The new Espresso Book Machine at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park is by no means as aesthetically pleasing as an old-fashioned printing press. It's a collection of devices Frankensteined together around a large, transparent plastic case full of machinery. At one end, there's a high-volume Kyocera printer, about the size of a photocopier. At the other, there's a Canon color printer, a monitor, and the device's brain, a Mac Mini. In the middle, in the clear plastic case, there are all kinds of levers and arms and devices, including, mysteriously, a "Robot Clamp."
Third Place employee Vladimir Verano, a cherubic, excitable man who was formerly the bookstore's used-book buyer, now operates the Espresso Book Machine out of a glassed-in office in the bookstore's enormous food court. Some of the books he has printed are displayed on his desk, including recent works of fiction like William Gaddis's masterpiece A Frolic of His Own and Graham Joyce's wildly entertaining urban fantasy horror novel The Tooth Fairy; scholarly works that a general-purpose bookstore could ordinarily never carry because the demand is so slight, including The Semiotic Challenge by Roland Barthes; and weird titles that have long been in the public domain, like the 1903 memoir On the Road with a Circus by William C. Thompson.
When it comes time to choose a book for Verano to print, I know exactly what I want: a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Braddon was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, and the most popular female novelist in England. Of the 80 novels that she wrote, only two—The Trail of the Serpent, about an evil orphan and the deaf detective who tries to uncover his monstrous crimes, and Lady Audley's Secret, about a class-skewering sociopathic criminal in Britain—have been widely available in my lifetime. Verano and I scan and preview the books available for publication—the process can be confusing because of the sheer volume of books; between Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other online storehouses of out-of-print books, there are several million titles to choose from—and I decide on The Christmas Hirelings, a shorter novel by Braddon.
Verano pushes a few buttons and the device sets to work. First, the cover is printed, and then the Kyocera starts spitting the pages of the book inside the transparent chamber. Once the interiors have been printed, a glue pot, which has been heating up and churning to life as the pages have printed, lines the inside spine of the cover with a viscous brown glue, and the pages get pressed into place. A whirring saw-blade arm sizes the book down, and the whole thing is dumped—ker-CHUNK—into a vending slot on the side of the machine. Besides the generic cover (just the title, author's name, and the name of the bookstore, in aqua blue), the finished copy of the book is virtually indistinguishable from any other paperback in the bookstore. It's still warm, and it smells of ink. Total time, from inception to completion: 15 minutes. Like all the other public-domain Google Books, the cover price is $8. The store is working on creating a widget for its website in the next few weeks that will enable customers to browse and order books. There will also be a dedicated computer for that purpose available to customers in the bookstore.
Printing out-of-print books is pretty neat, and so is the fact that the bookstore now has almost-immediate access to 800,000 contemporary print-on-demand titles (like The Tooth Fairy and A Frolic of His Own) that would normally take four to six weeks for a brick-and-mortar bookstore to acquire (the EBM exponentially increases Third Place's stock from 200,000 titles to millions), but it's not the device's major selling point.
Third Place Books has begun publishing its own line of books under the Third Place Press shingle. Verano, a freelance graphic designer, lays out the books for publication and designs the covers. The flagship TPP title, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound by Arthur A. Denny ($10), is a richly illustrated journal of the earliest days of Seattle by one of its founding fathers. The book has been in and out of print for a century, and now, thanks to the Espresso Book Machine—and perhaps for the first time in the history of independent bookselling—Third Place Books can always get a physical copy of the book to customers faster and more cheaply than Amazon.com, where the lowest-priced used copy at the time of this writing sells for $18.45, not including shipping.
Authors who want to self-publish can also approach Third Place Books with digital copies of their books and basically treat the bookstore as a publisher, with no financial risk on anyone's behalf. (Third Place is considering charging extra to have Verano design and lay out the books for aspiring authors, too.) The machine can't print anything inside the book in color, but Verano is considering offering tipped-in color plates—the way publishers used to illustrate books in the 1900s—as an artful solution to that problem.
There are only a handful of Espresso Book Machines in the world right now—University Book Store is slated to get one in January—but the possibilities are only as limited as your imagination. It takes the greatest retail weapon in the world—convenience—out of the hands of the internet and chain stores, and places it squarely in the hands of small business. Smaller, web-savvy publishers like Small Beer Press and Two Dollar Radio could cut one of the most expensive parts of publishing—the ridiculous storage and shipping costs—by promoting their books online and sending readers to their nearest EBM retailers to print the book for them. Someone could open a bookstore the size of an average living room and boast a stock of books that would dwarf even the largest Barnes & Noble.
The night after watching The Christmas Hirelings printed on the EBM, I read the book in one hungry gulp. Despite a few delightfully cynical swipes at class and other Braddonesque flourishes—the book is about a wealthy, unhappy man who allows an associate to rent some children to cheer him up for Christmas—it turns out to be a generic Elizabethan Christmas drama. The quirks of Google's scanning are often charming (the library card pocket and the imperfections of the original book, like handwriting from employees of the Indiana University Library, are scanned into my copy, giving it a feeling of history) and occasionally annoying (page 191 is reprinted 10 times in a row, making the narrative skip like a record before I recognize the error). But the possibility of those other books by Braddon (not to mention tens of thousands of other authors who have been lost to the ages), once just a fantasy, have now become a reality. For Braddon and me, it's 3 down, 77 to go.