Just inside the entrance of McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street sits an enormous contraption, next to the café. It is an Espresso Book Machine that prints and binds books on demand. The machine, the brainchild of Jason Epstein, veteran of the New York publishing world, allows booksellers to print books in mere minutes, thereby giving them the ability to offer an almost endless backlist without the burden of having to order and store the titles. It also enables authors to self-publish their work and to permission their book to the Espresso network so that it can be sold at any Espresso location. This new innovation marries the new age of digital technology with the old world tradition of bookbinding, thus bringing the physical book into the future at a time when many are declaring its death.
Throughout his career, Epstein has had the uncanny ability to see the future of books and has thus been on the cutting edge of the “next big thing” in publishing more than once. The Espresso Book Machine is only the latest incarnation of his vision.
As a young editor at Doubleday in the early 1950’s, Epstein initiated the “paperback revolution,” introducing this highly-portable, highly-profitable format to the world. During the newspaper strike in the 1960’s, he became co-founder of The New York Review of Books, and then in the early-1980’s, after many tireless years of lobbying, he launched The Library of America, which reprints classic American texts. Shortly after that, due to his concern over the decline of backlist sales, he launched the Reader’s Catalog, a list of 40,000 backlist titles available via telephone order. The Reader’s Catalog was the precursor to online bookselling. In 2002, he wrote Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future, published by W.W. Norton.
Although Epstein comes from the old tradition of book publishing, he is more than cautiously optimistic about the digital age. Freed of the cumbersome tasks of warehousing and distribution, he sees that publishers, with the development of a reliable rights management system, will be free to concentrate on editorial concerns and worldwide distribution. He is excited by the fact that e-books and the internet will lift the limitations of the printed book, but still sees a future for printed bound volumes:
That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.
(from “Publishing: The Revolutionary Future,” The New York Review of Books, March 11, 2010)
With print on demand technology, Epstein has, in a sense, taken the publishing world full circle. He has gone one step beyond virtual books to a place where “enterprising retail booksellers may become publishers themselves, like their eighteenth-century forebears.” By combining that tasks of author, publisher, and bookseller together through the combination of print and digital technology, Epstein has simultaneously elevated the book business at a time when prospects seem low and leveled the playing field for future book(wo)men.