The Espresso -- currently on trial in the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, and Egypt -- is an ATM for books. Whether you are looking for something out of print, the book you want is out of stock, or, if you want to publish your own work, the Espresso reels out books at a rate of 100 pages a minute.
Its promoters say it's the biggest revolution in publishing since the invention of the mechanical printer in 1440, but why the big fuss about what amounts to an enormous office printer hooked up to a giant database?
"We've had a lot of customers who have found books that they've been looking for for a long time and haven't been able to track down, and we've had them walk away with them ten or fifteen minutes later," Marcus Gipps, Sales Manager at Blackwell's Bookstore, told ABC News.
With a virtual inventory of 400,000 titles (soon to increase to one million), the Espresso is like a library and rare books store rolled into one, coupled with the ability to print on demand. You can order your very own copy of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or perhaps something for the more specialized taste.
"Today I'm printing Darwin's Treatise on Earthworms," said Constance Rinaldo, a librarian from Harvard University. "I'm in London for a conference but I wanted to come and try out the Espresso book machine while I was here, I knew it was available and I knew I'd be staying nearby."
There are at least 15 machines in the U.S. and the manufacturer, On Demand Books, plans to have 25 around the world by the end of the year. London is the first stop in the UK, with the Espresso taking root in Blackwell's bookstore, a 130-year-old chain.
By manufacturing at the point of sale, the Espresso cuts out the cost of storage and stocking for the bookstore. "It is not economically viable to have books on the shelf or in the warehouse that are not selling, so we have a virtual inventory instead of a physical one," Andrew Pate, senior vice president of business development at On Demand Books told ABC News.
Want to Publish Your Own Book?
It is also cost effective for the customer. "For your average 250-300 page book we're only charging 5 or 6 pounds, 7 or 8 dollars, you could sell that book on for nine or ten," said Gipps.
If you want to print your own work, the charge is a $15 down payment and 3 cents per page. As for the legalities, not only can the Espresso print books which are out of copyright, but if you are printing your own work, the copyright is retained by the creator of the content.
In the global economic downturn, making digital distribution profitable is more important than ever.
"The revenue per square foot in a retail space should exceed the average revenue per square foot of a normal bookstore," explained Pate. The Espresso finds, prints and binds the book of your choice, spitting it out in a matter of minutes. And, believe it or not, the end product looks like, feels like and smells like a book off the shelf.
But fear not if you love browsing the bookshelves, the Espresso is not about replacing, so much as improving access to the printed word. And surviving in an increasingly Internet-dependent world.
The machine, which costs $175,000, is on track to pay for itself within six months. Blackwell's bookstore has been running it pretty much constantly and plans to expand to other shops across Britain. "Once the novelty factor dies down, the machine's still going to be running full time. The printed book isn't going to die off any time soon," Gipps said.
Inventions such as the Espresso, could be seen as an attempt by the publishing industry to keep up with electronic readers like the Amazon Kindle or Sony Corp.'s reader. However, according to the On Demand Books, the Espresso will make it possible for the printed page to move as rapidly as the electric page through manufacturing at the point of sale.
"Cybooks are no competition, e-content is also important, but people like the tactile experience of a book. More and more content owners will take control of their content in a digital form and then print it on the Espresso – digital storage can be used by the Espresso," Pate told ABC News.
Is the Espresso a Lifeline for Indie Booksellers?
After all, with its digitally saved inventory, the Espresso increases the number of books on the shop floor ten times. It could, in the future, be a lifeline for smaller or independent bookstores which struggle to compete with online retailers.