September 9, 2014
Barnes & Noble to bring ‘Espresso Book Machines’ to three locations
by Bradley Babendir
Barnes & Noble, widely seen across the bookselling industry as pioneering innovators who are always one step ahead, are testing “Espresso Book Machines” in three of their east coast stores, including their Union Square location in New York City. The machine, produced by On Demand Books, prints a paperback book—and this might be surprising—on demand.
While the name, why it was chosen and what it means remains mysterious, its function is straightforward. It’s more of a book machine than an espresso book machine, but maybe that’s why I don’t get to be in charge of those types of things.
As is their nature, Barnes & Noble are the second kid in the class of major retailers to raise their hand. In November of 2013, Books-a-Million rolled out a similar program. An Espresso Book Machine was added to both their flagship store in Birmingham, Alabama and a store in South Portland, Maine.
According to Mary Gallagher, Senior V-P of the company’s merchandising group, they experienced success in both markets, but the company wanted to see how they did over the course of a full year before making a decision on expansion.
Though Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million are the most prominent retailers to attempt to make the Espresso Book Machines part of their business, it was not exactly uncharted territory. A handful of independent bookstores braved the darkness first, and with mixed results. Between the time that the machine was announced in 2008 and November of 2013, when Books-a-Million! entered the marketplace, 13 independents bookstores bought or rented them. While some appear to have found success, four have returned them.
The system’s major flaw for retailers is ironically similar to the flaw of any brick and mortar store: available stock. To this point, the large majority of the machines have found homes in public libraries or on university campuses, which means the large majority of their market has been interested in titles that were available in the public domain or in self-publishing. According to Publishers Weekly, it draws most of its available titles from partnerships with Google, Lightning Source, HarperCollins, and Hachette.
The success of the Espresso Book Machines seems tightly tied to how many titles publishers let the system access. On Demand Books CEO Dane Keller acknowledged that publishers were slow to add titles, and mostly offered up books that were deep on their backlist. Certainly, adding Barnes & Noble to a list of customers can only help bolster On Demand Books’ clout, but it seems like until one of the major chains adds the machines in a major way, the machines popularity will continue to hum along instead of flourish.