Saturday, September 24, 2011

First Major Publisher Finally Gets It!

Last week in what I fully believe will become known as an historic turning point for the publishing industry, HarperCollins Publishers announced a partnership with On Demand Books (makers of the Espresso Book Machine) and something called “Comprehensive Backlist.”

The program will allow any physical bookstore with an Espresso Book Machine the ability to offer thousands of backlist trade paperback titles from HarperCollins to their customers. This means that the vision of walking into your local bookstore only to find the title out of stock and a wait of one to three weeks for that special order to arrive, a thing of the past.

Me and some of the first EBM titles at McMaster in 2009 in front of the EBM 1.5

Now, all the bookseller will need to do is look up the title in their Espresso Book Machine (EBM) catalogue, hit a few buttons, and the perfect bound trade paperback, complete with a full colour cover will be produced right there in the store in a matter of minutes.

This represents the very dream I had envisioned when I set about to purchase the Espresso Book Machine for the bookstore at McMaster back in 2008. Titles Bookstore at McMaster University was the 2nd location in Canada to acquire an EBM and, even though the catalogue of well over a million titles was immediately available, content from the major publishers was still part of the “coming soon” rather than the “feature attraction.” Instead of waiting for the inevitable content, McMaster took a “buy it and they will come” approach and haven’t looked back.

The EBM at McMaster has allowed us to partner with academic publishers to ensure the availability of custom versions of textbooks that helped us save students hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past three years, while increasing bookstore and publisher sell-thru. The EBM has also attracted an entirely new revenue stream due to our ability to offer services for self-publish authors. With an ideal print-run of 1 copy, anybody who ever wanted to follow the dream of publishing their own book saw some previous high barriers fall.

“Bookstores continue to be an important place for customers to shop for physical books,” Brian Murray, Chief Executive Officer at HarperCollins said in a September 22nd press release. “The goal of this initiative is to give the local bookseller the capability to provide customers with a greater selection of HarperCollins titles in a physical environment.”

Visionary Dane Neller, CEO of On Demand Books applauds HarperCollins on this move. “By committing thousands of titles to the program,” Neller says, “HarperCollins is showing its clear support for bookstores and authors, and reaching more readers.” Neller goes on to state that “Digital-to-Print at Retail” (DPR) will become a powerful new sales channel helping to eliminate lost sales due to out of stock inventory.
This is a day that I dreamed of when I first watched the EBM roll into the bookstore at McMaster University one fine day in November of 2008.

I knew that digital books and ebooks would continue to grow and eventually become a dominant force within the publishing market; but I have also long held the belief that there was a need for digital distribution with a “print local” element – allowing customers who still prefer the printed artefact purchased from their friendly neighbourhood local bookshop an easy way to get access to more titles than can be physically held in a small and often high rent retail space.

We have all seen evidence that bookstores attempting to stock upwards of 100,000 titles on their shelves is not always a fully sustainable business model. The McMaster bookstore, for example, which used to stock 40,000 titles in the store, eventually recognized that the cost of attempting to physically carry “everything” was simply not sustainable. It was the Espresso Book Machine and the continually growing digital catalogue of print on demand titles that allowed us to finally make the change and stop carrying so much backlist and overstock. We knew that the day would come when that backlist (or Chris Anderson’s “long tail” of titles would soon be available in a more convenient fashion for customers, booksellers and publishers thanks to our Espresso Book Machine.

Now that HarperCollins has stepped up to the plate, I’m sure that the other major publishing stakeholders will follow suit.

I’m rather enthusiastic to watch a fresh new opportunity that represents a win situation for publishers, bookstores and authors, particularly at this time of unease and unprecedented change in our industry.


Steph said...

I admit that being a bibliophile I'd rather wait the one to three weeks for a book than print it on demand. But there are so many people who want books instantly that this is a very cool thing to have. I imagine, though, that it's a major expense? I mean, if you sell many, you can't afford not to have it, really, but some indies just might not be able to invest in it now.

Mark Leslie said...

I hear what you're saying, Steph - but at least half a dozen times a day when someone comes in for something that we don't have on the shelves but can order, they say: "Oh, that's okay - I'll just order it online." When I think of those lost sales, I can imagine that getting those sales back could very quickly turn things around.

I would even envision a single Espresso Book Machine shared by a group of local stores that could all drawn upon it's catalog to satisfying the customers walking into their store. Imagine a single one in your own community serving all the bookstores there - any of the booksellers within that town/community could easily get those titles within a single business day, so when the customers walks in the answer is: "Sure, we can have that here for you either later today or tomorrow."

melanie said...

This sounds especially great for books that are really hard to find - does it work for those too? I'm talking out-of-print books that might be kicking around in paperback but can't really be ordered. Or maybe that is just something that will happen in the future.

Mark Leslie said...

Melanie - that sometimes happens today, although there's a pretty big gap between the "public domain" titles and all the millions of out of print titles published since then and today.

At McMaster we've been able to use our copyright team to track down the rights owners for some of those out of print titles and get permission to replicate them for a particular fee.

However, as publishers like Harper Collins lead the way, more and more publishers will follow suit and provide their files to the Espresso Book Machine network and soon you'll be able to get access to more and more of these types of hard to get books.