GEDC0263A few days ago I mentioned the Harvard Book Store, which features an Espresso Book Machine which it uses to help it stay relevant in its market, and pondered why it is that more stores aren’t following its example. As it turns out, Alan Beatts has a definitive answer to that on the blog of his San Francisco bookstore Borderlands Books.

Beatts ran the numbers for the cost of the machine, materials, and operations, versus how long it would take to pay down those costs at various rates. He determined that if he averaged one book an hour over the 8 hours per day, 362 days per year that the bookstore is open, it would take 11 years and 9 months. If it averaged 3 an hour, it would take 3 years and 11 months.

Beatts suspected that the actual rate of use for the machine in Borderlands would be somewhere between those two extremes, meaning that the $100,000 spent on the machine would likely be in limbo (and he’d be paying interest on the loan) for the better part of a decade. Of course, if advances in technology cut the price, it might start to look like a more reasonable investment.

Problem is that I don’t think that’s going to happen since the actual physical technology used in machines of that type is really quite mature — in essence it’s laser-printing combined with basic 20th century robotics.  The thing about mature tech is that the price doesn’t tend to change much unless the market for the specific implementation of the technology increases significantly (in that case, economies of scale kick in and the price drops).  I don’t foresee the market for "book machines" increasing much, especially in the face of increasing adoption of ebooks.  Gadgets like the Espresso Book Machine are probably going to remain where they are now: out of the reach of most bookstores.

With that in mind, it’s not so surprising that most places that have bought them so far have been university libraries—they’re about the only ones who can afford that kind of outlay. (The librarian I spoke to about MU’s Espresso said that the university had viewed it as a capital investment as they would any other expensive facility or machinery.) Will the machine become cheaper? It hasn’t yet, and if Beatts is right it probably won’t soon.