June 28, 2016
Would you like a freshly printed book with that coffee?
by Hannah Koerner
We’ve reported on the many innovations of the book world before—from your standard e-books, to virtual reality books, to rapid-fire serialized publishing, there’s been no shortage of products and platforms trying to lay claim to “the future of publishing.”
Now in Paris, a new—yet familiar—contender for the title has emerged. Les Puf is a publisher and distributor (the name is an acronym for “Presses universitaires de France”), as well as a long-shuttered bookstore in the city’s Latin Quarter. Now that bookstore has re-opened after organizing itself around a new invention that aims to revolutionize the book production process—the Espresso Book Machine, described by its inventors as the “Gutenberg press of the 21st century.” The machine, manufactured by On Demand Books, begins with a PDF, which it then prints, binds, and trims to produce “bookstore quality paperbacks”—all in five minutes, or the time it takes to make an espresso. Along with Les Puf’s 5,000 titles, the machine has access to a whopping additional three million books compiled by the manufacturer.
Which is a lot more variety than your standard bookstore can offer.
Customers simply choose the title they would like to buy from a tablet provided by the store, and enjoy a quick beverage while the machine does its work. Speaking to Ciara Nugent of the New York Times, Les Puf’s director Alexandre Gaudefroy said:
The customers are all surprised. At first, they’re a little uncomfortable with the tablets. After all, you come to a bookshop to look at books. But thanks to the machine and the tablets, the customer holds a digital library in their hands.
Another benefit? Les Puf pays nothing for storage space, a considerable gain in light of Paris’s rental prices. That also means the store can revive old titles (it’s not like they’ll be stuck with unsold copies) and Mr. Gaudefroy said the store plans to add 2,000 out-of-print Puf titles to the machine in coming months.
Making use of limited space is especially important. The store—originally named Librairie des Puf—went the way of far too many bookstores and closed about ten years ago. As part of its Vital’Quartier program to preserve the Latin Quarter’s character, however, the Paris City Council bought and leased Les Puf a new—and smaller—space, allowing it to open in March.
Keeping bookstores open and thriving is undoubtedly a good thing, and the Espresso Book Machine offers unique perks, like personalized inscription pages. On Demand Books’ claim of the Espresso Book Machine being the new Gutenberg Press, however, might fall flat. With brick-and-mortar bookstores in an upswing, e-book sales dropping, and no evidence yet that VR headsets are poised to nab the e-reader’s market share, it seems for the moment that customers have spoken—and they would like their traditional bookstores back, please.
Those bookstores have a lot of advantages; they’re a space for readers to flip through a few pages, check out a cool staff picks section, or find something totally unexpected. Ultimately, wouldn’t a slew of Espresso Book Machine stores just look a lot like online shopping minus the convenience of not leaving the house?
For now, though, Les Puf’s model is working, with the shop at least doubling its expected daily sales. We’ll have to wait and see if that means the model can catch on elsewhere, without the novelty and cultural clout of Les Puf.
Hannah Koerner is an intern at Melville House.