Business Section



By William Flannery Of The Post-Dispatch

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* BookMachine may revolutionize how bookstores, libraries and publishers work.

The issues in this revolution literally are black and white. More than five years in research and development, the BookMachine could well revolutionize the way paperback books are bought and sold.

And in the process, the machine could save small, independent bookstores and publishers from the crushing competition of the huge book chains and mega-publishing houses.

The BookMachine looks like an oversized photocopier. It lets customers order trade paperbacks via satellite and have the high-quality books printed in the store in five minutes or less.

The machine is still in its prototype stage and will start field testing in January at the The Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, one of the largest independent bookstores in the nation.

The roots of the BookMachine date to a consulting job that electronic engineer Harvey Ross did in the early 1990s. He wrote a paper with the working title, "The Delivery of Information in an Information Age."

"As you know, you end up doing half the work before you even sell the proposal," Ross said. "At the half-way point, I realized that maybe two or three years down the line the components would be available to print . . . a book at the point of sale."

In 1995, Ross patented the idea. With partner Jeff Marsh, Ross formed a company, On Demand Machine Corp., in St. Louis. But they had to wait.

"Five years ago, the components for this machine would have cost $1 million. . . . That just wasn't economical," Marsh said. "But now we should be able to produce the initial machines for $80,000 each . . . and the price will drop with production."

Ross, Marsh and their mechanical engineer, Kathie Ernst, have strong engineering and entrepreneurial backgrounds.

Ross is an electronic engineer with an master's in business administration from the University of Chicago. With Motorola for 19 years, Ross was an assistant chief engineer in military research labs.

He worked on large systems, including the famous Cold War-era Distant Early Warning line of radar stations that were strung across northern Canada to warn North America of a Soviet bomber attack.

Jeff Marsh's background is in mechanical engineering with additional electrical and business degrees. He had 25 years in the auto industry.

"I started out in steel fabrication, tool and die," Marsh said. "I can run personally everything from a drop forge to blacksmithing."

In the late 1960s, Marsh was one of the first engineers to work on a anti-lock breaking system for autos.

All this knowledge and skill comes together in the BookMachine. The machine turns out trade paperbacks measuring 5 inches by 8 inches and up to 2 inches thick.

"We don't want every book on the market; we just want the ones that will sell," Ross said.

"The BookMachine was never intended to compete with first-run publishers. This machine is never going to be cheaper than offset printing," Marsh said. "But after that first run, there comes the question, `Do we do another printing or can we fill the orders as they come in?' "

Ross compares the project to a weapons system.

"With a large military system, if you try to design it to satisfy everybody, you will fail," Ross said. "If you can reach 90 percent of your goal, you will have a successful system."

Other companies, including Sony, have tried similar in-store printing machines, but all failed due to overly complex designs or bad marketing plans, Ross said.

"A lot of them ended up looking like a Swiss Army knife. We design a pen knife; we only do one thing. . . . That's why I think we can be successful," Ross said.

The machine can print both text and halftone drawings. Attempting to print color drawings or photos inside the book would drive the costs way up and would be economically prohibitive, Marsh said.

The BookMachines will be leased to stores, Ross said. This system will guarantee the publishers and stores a high level of quality, with the right grade of paper and toner. It also allows for ease of maintenance and equipment upgrade.

The BookMachine is more distributor than printer, though. "In a sense, we are a whole new trucking system," Marsh said. "There's no transfer of (ownership of the book) title," Ross said. "We work within the existing distribution system.

Distribution is a major cost in the book business. Another important cost is overprinting. Better than 20 percent of all books shipped are returned to the publisher.

"That will add a $1.65 to the price of every book that's sold," Ross said.

"We like to do it like Gillette," Marsh said. "We give them the razor and sell them the blades. And we will take a little share" of each book sold.

"And the publishers love this," Ross said. "At present, a publisher can wait for 60 to 90 days for the bookstore to pay for its books. "(With the BookMachine) the publisher will be notified on a daily basis - what store sold what book. And with electronic funds transfer, they can get their money that day."

Ross started with the book files produced by the publishers. Other books are electronically photographed.

For scholars, the BookMachine could prove a godsend in preserving rare and out-of-print books and manuscripts. The machine will also ease self-p ublishing ventures.

"If you can get me a copy of the book, we can get it into the system," Marsh said.

To get the best scanning reproduction the book will have to be taken apart and each page scanned in. Portable scanners can be used on rare and valuable books and manuscripts, but the reproduction may not be as good, Marsh said.

"And you don't have to lay the book flat. As long as you can open the book 90 degrees," we can photograph the pages, Ross said.

The method lends itself to reproducing foreign texts that are difficult to print, like Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

Seed money for the BookMachine came from venture capitalists.

"We have worked very hard to get our money. But we have refused to take money from any single publisher or large chain," Ross said. "For the BookMachine to be really successful, it must be universal. And to be universal we can't be indebted to one publisher or chain."

Joyce Meskis is the owner of Denver's Tattered Cover Bookstore, the test site for the BookMachine. She sees the machine as saving independent bookstores.

"First, in the book business service is critical. But given delivery and distribution, there are only so many books that a small store can stock," Meskis said.

The BookMachine will allow even the smallest store or library immediate access to potentially millions of titles and authors, many of whose works are out of print.

Asked if the BookMachine could save small publishing houses, Meskis said yes, but added, "Really, I think this machine will be usable by any publisher."


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