Thursday, September 17, 2009

Filling the On-Demand Pipeline: Will Google Books Perk up Espresso?

On-demand book publishing has been a quiet reality behind the scenes for several years, now, with outlets such as Amazon and a handful of major universities and bookstores generating some books on an on-demand basis rather than shelving inventory. On the retail side of the equation, however, on-demand publishing is almost a total cypher, in spite of technologies such as the Espresso Book Machine from from On-Demand Books. The EBM carries a still-hefty price tag and has kind of funky marketing (does anyone really name products with acronyms any more?), but nevertheless represents a great opportunity for many new business models to surface around print media. Yet most publishers have failed to commit any significant resources to delivering their titles to consumer-demanded printing.

A new alliance between Google and On-Demand Books, though, may help to prime the on-demand business model with an abundance of content. Google has agreed grant On-Demand Books access to 2 million public-domain book titles available via its Google Books service. According to eWeek, Google is suggesting an $8 price tag for these on-demand books, with $1 of the proceeds going to On-Demand Books and $1 to Google, which intends to donate its proceeds to charities. While there are already about 1.6 million titles available via Espresso machines, the highly affordable price tag for public-domain books and the online cachet of Google Books (not to mention millions more waiting in the wings for a settlement of Google's rights to out-of-print copyrighted works) may be a priming of the pipeline for wider distribution of on-demand books.

When computerized laser printers first came to the marketplace, they were huge, hunkering machines found in major computer centers that had to handle high-volume printing. Today, of course, anyone can park a high-quality, high-speed color laser printer in their home for a few hundred dollars. The Espresso Book Machine seems to be caught between these two extremes, affordable enough that some larger retail outlets are willing to give it a try but not built in enough volume that your average neighborhood coffee shop, print shop or book store could afford to pop one in the corner somewhere for on-demand books. With the Google Books deal, highly affordable printed books from a wealth of titles may help to push the volume of on-demand printing at the consumer outlet level to the point that more affordable versions of EBM technology could be deployed.

This may be just what Google has in mind, as it yet again takes content that most publishers considered unmonetizable and seeks ways to make money with it. A buck a book for high-quality free content that costs almost nothing to store online is not a bad deal. Add in Google's expanding footprint in eBooks via deals with retailers and ePub-compatible reading device makers and the unmonetizable starts to look like a pretty good deal. In this era in which many publishers are still focused largely on incremental gains for their cash cows, it's nice to see Google and On-Demand Books turning cow flops into blue sky markets that may transform on-demand books into a lush pasture for new profits.
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