“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Espresso Machine

As all three regular readers of CAP will know, I’ve been off the smokes since Sunday, which is the longest period of non-smoking I’ve had for at least 20 years – although I am using nicotine replacement patches, so I feel like a bit of a fraud. Anyway, the point being, I may not be thinking all that clearly at the moment, so bear with me if this post is ludicrously naïve …
  I’ve just been writing a newspaper feature on the Espresso Book Machines (right), which are destined to revolutionise bookselling by virtue of their print-on-demand simplicity. You walk into a bookstore, ask for a particular book, and the folks there don’t have it? No problem, they’ll just print it off for you while-u-wait (and have an espresso, possibly). As I understand it, the quality of book that results is top-notch …
  At the moment, EBMs are retailing at €120,000, so it might be a while yet before your friendly independent bookstore gets one in. The flip side of the cost is that, once you have an EBM installed, then your storage / warehousing costs are cut to virtually nil, you’ll never have to send a customer away empty-handed again, and you are – in terms of stock, at least – finally operating on a level playing field with the chain-store operators.
  Happy days for indie bookstores, and especially those with an extra €120,000 lying around.
  Here’s what I’m wondering, though. If the EBM takes off – and it should, really, and not least because it’s environmentally friendly, reducing transport costs, and book pulping, etc., – then it’s very much the case that mainstream publishers will be making their books available to the public at large via print-on-demand EBMs. Correct? And if this is the case, then what will be the difference between, say, Random House and Lulu?
  There’s the quality issue, of course, because self-published / vanity published books tend to lack a certain rigour the discerning reader expects. But this isn’t always the case. I co-published THE BIG O with Hag’s Head back in 2007, paying half the costs, which is as close as it gets to vanity publishing without putting an actual mirror on the cover, and yet – if the reviews detailed down the left side of this page are any measure – the quality was fine and dandy-o by most readers.
  So, leaving aside the quality issue for a moment, what will be the difference between Lulu and Random House once the print-on-demand EBMs gain a foothold in the market?
  I mean, if I’m a writer, with a novel ready to go, then what’s to stop me establishing a tiny publishing house (Hubris Books, say), publishing the novel via Lulu, and then selling it through a combination of Amazon and EBM? Yes, I’m absorbing all the costs – but then, look at all the costs I’m side-stepping (printing, transport, distribution, returns, pulping). Plus, once Lulu prints off its first copy, it need never print off another copy again, leaving the heavy lifting to the EBMs.
  What you’re lacking, of course, is the kind of promotion and visibility an established and respected publishing house, like Random House, can bring to the table. But then, these days most writers are like me anyway, generating whatever limited publicity they can themselves, while the likes of Dan Brown and John Grisham hoover up the advertising spend.
  Of course, the new technology isn’t going to put big publishers out of business, which is a good thing, because good publishers bring good books to market, which is just fine by me. But the new technology might well foster a DIY spirit among writers akin to that which fuelled the punk movement in music circa 1975, which allowed independent voices be heard, voices that had something relevant worth saying that the mainstream at the time wasn’t listening to.
  The music industry hasn’t changed a whole lot over the last 30 years or so, although it is quickly adapting now to the new technologies, but I find it hard to believe that, without the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division, for example, we’d have got (for example) the non-mainstream sounds of some of my personal faves, such as Tindersticks, the Pixies, Antony and the Johnsons …
  Will the new technologies allow for more independent voices to emerge from the publishing industry? Will the industry celebrate and nurture such voices? Will it be a confrontational, adversarial relationship? Or is there a mutually beneficial balance to be struck between the established presences of mainstream publishing and their more indie, left-field brethren?
  Only time, that notoriously doity rat, will tell …

UPDATE: Lightning Source today revealed its new EBM strategy for Books Expo America – clickety-click here for more details. Or you could just roll it there, Collette …

5 comments:

Dana King said...

There are quite a few "publishers" in the States that print only a single author. Takes a little looking, as the reaearch locations (such as Writers Market) don't have that. You have tom actually go to the website and see they have no other auhtors on their list, and they aren't seeking submissions. They contract with a printing company and call themsleves a publisher.

The Expresso may help to get around their distribution problems, and it may help greatly with word or mouth. I think the the big publishers will be hurt far less than will Amazon, who will probably fight this in every way they can.

(PS - The new picture at the top of the blog is bound to increase circulation. Lily is quite the charmer.)

AnswerGirl said...

Whoa, Declan, two minds with but a single thought. I just posted a long rant on this general topic over at my place, then came here and saw the future. Yikes.

Donna said...

Dec - I have no idea.part of me thinks it's a great idea. As a reader, it's great to think that I won't have to wait ages to get a book that would otherwise come from the US, or is out of print, or whatever. And maybe, just maybe, it will be cheaper! And if it's cheaper for publishers then maybe they will publish more books which, I guess, is both a good thing and a bad thing for authors.

And, by the way, there's a huge difference between what you did with Hags Head. It's a brilliantly written, polished, well-edited book. It's not the fevered and badly spelled ramblings of someone who should have all their pens taken away from them. I've read some Publish America 'books' and every one of them was twaddle. Not saying they all are, but I would never read one again.

Even if all printed books disappeared tomorrow and fiction was only available from these machines, I would like to think that quality would still shine through. Or maybe I'm just being my usual Pollyanna.

I get most of my recommendations from online discussion groups, blogs like yours, conventions and word of mouth - I think that will become ever more the case.

Stuart Neville said...

I think there's huge potential in the Espresso, though it'll be some years before it fully plays out. I've said it many times before, but it bears repeating: price is not the primary reason people buy things from Amazon - it's choice and availability. Would I wait a week to get something in the post when I know I could get in town today, even if it's a little more expensive? Nope.

I still believe the traditional idea of a publisher will survive even if the means of distribution change radically, but there are certainly interesting times ahead.

critical mick said...

If you're into podcasting, listen to this discussion with an early EBM adopter that I know.