites who prefer paper to e-readers. Turns out the technology does, in fact, exist (Bookshops’ Custom Prints, Aug 27, Wall Street Journal).
One of the equipment providers is On Demand Books of New York. Here is what their Espresso Book Machine looks like in action:
If you want one of these babies for yourself, it will set you back $97,500 plus the cost of the printer. The system works with a couple of different printers that differ in their printing speed. The printers top out at over 100 pages per hour for $50,000.
Now does this make sense? In principle, it seems a good idea. It eliminates inventory while offering a bit of a gee-whiz in-store technology experience. At least for a while, it could drive some foot traffic if people are curious to see this Rube Goldberg slap a book together.
On the other hand, the margin can’t be that great. The story mentions that the total cost of a custom-printed book are (not surprisingly) higher than the costs of mass-produced once. On Demand Books has an agreement with Google to access their catalog of public domain titles. The store pays $2 for those title which gets split between On Demand and Google. Some in-print books are also available through a division of Ingram and those fees vary; likely we are still talking a few bucks. On top of that, the store has to pay the cost of printing. Even if one accepts the penny a page number mentioned in the video, that can easily be a few dollars as well.
But what about revenue? The article gives the example of someone buying a custom printed book for $19.95 but that seems a little high for many paperbacks. For example, the book being printed in the video is “Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future.” Amazon sells that for $11.16. At 208 pages, the store would be incurring four or fives dollars in cost to provide that books (depending on the rights fee). If the store comes close to matching the price of the mass-produced book, that leaves only a few dollars of profit.
The question then is volume. The numbers the article reports that a store in Vancouver has sold 1,500 custom-printed books since March, so about 250 a month. A store in Cambridge is supposedly moving 1,000 a month. Just judging by these rough numbers, one suspects that the Cambridge store is getting a nice return on their investment while the Vancouver one is at best breaking even. But will it last? Once everyone has an iPad or a Kidnle will this still be viable?