30 September 2009

Toys for the bibliophile

Alright, I really want a DC-area bookstore to get one of these, like, yesterday. It's a new machine that can produce a library-quality paperback book in about four minutes. Currently, the soon-to-be-renamed Espresso has a fairly limited catalog (but it does have the Google books collection), but could lead to cheaper and more readily accessible books. The prices that the Harvard Bookstore are offering seem a tad bit high, especially when the On Demand Books website mentions that "Production cost is a penny a page and minimal human intervention is required for operation."

Nevertheless, this machine could have a huge impact on making out-of-print books available again. If you can have the choice between printing a new copy of an out-of-print book, or searching for a used copy for what may be a higher price, the decision seems easy. But more importantly, I think, is what we are starting to see in the world of books. With E-Readers soaring in popularity, and the means to read Public Domain books online, we are beginning to see the decommodification of the book as an object.

It's not going to be very long before we no longer prize having the actual object and merely want the content instead. And before the traditionalists have the chance to howl at me for blasphemy, look at what has happened in the world of music. As mp3s were introduced, people clamored that sound quality was poor and you lost the connection with actual albums. Well, it appears that iTunes and the like are the way of the future, and most of the complaints about missing the tangible are gone. It makes sense that sound was so easily adapted, because the process of consumption remains the same, regardless of the media on which the product is distributed. However, with books, we have to find a way to serve the product that is amenable to everyone.

The Espresso keeps with the standard format of giving us bound paper, but I think it will help to devalue the idea of having your own copy. Lose a copy of Three Musketeers? Who cares?! You can print a new one down the street! Additionally, if the publishing world embraces the idea, it will mean bookstores no longer have to keep massive stock on hand to satisfy all possible needs. Instead, we could see bookstores reduced to ATM-esque kiosks.

With all of this said, I'm not sure how I feel about the possibilities of the Espresso. Sure, it's a GREAT toy, and a really awesome concept. But there is no feeling quite like browsing around a book store. I know I can get anything I want on Amazon, but I still go to brick-and-mortar stores so I get the opportunity to browse and perhaps be taken by a whim. It's one of the joys of being a reader. I'm afraid to lose that, because it means taking fewer chances, and finding fewer surprises. So while I encourage the idea behind the Espresso, I am leery of implications it could have. What are your thoughts?

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