Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The economic failings of the Espresso Book Machine

In a series of previous posts, Appazoogle guest blogger, Casey Brown, touched on using the Espresso Book Machine to create bound proofs for a book proposal project. In this post, Casey goes into more detail about the pros, cons, and costs of using the Espresso Book Machine.

Espresso Book Machine

Source: Lal Beral,

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.


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.

Casey Brown (@aurdraco) is a graduate student in Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program (B.A. History, Texas A&M University; B.A. Creative Writing, University of Houston). He is the author of BDKR1: The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summarywhich he self-published through Amazon’s CreateSpace. A pre-war Army veteran (13B, 3HWB/2ACR), Casey also previously served as acting production editor for CALLALOO while working at Texas A&M University in 2008 and 2009. Casey just finished a contract stint as a junior project manager with PreMediaGlobal (but he can’t talk about what he did there yet). 

4 comments on “The economic failings of the Espresso Book Machine

  1. Mike Shatzkin
    July 16, 2012

    And if you included Ingram’s LIghtning Source in your examination of POD options, you’d find another example that offers better quality, more choices, and lower prices than Espresso does as well. Putting the machine in the store is really not necessary to pursue the business opportunities it enables.

  2. Peter Turner
    July 17, 2012

    I think the post and Mr. Shatzkin’s comment miss the point. (Full disclosure: I do consulting work for On Demand Books, the folks behind the Espresso Book Machine.)

    The point is that a customer can, potentially, get a book that is not otherwise available in the bookstore in just a few minutes. POD solutions from off site venders cannot provide this service.

    The EBM is a in-store POD solution and the only one, to date. Now, whether there is a market for this solution is another question.

  3. Casey Brown
    July 18, 2012

    Mr. Turner makes a good point about the EBM being the only POD solution in a bookstore. However, my point remains valid: the EBM’s pricing structure is making it noncompetitive with other POD options. If I can order a book via Amazon, which then gets printed via CreateSpace, and have it overnight shipped to me for much, much less than the cost of printing one up on the EBM, that’s what I am going to do (and I might save even more money by selecting standard shipping or by having enrolled in Amazon Prime).

    Re: whether there is a market for in-store POD, I would suggest that a lower price might help bolster such an impulse-buy market. As it stands right now, the EBM has priced itself out of the market it is trying to create, despite its unique instant gratification/satisfaction abilities, and I would bet that consumers realize this (but of course, I do not have access to EBM printing and sales figures, so this is just a hunch based on my belief that the American consumer is, in general, becoming more frugal as the recession continues. I know I am).

    • Peter Turner
      July 18, 2012

      Thank you, Casey (first name, please), for your thoughtful reply to my comment. I completely agree that the fundamental difference in value proposition to the consumer of the EBM-at-retail vs. POD-then-shipped is a matter of price differential, if any (it’ll depend on the length of the book and the shipping cost) AND how long it takes for the customer to get the book they want.

      It may be that the difference between a few minutes and a day or so’s wait isn’t relevant to the prospective consumer, but that’s speculation only. While the factoid is anecdotal, I do find it interesting that Amazon, who specializes in next day delivery, and is building out fulfillment centers in major cities to proved same day service. Clearly the folks at Amazon thinks same-day vs. next day is something customers do care about.

      One last point, and I hope I don’t sound shrill, the title of your piece stating that the EBM is an economic failure strikes me as clearly not a supported in the piece itself as you merely dismiss the “value” to the customer of immediate (or near) immediate gratification. Also, while it’s a minor factual error, it is not true that the EBM doesn’t print at cream and white stock. The machine does both, so perhaps the EBM at Harvard was out of your stock of choice at the time. There is a color printing solution in the works, which can print full color throughout, though it’s up to retailer to decide if they want this printer capability.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on July 16, 2012 by in Opinion, Technology and tagged , , , , , .

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