or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Printing Books on Demand

   November 17th, 2009

POD Printer at Harvard Book StoreA couple weeks ago I posted about new options for printing books, in which I mentioned Google's Expresso book-on-demand printer. I found out that the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge has one, so I went to check it out.

I still really like this as a source for out-of-print books to fill out a library's collection, so my "test book" was The History of Chelmsford, written by Wilson Waters in 1917. My library has lots of copies of this, but I chose it because:

  • I knew it was in Google Books
  • It is huge (almost 1000 pages) and I wanted to see how well the book-on-demand printer handled it
  • It has text, maps, illustrations and photographs, and I was curious to see how they reproduced

The people at the Harvard Book Store were incredibly nice and informative. I told them who I was and what I was doing, and the owner Jeff and shop assistant Amanda explained each step of the process to me, as well as told me about their experience so far with the service.

Typically, the process (photos) is completely automated and books take less than ten minutes to print start to finish (including download time), and cost $8 (which is the price announced by Google in a press conference, so the store is honoring it). However, since the book I wanted was so long, everything was expanded: downloading alone took five minutes, and it had to be printed in two volumes, because the printer can only handle about 500 pages at a time. Since it had to be divided, Amanda had to find the best place to split the book, and then do some quick calculations to figure out how thick each textblock would be to make sure the covers fit properly. And due to the extra labor involved, my two books cost $10 each, with the whole process taking about 40 minutes.

A few other interesting points:

  • There were no ghost hands, but some of the pages were not cropped correctly - this caused them to be shrunk when printed, and in some cases the page numbers got trimmed off
  • It seems like the quality of the printing was excellent - the only real variable is the quality of the scan
  • The paper they use is acid-free and feels slightly glossy. I asked how long they expect the paperback covers and binding to last, but it's so new they're not sure
  • Color is only available for the covers - book pages are b&w only
  • I asked if they consider themselves "the publisher" for these books, and the answer was no - they are "the printer" because being a publisher involves more legal responsibility for the content of the books
  • Jeff said they've had the printer for about a month and a half, and it is used three or four 15-40 times a day (which was more often than I expected, but then again, the store is right across the street from Harvard. Nerds.)
  • Their catalog interface doesn't just search Google Books, but allows the printing of any book in the public domain, as well as self-published books
  • I don't want this to sound like a commercial for the store, but Jeff said he'd be interested in working with libraries - contact him for details

I tried to photograph the interesting parts, so check out my Books-on-Demand Printer flickr set or watch the slideshow below:


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7 Responses to “Printing Books on Demand”

  1. Amanda Says:

    I’d been curious about the Book Espresso machine. Thanks for testing it out! It sounds kind of hit or miss right now.

  2. Jeff Scott Says:

    Yes thanks for sharing this. It’s great to see results first hand. It was a great idea to pick a big book to test it out.

  3. Erin Cassidy Says:

    Thanks for sharing the details of your experience with this. I’ve been curious but have not had the opportunity to use one of these machines; your description and photos illustrate a lot about the pros and cons of the current machine and process.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    Getting to play with new tech is my pleasure. Here’s also a news story with some good background on the machine, the company who makes it, and its catalog.

  5. Elizabeth Thomsen Says:

    I had a book printed there, too, and I’m pleased with the quality. I’ve been passing it around at NOBLE meetings so people can check it out. I liked watching the machine at work, especially when it gets cut to size, but what I really liked was the crowd that gathered around to watch the process. I was there on a busy Sunday afternoon, and people kept coming over out of curiosity, asking questions and some ended up getting something printed. I’m sure they get a lot more business with it because it’s out in a public area of the store.

    On the publisher issue, many books in the database have a publisher: Bibliolife, Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan, Book Jungle and others. The Google Books just list Google as a supplier rather than publisher. A lot of the classics are there in many different editions at wildly varying prices, but I think the main difference is the covers.

    It’s fun to see books go back and forth — paper books being digitized, digital copies being printed back into paper books.

  6. Winifred Says:

    Thanks for the detailed explanation. FYI – the Main Brooklyn Library has one of these in their front lobby. I would have investigated more but it was unattended at the time. The literature they had sounded more it was aimed at the self publishing niche.

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Winifred: you’re welcome. Next time you’re in Harvard Square, stop into the Harvard Book Store – every time I’ve been in there lately a staff person has been operating the machine, and they’re always friendly about answering questions. Plus, it’s just neat to watch too.