Bringing the Press to the People

By Bill Marvel / The Dallas Morning News

Someday soon you'll walk into a bookstore, browse an online catalog for the book you want, order it, then repair to the coffee bar for a latte while your book is printed and bound.

It could be any book, because in this bright new future, no book need ever go out of print. Every title will be at least potentially available at any bookstore.

It's called on-demand printing, and it's closer than you think.

Erich Schlegel / DMN
Austin residents Jack Ortman, Burton Wilson and Minor Wilson watch Eakin Press' BookBuilderOne in action.

In the wooded hills 12 miles out side Austin, the future is already arriving at the rate of one book every five minutes.

That's how long it takes Eakin Press' new BookBuilderOne to print, trim and bind one paperback book.

Roughly the size of the salad bar at a small restaurant, BookBuilderOne could easily fit into a garage or, more to the point, into a small bookstore or the office of a small publisher like Eakin. Linked to a PC and a couple of desktop printers, it can turn out virtually any paper back book in any size, 4 by 6 inches to 8 by 10 inches.

At a recent open house at Eakin Press, Bruce Baebler, who works for St. Louis-based On-Demand Machine Corp., demonstrated the process before a crowd of authors and reporters. Taking a fresh cover from one of the printers and a stack of pages from the other, he slipped them in to the machine. With a few whirrs and clanks, out popped a new copy of Devil's Backbone, one of Eakin Press' titles. (The book has nothing to do with the devil; it's a collection of Texas folk tales.)

It took a lot longer than the big offset presses that churn out thousands of copies of the latest Stephen King or Scott Turow novel per hour. But that's its advantage. Unless you want thousands of books and you're prepared to let them sit around a warehouse collecting dust and taxes until they're sold, that process is inefficient and costly.

On-demand printing changes that, says Paul Hilts, technology edi tor for Publishers Weekly, the mag azine of the book publishing industry.

``It's the easy distribution of dig its as opposed to the hard distribu tion of books. Why distribute books when you can distribute files, then print the book where it's wanted? Everyone wins but FedEx.''

The digital files that contain the text, photographs and printing and binding instructions for a book can easily be stored on a single CD kept by a bookstore or publisher, says Mr. Baebler. Or they can be kept in a central repository and downloaded by the bookstore via the Internet whenever a book is ordered.

Erich Schlegel / DMN
A paperback is assembled by the BookBuilderOne.
The machine demonstrated here is not the only on-demand printing system. IBM and Xerox both are marketing systems, and in fact, a few days before the Austin demon stration, Barnes & Noble struck an agreement with IBM to provide printing-on-demand equipment for its distribution centers. Random House has also announced it is in vesting in the technology.

The difference is that Book BuilderOne targets small publishers and bookstores.

``The plan is to put machines in bookstores and have an overall net work by which they are tied togeth er by the Internet,'' says Mr. Baebler. ``It's designed so that virtually any clerk with a little training can run it. If you can operate an office photo copier, you can run this.''

Harvey Ross, the 78-year-old for mer Motorola engineer who invented the machine, says he was studying ``the distribution of information in an information society,'' when he became convinced that he could come up with a ma chine for bookstores that could pro duce a book while the customer waited.

``What I didn't realize,'' he says, ``was that people like Eakin Press were in greater need than book stores.''

Like most independent publishers, Eakin prints small numbers of books and has a hard time getting them into every bookstore. Moreover, since storage space is limited, unless there is a huge demand, when a press run is sold out, the book goes out of print to make room for new books on the shelf.

Tommy Messer, Eakin's director of sales, found the solution last year at the Los Angeles Book Expo, where Mr. Ross' machine was being demonstrated. He brought brochures back to Austin and passed them on to Edwin M. Eakin, who immediately phoned Mr. Ross.

``I flew up to St. Louis and bought it on the spot,'' says Mr. Eakin, ``with the promise that we could have the first one.'' The cost: $65,000.

The second machine will go to Denver's famous Tattered Cover bookstore early next year.

``We've had a lot of ideas how we might best market it,'' says Joyce Meskis, Tattered Cover's owner. ``I just feel that it has so many wonderful applications for the future of books, keeping them in print, small print runs.''

One possibility she has been toy ing with is to remove all the titles already carried in On Demand's database from the shelves and let customers order those books direct ly from the machine.

How will customer's adjust to books hot off the press?

Erich Schlegel / DMN
Harvey Ross, former Motorola engineer, invented the machine.
One issue is quality. So far, on-demand printed books look about as good as any inexpensive paperback but no better.

``It's designed for trade paper backs,'' says Mr. Baebler. But that's because the machine is dependent upon the quality of desktop printers, and that, he points out, is improving year by year.

Presumably, in a few years print ers will be able to deliver high qual ity black-and-white and color illustrations as well as crisp, handsome typefaces. When they do, on-demand printing will be ready for them.

Besides, Mr. Hilts says, fine binding and handsome offset printing are not critical to the success of a book.

``Did The Bridges of Madison County really need a hardback?'' he says. ``It was a beach book. It would have done just as well if they had sold it from kiosk, chapter by chap ter.

``What's appropriate is what's going to count. It won't matter if it's not leatherbound. The family Bible is still going to be leatherbound. But we read Tom Clancy's stuff and Danielle Steel's stuff for entertain ment. We read it and throw it away.''

During the on-demand demon stration, Mr. Eakin tours visitors through his storage room, where hundreds of copies of Eakin Press books wait on metal shelves for someone, somewhere, to place an order. Then, he shows the visitors a small bookcase, 4 feet by 5 feet, where he can store a thousand CDs, each with a book on it just waiting for on-demand printing.

``I'm sold on it,'' he says. ``It's the wave of the future.''