Yes, the Huffington Post appears to have bought into the print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine model as the solution to bookstores’ woes in the digital age. Or at least, travel writer columnist Eytan Levy does. In his piece “How to Save Local Bookstores in Two Easy Steps,” he outlines how these machines and tablet affiliate sales could be the salvation of bricks-and-mortar bibliophilia.
Salvation must begin, though, by “recognizing the impending doom of the current model,” he believes. “Local bookstores currently face the difficulties of increased overhead due to real estate costs and inventory issues, whereas Amazon can cut those costs by shipping from a central warehouse in the middle of nowhere, or by ordering directly from publishers.” (Actually, I believe the inventory issues are often about poor demand forecasting and overpromotion of some titles by publishers, but that aside for now.) His solution is a combination of the Espresso Book Machine and proceeds for booksellers from tablet sales. Levy admits the cost and quality challenges of the current Espresso generation, but, he says, “costs will come down, and sooner or later allow fancier printing as well. Available formats are limited, but as machines improve, it can eventually become the norm.”
Also, he adds, “sprinkled throughout the store are a few tablet computers, which allow shoppers to browse through an infinite selection of books you’d never be able to fit into the store. They can find any book they want, in whatever edition they want.”
Could it work? Arguably, bookstores that sell ereaders in-store are already offering at least part of this package. And if showrooming really is a problem, and Amazon will never open actual stores, why not accept the fact and turn bookstores into outsourced storefronts? So long as the books are still there and the booksellers are getting paid.
But Levy’s solution also points up the weak link in the entire current book business: publishers. Or rather, their atrocious record in matching supply and demand. Amazon’s core priority across its business lines has always been styled a laser-like focus on fulfilment. It’s no surprise that Bezos succeeded in a business where traditional competitors seemed mostly concerned with overloading sales channels with product that consumers didn’t want.