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Re: [BKARTS] The Espresso Book Machine

On 26-May-08, at 10:13 PM, Ben Zlotkin wrote:
When I started my company, I looked at many many binding and printing machines.

I can assure you that this machine is the antithesis of everything the people on this list care about: fine papers, beautiful printing, hand crafted bindings and finishing.

These machines essentially glue together photocopies made on 20# bond copy paper. For a lot less money, you can buy a faster, higher quality laser printer and a simple perfect binding machine. You'll make books many times faster than the Espresso can. Our first binding machine cost $5k and we still use it for softcover books - we average 40-50 books an hour with it, and since it is a manual machine, the spines are always straight and square.

Fair warning: this ended up being a long post! But I've been pondering this comment, and my reaction to it. That said, I put this reply out as friendly conversation and with enthusiasm only as I am very interested in the direction this discussion is taking. This will probably also answer your question, Charles, about what the books look like in more detail than you want to know! The short answer: a good quality perfect bound trade paperback, any size under a letter size page.

I believe I understand the source of your concern, Ben, but I've seen this machine in action, and I know the person who made the decision to acquire it for the U of A Bookstore -- not one to make such a decision lightly -- so I'd suggest we not write it off quite so fast. Admittedly, this machine is not intended to do handmade bindings or letterpress fine printing, but it's much more than a glorified photocopier. And as someone who cares very much for fine papers, beautiful printing, and actual physical books, I believe there is a remarkable role for this machine to play in the world of bookmaking. Including better bookmaking.

As I have some projects in mind which might suit the Espresso, I specifically asked about the choice of paper. Because the choice is not determined by the Espresso but by the owner of the Espresso, the U of A Bookstore has made a business decision (and perhaps arguably an ethical/moral decision?) to use only high quality paper as its standard stock, and will happily use even higher end archival paper -- it just increases the cost of the book. Basically anything you can run through a laser printer, you can choose as your paper stock for your project.

As for any concerns about print quality, the machine does in fact use high end laser printers, four black-and-white and one colour, and a trimmer and perfect binding machine, all mounted in sequence in a transparent housing so you can watch the book appear. My favourite part of the machine is the... for want of a better word... vibrator that shakes the trimmed pages for a nice clean textblock to run over the glue rollers.

Your project is submitted as a pdf, same as what you would produce and send to any other non-letterpress book printer these days, which means the beauty of the printing is entirely in your hands to set well or destroy. And at four books every seven minutes (one complete text block from each b&w printer to keep pace with the four covers the colour printer can output in the same amount of time), it can produce over 30 perfect bound copies an hour, a pretty reasonable pace for something that requires essentially no additional human effort or supervision. Once the pdf is submitted and in the catalogue, the operator (yes, just an operator, not any kind of artist as such) just has to select the file and hit print, any time anyone wants a copy, and can hand it to them seven minutes later.

From the Bookstore's point of view, they can suddenly expand their offerings vastly without incurring any added expenses for stock or storage space, they don't need to estimate demand, they don't need to pay for shipping. Any copyright owner still gets their cut, but anything that is out-of-print or in the public domain is also available with no upfront costs aside from the machine itself, plus paper, glue pellets, and toner. The Bookstore can now offer books by local poets, small class projects, rare or otherwise unavailable textbooks, facsimiles of archival material, anything that can be saved as a pdf. It won't be the Folio Society's facsimile of Eric Gill's The Four Gospels (and I think the jury is still out on the longevity of laser printing versus offset) but the result is in point of fact a good and proper book.

And here's the thing that is so powerful for some of us as book designers or small publishers: now that the Bookstore has one, anyone around here can print a good quality perfect bound book for just the price of the book. Yes, a good laser printer and simple perfect binding machine are cheaper than an Espresso, but they are orders of magnitude more expensive than the price of a paperback. All it is going to cost me to "professionally" print and bind a book I've designed is the "wholesale" cost of that one book, at the moment I need it, now or twenty years from now.

Basically what we have here is something akin to the internet, but for actual handheld books. A 3D printer. The means of mass production have now been shifted one step closer to the artist. Anyone can be a publisher. Anyone can afford to put out one copy or a hundred.

This makes me think of a similar debate among graphic designers about the "dumbing down" of the design profession because of the Mac computer. Back then (and to quite an extent still now) the concern was that anyone with an iMac and some software had started calling themselves a "desktop publisher" and was stealing work from "real designers." Now any one of those desktop publishers can also be a "desktop printer and binder" as well (not that companies like lulu.com hadn't already opened up that can of worms). The result is admittedly, on the one hand, a whole lot more poor book design (and poor art and poor writing), carried through all the way to binding and distribution without the traditional filter of cost of production to limit the garbage being produced. But on the other hand, the "desktop revolution", the new software, font creators, cheap scanners, digital cameras, drawing tablets, and now one-click book production, in the right hands have helped create stunning new book arts. A fool with a new tool will still be a fool. A poor designer with a Mac still puts out poor designs, only now they're poor designs with laser-straight lines.

But an artist with a new tool, a good tool, a tool designed to do a specific job, and designed to do it well, can and will still create something amazing, something that I think is the very essence of what this list is about.

I got into graphic design originally because I was a magician with an x-acto knife. I could cut photos straight and square, trim that annoying edge of clear plastic off of one half of a strip of line tape so that it wouldn't fade out the edge of the photo when you hand-lined them, cut in corrections on the flats so that it was impossible to tell it wasn't straight out of the phototypesetter. Now using a computer, the "task" of trimming and lining photos doesn't even register... click, it's done. When I need precision cutting, I can still do it. But I'll save that for when I'm the best tool for the job, so to speak!

I'm still going to go to a good and proper papermaker, bookbinder, letterpress typographer, offset printer -- sheetfed or web, name your artist/artisan, if that's what I need. But now, really for the first time, I have a tool for when I need to call into existence a single copy of a paperback book in answer to a single instance of demand. I think the implications of that are staggering.



Winston Pei, BA, MA, MGDC
Black Riders Design

ph: 780-913-0031

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