“Are you here to see the machine?” the guard at the entrance to the University of Johannesburg‘s main library asked me, after I approached with an uncertain look. I was. He let me in and pointed to the library’s copier room.
Inside was John van Heeswijk and the machine in question, whose fame had spread, since its arrival a week previous – well, as far as the turnstiles, at least: a gleaming, transparent, brand-new Espresso Book Machine, the creation of US print-on-demand startup On Demand Books, one of only eighty or so such machines in the world.
The Espresso Book Machine does what its name implies: it receives the raw material of a book – a content file, in this case – and presses out a high-quality, printed, glued and cut edition, complete with a full-colour cover, in about the time it takes to serve up a double Americano with wings. When the finished product drops into the delivery chute, one half expects a puff of steam to accompany it. Van Heeswijk is South Africa’s first book barista.
UJ students came and went as I surveyed the EBM, a near-mythical avatar of publishing’s brave new era. They hardly paid it notice, being more concerned with the copiers that were churning out reproductions of the library’s holdings, one prescribed chapter at a time. (“The copy room is the busiest place on any African campus,” a friend in educational publishing once told me ruefully.)
The Espresso Book Machine is manufactured in Missouri, USA. Van Heeswijk brought his over at his and his partner’s own expense. All told, between the manufacturing, shipping and setup, it cost them about a million rand. The name of their company is Self-publish Press: that they’re banking on there being at least R1 million worth of experimentation, short-run boutique printing and yes, vanity, in the local self-publishing market is self-evident.
I had come to see some action and van Heeswijk duly obliged. Here is South Africa’s first and only EBM printing a copy of Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future, the memoirs of the octogenarian former publishing executive who co-founded On Demand Books in 2004, Jason Epstein:
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Five minutes after van Heeswijk clicked “go” on his command screen, the book arrived, sleek and smooth and faintly warm to the touch. The quality of printing was superb: there was but a negligible difference between the EBM edition and a standard “B format” paperback. It was truly something to hold, and behold.
While the guts of the EBM – the whirring machinery behind the glass – comprise a bespoke, proprietary, fantastical invention, its peripherals are more familiar: an Apple Mini handles the computing and interface; an Espon prints the colour covers; and a standard Xerox copy machine feeds the paper for the pages. Xerox has been contracted to service the EBM worldwide – and the machine contains firmware that can be fixed, upgraded and reconfigured remotely from the US.
Somewhat surprisingly, van Heeswijk’s EBM isn’t Africa’s first: there are two others, both hosted at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (which is rather fitting: it’s “the world’s original library,” van Heeswijk pointed out).
As for the content? There’s plenty on offer. The Espresso Book Machine has built-in access to four content libraries: Espressnet, the EBM’s self-publishing book repository, through which “you can make your titles available for sale worldwide”; the Google Books public domain catalogue (which is, frankly, a nightmare to navigate – why o why does Google Books exist?); Lightning Source, a very large ebook catalogue managed by Ingram, but with robust territorial restrictions in place, making much of the offering unavailable in SA; and the Open Content Alliance, which has over 1.5 million free ebooks for you to peruse.
If you need a book fast that you can’t get locally, write to van Heeswijk to see if his EBM can oblige.
It’s not long-tail demand that’s going to drive van Heeswijk’s business, however. His target market is local writers, academics, NGOs and businesses, and their collective on-the-spot demand for professionally-printed books, manuals, manuscripts, theses, research, annual general reports and the like. The estimated per-unit cost to van Heeswijk’s customers is R99 for a 200-page book, making small-batch self-publishing viable (the EBM removes overhead costs from the equation; self-publishers don’t sit with any stock) and providing a quick, high-quality all-purpose communications solution for SMMEs.
The EBM would also seem useful for local publishers wanting to make their fiction and narrative non-fiction backlists available without the expense of a new print run. All van Heeswijk needs is a PDF or ePub version of the text and a high-quality image file for the front cover. The files are loaded locally and a few minutes later the books are being pressed.
Only black-and-white printing is possible at this stage, but the EBM has several paper options, is configurable for a number of sizes (including those shown above), and can produce books between 20 and 800 pages in length.
There’s no espresso bar to go with van Heeswijk’s Espresso Book Machine yet – but one can foresee that the day is not far off when a book and a latte to go, go together!
To arrange a viewing of the Espresso Book Machine at the University of Johannesburg contact John van Heeswijk.