The Espresso Book Machine

My first experience with the Espresso Book Machine.

There’s a kind of renaissance going on with the printed page right now, perhaps to counter our relatively new fascination with digital publishing. Last month’s NY Art Book Fair was evidence enough that there’s never been a better time for the self- or small independent publisher of paper-based works. A remarkably low barrier-to-entry and easy access to print-on-demand services like Blurb and BookMobile and Create Space are satisfying a growing artists’ book movement and fueling entirely new ventures, like print-on-demand publishing and artists’ book coops and self-publishing book fairs.

In the middle of this space has emerged something altogether different. It’s got one foot in the Google/Gutenberg epub swamp and another in the bookstore. It’s an inelegant, one-ton pile of plexiglas and hardware with a footprint a bit larger than a bathtub. The Espresso Book Machine doesn’t make coffee — it eats PDFs and spits out professional-grade paperback books. In a few minutes. For a few dollars.

As remarkable as it is, it’s additive technology cobbled together from component parts. It’s a mash-up machine, really not much more than a few Xerox printers, a glue-gun and some X-acto blades connected to the internet. The Frankenstein of printers. Which means that the EBM is not breakthrough technology, but more like an iterative step in the 600-year development of the printer, with the potential to support other, more innovative ideas (a print-on-demand library, for example).

That said, it’s a fantastic thing.

As soon as I heard that NYC had its first (and so far only) EBM at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street, I started thinking about a test project. It’s got some interesting restrictions — printing is 1-color black-only for the text pages, full-color cover, any size from 4″ x 4″ up to 8.5″ x 11″, and a minimum of 40 pages (max of 800).

So I decided to use it as the basis for a proposal I was writing for an arts festival in the UK — 12 volumes that would be “Espresso’d” and installed at different locations during the 2-week event, to coincide with the 2012 Summer Olympics. Since it was so easy, why not design and print Volume #1 and photograph it for the proposal? And that’s exactly what I did — it’s a 224-page, 1-color information graphic. I’ll post more about the project later, after I hear back from the festival producers.

The EBM at McNally Jackson is somewhere between “print-on-demand” and “see-you-next-week.” There’s a long queue for the service and it was suggested I check back in a few days to see when the book would be ready. Later, I was told there were no guarantees and I could pay a $25 fee to move to the front of the line (on top of an already-confusing set-up fee structure that includes a free proof; the printed book itself was about $12). I did, and got it the next day. I guess it’s a good thing that there’s great enough demand to keep it in business, but I’m willing to bet NYC could use a few more of these machines.

The bottom line — the printing is awesome. Super rich blacks and good tonal range on the photos (which were taken from Google Street View and already washed out). The text stock is a generic 60 lb. white or cream (I chose white), and a choice of dull uncoated or satin coated bright white 100 lb. cover.

The perfect binding is eerily perfect.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that all of the world’s 50 Espresso Book Machines are networked, so the PDF I feed it on Prince Street can be printed again, on-demand, in London or anywhere else. My latest dream — to lease one of these things, stick it in an empty storefront, and open an instant bookstore with an entirely digital inventory.

4 Comments

  1. I am already waiting in line with an AirShare folder full of PDFs outside your instant bookstore – really, though, the range of possible things to do with the EBM is so very tasty. I’m going to try one myself.

  2. p – it’s breathtaking seeing all the things you’re doing with this and with the uk proposal – sign me up to print something from your bookstore storefront

  3. Every time I’m in McNally I always circle the Espresso and pat it and think about using it, but I kept being thrown off by the less art/design oriented samples they have – I didn’t know if it could handle anything beyond text. But this proves that it can! Super hot.

    • Ariel, next time you’re up at Darien Library we can play with it. We just opened ours this week! Paul, I love this description of the EBM, the Frankenstein of printers – ha! We are very curious to discover all the authors in our area who will be interested in publishing their work at their local library. Should be a fun year!

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