McNally Jackson’s Espresso Book Machine: Write it. Print it. Now!

Espresso Book Machine at McNally Jackson’s Manhattan Bookstore

“I like the part where it pops out,” says Beth Steidle, who is one of two primary operators of McNally Jackson’s Espresso Book Machine. “It’s kind of like Willy Wonka.” But despite the analogy, this machine isn’t popping out candy (or coffee beans or a steamy brew!); it’s printing books. One at a time. Exactly how the customers want them. Last week, NYU’s M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media Program students got a first-hand look at the machine and its wonders during a private visit to the Nolita bookstore.

The Espresso Book Machine (EBM) is a giant contraption that creates print-on-demand paperback books, fully bound, in minutes. The 87 EBMs in the world are sold or rented/leased by On Demand Books. The New York-based company was founded in 2003 by publishing legend Jason Epstein, who had long envisioned an efficient way to print books at an affordable cost in a neighborhood setting. Today, the company stores all of its books on a network database. They’re boldly tackling the old publishing model of gambling on print runs. And they are partnering with major publishers like HarperCollins to deliver out-of-print books at the customer’s convenience (and expense!). In addition, On Demand Books is providing an instant means for self-publishers to see their e-creations in printed form. With all this undeniable business potential, it’s no wonder McNally Jackson was the first in New York to invest in an Espresso Book Machine—and they’ve never regretted it.

Installed in January 2011, the Espresso Book Machine is a profitable addition to McNally Jackson and still a pleasant surprise for many longtime customers, a sort of “Oh! When did that get here?” experience. Erin Curler, Director of Print-on-Demand and Self-Publishing at McNally Jackson, is appreciative of how easily customers have become used to the machine; it means that McNally Jackson has managed to seamlessly integrate a rather cumbersome, industrial-looking piece of equipment into the bookstore.

Though the McNally team had anticipated that the machine would primarily be used to print back issues of publications and books in the public domain, the business from self-published authors constitutes a staggering 96% of revenue from the EBM program. Curler says there are thousands of books printed every month on the EBM and one new self-published author signed up daily. The self-published works strongly reflect the artistic Nolita community, allowing graphic artists and photographers a local, immediate solution to print and bind their art with little hassle, and local authors to churn out their novels. All that’s needed for the machine is a PDF file, payment for the reasonably-priced start-up fee, and pennies per page. Interestingly, usage of the machines differs depending upon the nature of the community. For example, in the suburban and historic Connecticut town of Darien, the EBM located at the public library prints many works of family and personal history.

In fact, says Nina Ellis, Content Development Associate for On Demand Books, “What makes the Espresso Book Machine so unique is that it’s tying books to a place and works with the needs of a community.” She notes that other self-publishing companies like Lulu and CreateSpace don’t necessarily do that.

As the program continues to grow, McNally Jackson has expanded its initial offerings to include professional consultancy. The store has partnered with editors and designers to offer specific packages to its customers. Although there are no plans to create a McNally Jackson-branded, full-service imprint, Curler posits that Barnes & Noble would have an extremely profitable side-business if they were to put EBMs in their stores and create their own imprint—and, like McNally Jackson, carry these books on a shelf near the machine at an extra cost.

If On Demand Books had their way, every bookstore in the world would contain an EBM. The company is working hard to increase not only the number of machines, but the content available on its network. Ellis shared her delight at having the New York literary magazine n+1 in the On Demand network, meaning that their back-issues can be printed on any Espresso Book Machine. n+1 joins the ranks of the publishing clients of Lightning Source (such as Hachette Book Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster) and Google Books. In fact, M.S. in Publishing Alumna Karina Mikhli, who is Director of Content Development for On Demand Books, and her team are working to widen the network even further.

NYU M.S. in Publishing students visit the Espresso Book Machine; blogger Matt Albrecht is second from right.

For McNally Jackson, the decision to start this business-within-a-business has been hugely successful. Though the model is still relatively new and the pricing a constant work-in-progress, customers seem willing to pay for the instant gratification and convenience of seeing their creations become realities in just five minutes, less than the time it can take to get a latte at Starbucks. NYU hopes to capture some of that magic as well and is launching its own EBM at the University Bookstore in the immediate future. So pull that novel out of the drawer and get ready to self-publish!

by Matt Albrecht

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2 thoughts on “McNally Jackson’s Espresso Book Machine: Write it. Print it. Now!

  1. Informative post, and well written, too. Did I miss an important detail–the price of these books? Let’s hope these EBM’s catch on.

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