Espresso Expired?

Espresso at University of Waterloo

 Since first it was launched in 2007, I’ve been a staunch supporter of the vision of the Espresso Book Machine. That belief, however, begins to wane of late. Why? Well, there are a series of problems, most of them human, which seem to plague this remarkable technology. I will address those problems, both human and technical.

  1. Initial cost investment. Cost would appear to be the major hurdle for this printer. At $97,500USD, this isn’t an investment the average book retailer can easily consider. And while the Espresso may very well be worth every penny of that chunk of change, it’s going to take a lot of book sales and a lot of profit, to make that investment worthwhile. Perhaps for that reason the majority of Espressos in existence have been purchased by universities and libraries where that kind of investment can be justified, whether profitable or not.
  2. Training of staff. It would appear, at least from my own exposure to Espresso operators, there is usually only one person who is fully trained in, and knowledgeable about, the Espresso on site. If that person isn’t available, the customer is usually met with a lot of embarrassed smiles, shuffling of feet, and a request to return when the Espresso guru is on shift. Given the immediacy of book buying habits, it’s likely that sale will be lost.
  3. EspressNet. I’ve experienced confusion on the part of trained Espresso operators when it comes to the EspressNet, that is, the distribution service offered in partnership with Lightning Source. If the publisher has opted into the full EspressNet distribution services, their books are available on all Espresso Book Machines internationally. Yet I have received phone calls and emails from Espresso-equipped booksellers, wishing to purchase our books, who haven’t even bothered to first check the availability of our books on EspressNet. (It should be noted all Five Rivers books are available through that service.)
  4. Operation of Espressos If staff aren’t full-trained, or knowledgeable about papers and the printing process, it would appear Espresso operators are having difficulty producing acceptable quality books through the Espresso. Now, understand this problem doesn’t have anything to do with the Espresso’s capabilities. I have seen books produced on the Espresso that are as beautiful and enduring as anything we could have printed from any quality printer. However, if operators insist on using sub-standard papers, the quality of printing and the resulting book will remain unacceptable.
  5. Circumvention of EspressNet. I’ve had some Espresso operators require the original files for setup of Five Rivers titles on their Espresso. Again, despite the fact our titles are available through EspressNet, operators seem unwilling to use the service, instead charging a publisher an additional setup fee in order for their books to be available and printed.
  6. Lack of Sales. Despite aggressive marketing since Five Rivers first opted into the EspressNet agreement (May 2009), we have realized one and only one sale through the system. Given our healthy sales in digital and print books through other venues, this is a sorry performance. And I’ve heard similar complaints from other small publishers across North America. So, is the Espresso being used by all those universities and libraries (25 of 40 are in public institutions) to print academic books and course notes, rather than as a way to reach a broader reading audience and thereby increase sales revenues and reduce inventory?

Overall, the jury is still out about the viability and success of the Espresso. It’s radical technology with a radical vision, and often these things take time for users and the general public to accept. Still, if the existing Espresso operators don’t buy into that grand vision, then this technology will go the way of the Avro Arrow or the Edson.