The economic failings of the Espresso Book Machine

In a series of previous posts about self-publishing, I touched on using the Espresso Book Machine to create bound proofs for a book proposal project. In this post, I go into more detail about the pros, cons, and costs of using the Espresso Book Machine. This post was first published by the now-defunct Appazoogle blog on July 16, 2012.

I first encountered the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) during a visit to the Harvard Book Store during the spring of 2011. This technological wonder, a machine that can print books in a bookstore, is really nothing more than glass-encased combination of two printers coupled with a giant razor and a hot glue gun.

Yet, the idea behind its existence is brilliant: give customers a way to print out-of-print or public domain books on demand. The machine doesn’t even have to be located in a bookstore; of the 57 in existence today, several can be found in libraries or at universities. In the future, perhaps people in a coffee shop will be able to sip on a latte while waiting for a book they just purchased to print. However, for that to become a reality, the cost of printing books via an EBM will have to drop.

Cost of printing example: Espresso Book Machine vs. CreateSpace

In a previous post, I ran you through the printing cost numbers for my 90-page 8 x 10 inch title, BDKR1: The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary. With no interior color art, my book is a perfect candidate for printing via an EBM as it’s a print-on-demand title. In fact, when I was ready to print a proof copy of my book, I did just that. With an initial setup cost of $15 and a printing cost of $8.50, for $23.50 I had a bound proof copy of my book in my hands. At the same time, I ordered a proof copy of my book from CreateSpace; that copy cost me $2.15 to print and $3.59 to ship—or almost one quarter of the EBM cost.

Even by avoiding the EBM’s initial setup fee, as a customer printing a title that is already in the EBM network would do, the cost to print a book on the EBM is currently too high to remain competitive as a print-on-demand option for books that can be obtained elsewhere. The current minimum pricing for a title on EspressNet is $1.00 plus $0.07/page. At these rates, a 192-page paperback would cost a minimum of $14.44. As the author would hope to earn some royalties on his or her work, naturally the retail price would have to be quite a bit higher than that—making the book far too expensive for a mass-market paperback. By comparison, the same book via CreateSpace would cost $3.15 to print.

The fact that the EBM’s costs have been rising doesn’t help their case. Just recently, the price of custom printing a 100-page book on Harvard Book Store’s EBM rose from $8 to $9 (books longer than 100 pages cost an addition $0.02/page). This price raise is anathema to a goal of the EBM becoming competitive from a price standpoint. EBM production costs need to go down to become more competitive with other print-on-demand options. While it should be fair to expect books printed via an EBM to be a bit more expensive than those ordered from a company such as CreateSpace (after all, they avoid shipping costs and you can get them while visiting the bookstore), four times as expensive is just too much.

Quality of Book: Espresso Book Machine vs. CreateSpace

Another concern I have with the EBM is the quality of the books that it prints. While On Demand Books touts that their EBMs print books “indistinguishable from books produced by traditional publishers,” this is simply not the case. For multiple copies of two titles I have printed on Harvard Book Store’s EBM, the cover has always come out tacky to the touch. The EBM’s cover printer does not have the ability to apply a protective, glossy coating. Thus, EBM book covers tend to smudge and get dirty.

While CreateSpace gives authors the choice of two interior paper colors (white or cream), the EBM currently only prints on one (cream). In addition, the EBM can’t do color interior pages yet. Quite frankly, I am baffled by this limitation. One of the EBM’s easiest advantages it could gain right now would be the ability to print color images on glossy paper anywhere in the book. Without having to worry about signatures, authors could include illustrations anywhere in their book they like. This is also a current limitation of printing-on-demand via CreateSpace, one that I’m surprised they haven’t overcome. While I’m no programmer, I can’t imagine it being too hard to create a system that allows an author to tell either system “Print pages 1-24 on normal paper in black and white, then print pages 25 and 26 4-color on glossy, then resume black and white printing.” Were either system to be able to do this, it would give them a small edge over the traditional color signature insert printing method.

Conclusion

As a result of the high costs and lower cover quality, I (and presumably other savvy self-publishing authors) will only use the EBM when I need something printed and bound locally and quickly. While it’s neat to be able to see the machine at work, its current costs, and the fact that they are rising, do not indicate that it will ever become a ubiquitous machine that we will soon see in coffee shops.


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