About a month ago, I covered a blog post by Alan Beatts, proprietor of the Borderlands bookstore in San Francisco, in which he did some back-of-envelope calculations to determine that it could take over a decade for profits to pay down the cost of an Espresso. I just now received an email from Mr. Beatts calling my attention to a new blog post with some updated figures—his prior calculations had been based on out-of-date information.
Based on the new figures, Beatts now calculates that, at an average rate of 1 book an hour, the machine would pay itself off in just 4 years and 5 months—or at 3 books an hour, a year and a half. Which makes the Espresso look like a considerably better deal to independent bookstores—especially since stores with the device installed reportedly sell at an average rate that would work out to between 2.4 and 5 books an hour for Borderlands.
However, when Beatts dug further into the statistics he had gotten about the machine, he learned that a surprising majority of the machines’ income—as much as 90% in the first year—comes from titles that bookstore patrons self-publish, rather than public-domain or in-copyright works sold through On-Demand Books’s POD bookstore. That includes a suggested $150 markup fee that bookstores charge for preparing such titles for POD publishing.
The bad news is that 90% of the income from one of these machines comes from a process that is closer to running a copy-shop or a service bureau, not a bookstore. It’s not a process that most of the booksellers I know are well suited to — moderately technical and involving potentially challenging customer service that is totally unlike bookselling (there’s a world of difference between helping someone find the right book and getting someone’s baby . . . I mean, their novel . . . to look right).
And without that self-publishing revenue stream, it would take even longer than Beatts’s first post anticipated for the machine to pay itself off. There just aren’t enough pre-published POD titles that people want to buy yet, since most of the major publishers are still holding out. If it were to become possible someday to request an instant physical copy of literally any book at your local indie bookstore—or, for that matter, your local library, gas station, mall food court, whatever—imagine how quickly these machines would pop up all over the place!
I think that’s what’s really keeping these machines from wider adoption, when you get right down to it: the same chicken-or-the-egg problem that kept e-readers down before Amazon wheedled publishers into signing on for the Kindle. Espresso print-on-demand hasn’t had its “Kindle moment” yet—and given how leery the aftereffects of the original “Kindle moment” have made publishers, who knows if that will ever end up happening?