Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jason Epstein's latest insight

There's an interesting interview with Jason Epstein and Dane Neller of On Demand Books, conducted by Stephen J. Kobrin and transcribed and posted on the Wharton School Web site.

In it, Epstein briefly reviews two of his notable achievements from previous decades--initiating the shift to trade paperbacks in the early '50s, and his Reader's Catalog in the '80s, which arguably formed the conceptual basis for Amazon--and casually mentions his forty years of leadership at Random House. In other words, it's fair to say he has a bit of perspective on the publishing industry.

On Demand is the company behind the Espresso Book Machine; Epstein is the chairman of the company. The Espresso, of course, is the wondrous invention that can create a single paperback book in just a few minutes. I got to see it in action at last year's BookExpo America, and it really is something--you push a few buttons to choose a cover file and an interior file, hit "print," and the machine prints, binds, trims, and glues on a four-color cover, like something out of science fiction. It was quite a hit (almost as entertaining as the machine itself: watching publishing executives in suits down on their knees watching through the window to see the trimming and gluing) and has had a good year of adoptions by bookstores and libraries (I've previously posted that any independent bookstore with the space really ought to take a hard look at renting one of these--and early reports are that Espresso machines help to create a whole new community for the savvy bookstore). Until you've seen one, it doesn't seem like it could be real; once you've seen one, it's not hard to imagine any number of fun and creative (and profitable) ways to use it.

One doubt that has lingered about the Espresso goes to its essence: it creates print books. Isn't the trend toward e-books? Isn't that what the whole industry talks about endlessly, and everyone is preparing for, the advent of the e-book era? In that context, could the Espresso be an invention that has missed its proper era by about twenty years, or more--something that would have been a big hit at the B. Dalton at the mall in 1986 but scoffed at by Kindle users in 2010?

Epstein doesn't think so, and his spin is interesting: when you buy an e-book from Amazon or the other major retailers you don't own the e-book, you own a license for the digital file, subject to whatever restrictions the retailer and publisher put on the license (including, as we've seen with Amazon, the right to "unsell" the book, revoke the license, and remove access to the file). But, as Epstein puts it, "when you buy a physical book in the bookstore, you own it; you can do what you want with it." You get to carry a tangible object; you get to give it to others; you get to display it; you get to resell it; you can even read it. It lasts forever, and it can't be taken away from you. The Espresso machine is the most convenient way to convert all those digital files, all those long out of print and backlist books, into something tangible.

The interview is worth reading for other reasons, but I thought this was a cool insight. It's also a nice way of coming at the DRM debate--a slightly different direction than you usually encounter. Maybe one day, when the majority of book sales come from e-books, we'll put an even higher value on the tangible, fully ownable object, and we'll search online for the title we want then trek down to the bookstore to have a cup of coffee while we wait for the Espresso to crank out a print copy of that title.

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