POD machines and the bookstore of the future

On a discussion list, a writer who publishes digitally on the Kindle platform suggests that the bookstore of the future will consist of an on-site print on demand machine that produces books to order.  The “day of publishers printing up a quantity of books will be gone,” he suggests.

I'd love to have a print-on-demand book machine in store, and I work at an institution that could probably find the money for it -- if I recommended that we go that route.  But I haven't given the Espresso a thumbs up yet because the library of content available through the platform is not yet sufficiently robust.  In other words, I can't get enough of the titles that I need out of this box.  As usual in this business, it's not a technical issue or even really an economic issue.  The problem is content providers not playing well with others, not making the effort to make their titles available for printing on POD machines everywhere.  Too many people and too many firms are too happy to be on one platform only, without worrying about other possibilities.

I've tried to get some of my publishing program’s titles onto Espresso via Lightning Source, and I've been tangled in Lightning Source bureaucracy. You would not believe the strings of emails that have gone nowhere.  Lightning Source is, I think, too content to be its own entity and does not feel the need to engage others -- come to us only or go nowhere.  That's often true among firms across the board, so it's not just a Lightning Source thing.  In this era, that attitude is enormously frustrating.

But this discussion list thread reminds me that I need to take another run at this, probably trying a different route next time.  On the list, I asked two questions. “How many of you have tried to put your titles onto the Espresso system?  How many of you have succeeded?”  Not one person answered the questions.  Lack of interest or lack of success?  Impossible to say.  I'd love to hear some success stories in this area.

As for what POD machines mean for bookstores, I don't think it's either the salvation or the death of stores.  I don’t even think that the machines will change stores much.  I’ve visited Espresso machines at Powell’s in Portland and Politics & Prose in D.C., and in both cases these bookstores are still bookstores.  Great bookstores, in fact.  There’s a big price advantage to big printings -- the unit cost for a 1000 copy offset run is much less than a single copy printed on demand -- and the books produced through big printings need to be housed and showcased somewhere.

But more importantly  I still think that a roomful of books means something.  We are excited by and comforted by rooms full of books.  We crave what a roomful of books holds in store for us, in ways that a being in the presence of a print on demand machine can never hope to satisfy.  Not that the machines aren’t cool -- they are.  But it’s just not the same thing.

The challenge for stores is finding people to sustain those rooms.  Technology allows folks to separate reading from the roomful of books. Writers and readers have options now, and that's fine.  Better than fine if it means that texts reach more readers.  But I think it's too much to expect the two approaches to mix much.  POD machines help print-leaning people and institutions sustain that preference (in personal and in business terms) but only on the margins.  They’re not game-changers by themselves.  The production of a book via POD or large-quantity offset isn't what matters.  You have to want real books in the first place, and to be willing to pay for them and for the spaces in which we encounter them.