08 July 2010

Got a book in you? Go ahead, Espresso yourself!

Edmonton Journal

You hear it before you see it, faithfully churning out the pages in the middle of the floor, downstairs at the University of Alberta bookstore.

This is the granddaddy of Espresso Book Machines, the first of its kind in Canada, purchased in November 2007 for $144,000. There are six of them now scattered across the country. The high-tech wonder can print, bind and trim on-demand paperback books with a four-colour cover in a matter of minutes. And it does it at a fraction of the cost offered by publishers, which is why the university acquired the gizmo in the first place.

The original idea was to generate big savings for students on their course textbooks, while also sheltering library expenditures.

Three years later, the Espresso's true value has become clear. It is nothing less than the long-sought El Dorado of the vanity press.

Todd Anderson, director of the University of Alberta bookstore, says about 60 per cent of the Espresso business these days is devoted to self-published books brought in by the general public. The demand from would-be authors is such that Anderson is now lobbying U of A bursars to buy a second machine.

"Good lord, the amount of things we put through here now," Anderson marvelled this week. "Novels all the time, and poetry all the time, haiku, graphic novels, family history -- lots of family histories -- memorial books, lots of non-fiction stories by people who were in the First World War or the Second World War ...

"People want 20 of this and 30 of that and 40 of this. It's especially busy around Christmas. People have written a Christmas story and they want to hand it out as a gift."

The situation isn't unique to Edmonton. The McMaster University Bookstore purchased its Espresso in 2008, mainly to compete with online retailer Amazon. At the time, customers could order a book from the store and wait two weeks or order it online and have it mailed out the same day. Now the books have been balanced. The Espresso machines have a database of more than a million books that can be printed on the spot.

"We're really just a bookstore who happen to be able to make the book in our store for you," Mark Lefebvre, operations manager at the McMaster store and also president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, told the National Post.

But once again, what's really surprised Lefebvre is that most of the money generated from Espresso has been from self-publishing. "The demand for people who want to tell their own stories is absolutely phenomenal. Overwhelming, even."

The U of A's Espresso machine paid for itself within the first 11 months and now prints some 22,000 books annually, Anderson said.

"It's been running day in and day out. Since we put this thing in, it's been sitting in the basement here, pumping out books."

And for some of those self-published authors, a book in the hand has proved especially satisfying.

"For people who want something printed, and the validation of a name on a cover, this is a great thing," Anderson said.

"But we had one fellow who did a novel, and printed five or 10 and was quite happy with it, and decided to print some more, and went to New York and got signed by an actual publisher because he had something to show them."

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