Independent bookstores embrace digital publishing

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Clare Dickens only wanted to share her story to help others. But in the process, she became a successful independent author with the help of a local bookstore and its instant publishing machine.

Ms. Dickens wrote “A Dangerous Gift” with her son, Titus, a memoir of their life dealing with his bipolar disorder. She completed the novel after he killed himself in 2006, at age 25.

Though Ms. Dickens found a publisher in Iceland to release the book in 2007, she still wanted a broader reach. The Espresso Book Machine at Politics and Prose in the District of Columbia enabled her to bring the memoir to local bookshelves and beyond earlier this year.

Her book has since become the best-selling, self-published title at the local bookstore and its website.

“I didn’t expect to sell any at all,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a best-seller. It’s really about getting my son’s story out there and helping other people.”

Self-publishing has been made easier since the Espresso Book Machine by On Demand Books debuted in 2006. The machine also can make copies of out-of-print editions.

The first machine was installed briefly at the World Bank’s bookstore. Through a partnership with Xerox, the company now has machines in about 70 bookstores and libraries across the world including London; Tokyo; Amsterdam; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Melbourne, Australia; and Alexandria, Egypt.

Thor Sigvaldason, chief technology officer of New York-based On Demand Books, said the technology can help book retailers twofold.

“It can, potentially, give them a huge virtual inventory so they can have as many books as Amazon, all in a little bookstore,” he said. “It turns independent bookstores into places to get books published. It’s a new thing for the bookstore to do: not just sell books, but actually create books.”

Ms. Dickens‘ book costs $10.38 to print and retails for $16. Bill Leggett, a bookseller who co-manages the machine, said about a dozen copies are sold a month “better than a lot of authors who have major publishers.”

Politics and Prose has produced almost 5,000 paperback books some in as little as five minutes since receiving the book machine nicknamed “Opus” in November. Mr. Leggett said about 90 percent of the books printed on the machine are self-published works by local authors.

The others are out-of-print editions, millions of titles available in the public domain like Google Books, and digital formats licensed out through major publishers including Harper Collins.

The Espresso Book Machine uses two PDFs, one for the cover and another for the text. The cover and text, both generated from digital files, are printed simultaneously on opposite sides of the machine. They meet in the middle section of the machine, where they are bound, before dropping to a trimming station on the bottom. The book is dispensed through a chute.

As bookstores continue to close their doors, crippled by e-books and digital reading devices, more are embracing the Espresso Book Machine.

Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., produces about 5,500 books per year on the Espresso Book Machine since using the beta version in 2008 and an upgrade in 2010.

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