recent article by Andrew Fox about the possible future of publishing and bookselling made me start thinking about some of the Print-On-Demand printing machines that are available for bookstores. One of Andrew's contentions was that in the future bookstores would commonly have equipment of that sort in their shops. It was one of the only things he said that I didn't agree with, primarily because of the price of such machines (a common one, the Espresso Book Machine, costs around $100,000). Yesterday I realized that my opinion about that, since the last time I'd seriously considered it was 2008 or so, might have been based on old information and an old thought process. For a small business in a changing field, sticking to conclusions that you made four years ago is a terrible habit so I did a big of digging around the web to check my assumptions.
I wish what I had found would have made me wrong and Andrew right, but not so. For a smaller store, the technology just isn't there yet. And, I'm very doubtful that it ever will get there. You'll find my reasoning after the break.
Before I go into detail: one disclaimer, my figures for price of both the machine and supplies is based on the best information I could find. However, it comes from an article at Wired from 2009 and a Q&A from the University of Michigan Library dated late 2010. To try to improve my information, I contacted the manufacturer of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM hereafter) to get purchase and lease information. When I hear back from them, I'll post what I find out.
To start with, here are some basic numbers for printing a public domain book from Google -
Cost of machine is $100,000.
Materials for a 300 page book cost $3 per copy.
Google and hosting service charge $2 (books from other publishers would cost more but would sell for more. Net result would be a wash).
Suggested retail is $8.
Finally, the EBM can print one book in about 4 minutes.
Please feel free to ignore the following math and jump down to the conclusion. $8 retail minus $3 in materials and $2 in fees leaves $3 profit per book. Borderlands is open 8 hours per day, 362 days per year. At the rate of one book per hour, the profit in a year is (8 x 3 x 362) $8688. Based on the cost of the machine, I would pay off the machine and start making a profit in 11 year and 6 months. At the rate of 3 books per hour, the machine pays off in 3 years and 10 months.
At the rate of one book per hour, every single hour we're open, the machine would pay off in 11 years and 9 months. At the rate of 3 books per hour, it'll take 3 years and 11 months.
I'm not sure what sort of sales volume would be reasonable to expect if we got an EBM, but my bet is that it would be somewhere between those two figures. And that's the problem -- a hundred grand it far too much money for me to tie up for year and years. And, of course, none of the above figures takes into account the interest that I would have to pay on the loan, because I, like most small and mid-sized booksellers, don't have that sort of money in the bank.
Sadly, the math still works out the way it did in 2008. Too much money tied up for too long a time equals too much risk. If the price of the machine were lower, the equation would change, perhaps dramatically.
Problem is that I don't think that's going to happen since the actual physical technology used in machines of that type is really quite mature -- in essence it's laser-printing combined with basic 20th century robotics. The thing about mature tech is that the price doesn't tend to change much unless the market for the specific implementation of the technology increases significantly (in that case, economies of scale kick in and the price drops). I don't foresee the market for "book machines" increasing much, especially in the face of increasing adoption of ebooks. Gadgets like the Espresso Book Machine are probably going to remain where they are now: out of the reach of most bookstores.
Comments? Anyone out there see any way around the math? I'd love to be able to have a machine like that in the store.