Recently Pill Hill Press announced their books were available through the Espresso Book Machine. Since I'd heard rumors of a book vending machine in the works, I checked out the Espresso website at http://www.ondemandbooks.com/home.htm and it does seem like we are entering the age when a vending machine will replace whole racks of books, if not an entire inventory.
There aren't too many of them out there yet, and half of those are at university stores, but I was delighted to discover one listed very close to where I live. This one was sitting at Schuler Books and Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I took along a publisher's copy of my recent novel, The Weaving, and paid them a visit to see how the vending machine version stacked up to this one.
For information on a fine bookstore and a picture of the Espresso, check out the Schuler Book store website at http://www.schulerbooks.com/ I arrived on a Friday afternoon and showed the workers my book and explained what I wanted to do, and they were happy to help me out.
First impressions, this is a big machine, and this was the smaller version. It was also a complicated looking machine of the type that made you certain a thousand little adjustments had to be just right to get it to work. That impression was confirmed since there was a roped-off area around it to keep destructive hands away.
This one was shut off and as the worker turned it on, she explained it would take perhaps 10 minutes to warm the glue to the proper 335 degree temperature (At this point I must stop and explain that one woman spent a lot of time demonstrating this to me and I totally forgot to get her name, so she must remain "the worker" with my apologies).
Then she entered the ISBN in the computer screen, waited for the file to download, and began the process, saying it would normally take about 5 minutes to print and bind a book of about 300 pages such as mine.
However, it seems the machine had other ideas. About halfway through the printing, the pages started jamming in the machine, necessitating her repeatedly halting the printing and manually stacking and sorting pages. To be fair, she was not the usual operator, and I suspect a more extended warm up period might have been needed. But eventually the pages were printed, the cover bound to the pages with glue, and the edges trimmed. One copy of The Weaving slid down the shoot into my hands.
So, my overall impression? Well, the machine is fussy and requires specially trained operators and is very expensive. It obviously is prone to the same ailments as any copy machine. Also, you cannot search the database of available titles for the Espresso. You have to ask for a particular book and the store worker will look it up, and if they don't have it in stock and it's on the list of Espresso books, you're good to go.
As for the book, it seemed identical except the cover is a semigloss instead of the varnished gloss of my publisher's copy. It doesn't really detract from the artwork or look. Of more concern, when I sat down at home and did a careful inspection, I discovered the Espresso copy of my book has little squares printed at the beginning and end of most italic lines, slightly larger than the initial letter. I'd say it's a problem with the driver or translation of formats. Since my book contains a lot of italic lettering, this is a very obvious defect.
So my judgement is that the day of corner book vending machines is not quite here, but otherwise most small press published books would have no chance at all of being bought anywhere but online.