December 2007, Book Machine

December 2007,  Book Machine

Any Book, Anywhere, Any Time.
Daniel J Kramer

In 1989, Harvey Ross was a management consultant for the communications industry and was conducting research into how radio, television and publishing would be affected by emerging technology. He discovered that publishing was changing dramatically and was inspired to create a machine that could print any book, anywhere, any time. Curtailing his consulting practice, Harvey jumped head first into refining, getting a patent and deploying the system.

In search for people who could make his vision of printing books on demand a reality, he came across Patent attorney Bill Cunningham. They began to set the parameters of what a machine like that could do and how it would do it. Bill introduced Harvey to inventor Jeff Marsh and he began creating working hardware.

Jeff had come from the automotive world and he began working on a mini printing press with eyes unclouded by the publishing world. Printing and trimming were obstacles, but when it came to the binding, this was the real problem. Jeff Marsh, “I realized the gluing of the spine or the binding process was not going to work for a book machine and what wound up for that, was that I conceived ultrasonic binding.”

In traditional bookbinding, hot glue is continually replaced and refreshed. It is never compromised by being too long on the boil. But in the world of on demand publishing, it’s hard to predict how many books will be produced. Glue kept hot too long gets too thick and is unable to bind paper properly; it also leaves a terrible stench in the air.

Jeff knew the secret of the book machine was in the glue. “We needed to have glue in its fresh state and then we need to energize that glue real quick and then have it melt into the pages and the cover of the book and set up real quick.”

The ultrasonic binding hardware was hooked up to the printing and trimming sections and the first machine was born. With this prototype, they proved that no book would ever go out of print and followed Jeff’s and Harvey’s idea of “any book, anywhere, any time”

In theory they were set to conquer the world of publishing, except they had one problem, they didn’t own any rights to any books and knew no one in the publishing world. Harvey dove into the book world in hopes that someone with enough clout would see how his machine could change the world.

Around the same time, Jason Epstein, former editor of Random House was trying to find a way to offer consumers classic literature that had become hard to find in the new mega mall bookstores in America. He had created a mail order catalogue with about 40,000 backlist titles. Although they received many order, they were loosing money as every order had to be handled physically and they had to keep warehouses full of books that were selling, but not as quickly as Jason had hoped.

As Harvey spread the word about his machine throughout the publishing world, Jason eventually heard about this machine that did everything he had thought a machine like that should do.

Harvey and Jason both had the same idea. Harvey found someone to make his machine, but for this machine to really conquer the world they would need Jason’s clout in the literary world. Jason teamed up with his friend, Dane Neller, former CEO of Dean and Deluca’ to form On Demand Books.

Jason took it upon himself to now sell the machine to his colleagues the idea of printing any book, anytime anywhere.

There are currently six machines in the world. The first one at the world bank has just moved to the library of New Orleans where it will help to replenish the inventory of books destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, one in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, one at the University of Alberta in Canada, another at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, one has just been sold to the second largest academic book distributor in Australia and the last machine is at the Northshire bookstore in Manchester Vermont, where over 200,000 public domain titles will be made available for people to purchase

Any book, anytime for anyone might sound like a simple statement, but what it really means is that a book will never be out of print and bookshops (or anywhere that has this machine) will no longer be bound to the language of the country the machine is in.

Imagine you are an English speaker and you are on holiday in Rio. You have brought a few books with you, but you finished them quick and now as you lay on the beach you crave something to read. Surprisingly there are not a lot of English books on the shelves and all you have to choose from is Stephen King or Danielle Steel.

With this machine, you could have “It’ Stephen King, or you could have the author’s edition of “Naked Lunch” or even Burton’s ”Anatomy of Melancholy”. The choice is yours.

This machine is not the end of new or used bookstores. Although the machine can print any book, anytime for anyone it still lacks the feeling of walking into a book shop and browsing the book tables to see what catches your eye. What it can do, what eBooks will never be able to do, is let you walk out of a shop with a book you have been tracking down for years in your back pocket and never having to worry about your batteries running out on your book.


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Daniel J. Kramer

Daniel J. Kramer is a writer in New York.

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