On Demand Books versus Kindle: John Henry versus the Steam Hammer?

If you work in newspapers these days (or book publishing, for that matter!) you probably hear much about the Kindle. Will this device — that provides a non-eye-straining reading, instant wireless purchase of books from Amazon anywhere, anytime — save publishing and the future employment prospects of those us who make our living by the written word?  I’m not going to try to answer that here.  I’ll just suggest, before getting to my main point, that while I love the feel of genuine leather bound, paper-paged book in my hand, I have serious Kindle envy.  Someday.  

kindleespresso1Anyhow, on to the main point, which is this morning I heard an NPR report that caught my imagination.  Bookstores have begun installing a device from On Demand Books called The Espresso Book Machine.  The Espresso is a combination printing and binding device that creates a “library quality, perfect-bound paperback book” in just a couple of minutes.  That means that even if a bookstore only has a couple of hundred thousand titles on the shelf, you could still walk into one, browse the Espresso, and walk out with a copy of one of millions of books in its database.

Listening to the report, I thought, “Awesome! This is just what I imagined instant books might be like when I was a kid.  Very steam-punk meets the Jetsons.” But on the heels of that I felt a twinge of sadness.  Because steam-punk and The Jetsons both convey nostalgia. And because to take advantage of the Espresso, I still have to locate and travel to a bookstore where one of these expensive, 800-pound machines lives. It still defies that impulse factor.  Whereas, on the Kindle, I hear a book review on NPR, get all fired up about it, reach over, punch a few keys on the Kindle and I own the book. 

What this sets up internally for me is the war between my inner bibliophile and my inner reader. I love the tactile feel of books because of the experiences I associate with them, which often comes back to language, though sometimes back to a sense of history, or even childhood physical or emotional memory. This conflict makes me wonder whether the company CEO’s assertion that this device will keep paper books way ahead of electronic books will hold true once e-readers finish penetrating the market the way, say, MP3 players have.  Despite being someone who works on the digital side of publishing, part of me hopes so.  I genuinely love the written word in its printed form. But at the end of the day, I think my inner bibliophile is a byproduct of the reader, and the delivery mechanism that gives me the most convenient (convenience including all sorts of factors including accessibility, selection, price of content and delivery device and experience) access to the words I want or need to read right now is the one the reader is going to choose. At least most of the time. The same way most people choose MP3s over records, or DVDs over two-hour movies on multiple reels. Or then again, choose reading print magazines in the dentist office instead of lugging a laptop along. Or sometimes choose spreading the Sunday paper out on the kitchen table instead of reading the mobile version on the iPhone. Hmmm… perhaps there’s hope for both formats.

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