Published: Monday, July 20, 1998
Section: Silicon Valley Life
Page: 1C

MAKING BOOK: With A Digital Library and Laser Printer, Obscure Works Don't Have to Go Out of Print

By Charlie McCollum, Mercury News Retail Writer

Copyright 1998, The San Jose Mercury News.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.


Ever try to find that volume of poetry you fell in love with in high school, the textbook on some obscure corner of world history, the children's book you adored as a child and now want your own child to read -- only to discover that the book is out of print and can't even be special-ordered?

It's been a problem for years for both the publishing industry and book buyers: what to do with books that no longer justify a full print run but for which there is still some demand.

As early as next year, there may be a solution in a bookstore near you: books-on-demand.

You will be able to call up the obscure poetry book in a digital library, punch a button and have it laser-printed in soft cover while you wait. In fact, several companies using the same digital method are already able to deliver many previously out-of-print works within 72 hours.

"It should have a big impact in terms of customer service," says Joyce Meskis, former president of the American Booksellers Association and manager of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store, which is scheduled to get the first such in-store printing system by early January.

"There are so many titles in print that no bookstore, now matter how large, could stock them all."

"Books really never have to go out of print again," adds Larry Brewster, general manager of Lightning Print, the on-demand division of wholesaling giant Ingram Books.

The most consumer-friendly part of this new technology is the prospect of immediate, in-store delivery of out-of-print or obscure books. Several companies have plans to market in-store printing machines but the farthest along appears to be the On Demand Machine Corp. of St. Louis.

On Demand president Harvey Ross says the company's first BookMachine will be up and running at the Tattered Cover by early January -- the end of an eight-year process.

"It's really been a matter of the technology or more precisely, the cost of the technology catching up with concept," says Ross.

The BookMachine concept begins with a kiosk set up in a bookstore. The customer sits down at a console and checks the directory of a digital library to see if a title is available. If it is, the customer pushes a button and pays for the book with a credit card. (Ross expects the books to sell at full retail price.)

A signal is sent to a digital library hundreds of miles away, where tens of thousands of books have been turned into electronic impulses by high-powered, highly accurate scanners. The digital system sends the text via satellite to an 18-inch dish on top of the store. The book is then laser-printed with a soft, four-color cover by the BookMachine.

The whole process will take three to five minutes, says Ross. And, he adds, "the book will be barely distinguishable from a large-run, offset version."

For bookstores, the BookMachine and its competitors "could be incredibly important," says Meskis, the bookstore manager. "The jury is clearly still out but I just feel it's a wonderful opportunity for the reading public with more books available much faster."

For now, the BookMachine start-up will be limited to Tattered Cover. Ross says he wants to work out all the kinks before offering it to other stores, including some in the Bay Area that have expressed interest.

Although in-store on-demand books are still several months away, some companies are already using the technology to provide previously out-of-print books or books that publishers feel are not worth another press run.

Demand on the rise

Don Seise, vice-president of Simon & Shuster's Demand Production Center in New Jersey, says that the business has exploded in recent years, particularly in academics and because of online retailers like Amazon.com. His company -- which was recently purchased by Pearson PLC, a British firm -- now has a library of 12,000 Simon & Shuster titles with thousands being added every year.

"I'm sitting here looking at the first copies of a Spanish language play from 1947 that we just happened to have in our library," says Seise. "Someone -- probably a professor -- was looking for 300 copies. Until recently, we couldn't have done that small a run and make it work economically."

In addition, technology allows for much greater speed in producing the volumes. Seise says his company's goal is for the customer -- an individual or a bookstore -- to have the book or books within 72 hours of placing the order.

Seise's firm is currently limited to the Simon & Shuster library, although it will add such publishing lines as Penguin Books when it officially becomes part of Pearson. And Lightning Press is moving quickly to sign up a range of publishers.

A division of the country's biggest book wholesaler, Lightning started a pilot project just six months ago with 130 titles from publishers such as Random House and Princeton University Press, with whom they had negotiated copyright agreements. Brewster, Lightning's general manager, says things went so well that the company plans to be up to 10,000 titles by the end of the year. He sees it as the future of bookselling.

Efficient for publishers

"Clearly, this won't replace offset price runs of best-sellers," says Brewster, "but it solves publishing's problem, which is: When should a book be reprinted? Now, you react to the exact demands of the marketplace and don't have to worry about 2,000 or 3,000 copies sitting in a warehouse.

"We are, in a way, getting the fat out of the system and moving the books."

Brewster says it does cost more to print books on demand: around $5 compared to $1.85 per book in a traditional 5,000-book press run. But that still allows the price for most volumes to be in the $15 to $25 range, he said.

Both Brewster and Seise are skeptical about the immediate impact of in-store systems.

Brewster suggests there are still problems with "price and quality and the willingness of stores to participate." Seise says the in-store machines he has seen have problems with tracking sales and royalties.

But Ross says his BookMachine has solved those problems and that publishers who have been reluctant to put their books into the BookMachine's library will eventually come around. (For one thing, Ross notes, publishers will be paid electronically -- and immediately -- rather than waiting 60 or 90 days for a check.)

As for the quality-control problems, Ross says that the BookMachines will be leased to bookstores -- not sold -- so that On Demand has complete control over the supplies of paper and ink. The machines will be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I don't ever want to see an Out of Order sign on a machine," says Ross. "That's the only way to survive in a retail environment -- and we expect to survive."

Copyright 1998, The San Jose Mercury News. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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