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Wednesday, October 7,2009

Reading the future

Schuler opens book on next generation of publishing

by Bill Castanier

When University of Michigan graduate Bill Fensenheld began selling books more than 25 years ago in a dusty Ann Arbor bookstore, he had no idea that one day another UM grad, Google founder Larry Page, would give him access to millions of books to sell at his own shops.


Schuler Books & Music, a Michiganbased book retail chain started by Fensenheld and his wife, Cecile, will soon be able to offer books printed on-demand for customers in its Grand Rapids, Okemos and Lansing locations.


Schuler is among a handful of bookstores in the country that have purchased an Espresso Book Machine, which can turn out a book in less time than it takes to order and get your morning espresso drink. Espresso book machine prices range from $75,000 to $90,000, depending on speed. The only other Espresso in the state is at a University of Michigan Library.


At this point, the mini chain has purchased a single Espresso for its 28th Street store in Grand Rapids, but it will deliver on-demand books to its Okemos and Lansing stores several times a week.


Fehsenfeld said the bookstore had been exploring on-demand printing for some time, but this year OnDemandBooks, manufacturer of the Espresso, signed content agreements with Google and Ingram Book Co., which helped make his decision. “On demand is important to the future of the industry,” Fehsenfeld said.


In addition to cutting inventory costs, on-demand helps reduce costly returns, reduces distribution costs and opens new markets, such as alternative languages. “Instead of publishers reprinting 2,000 copies of a book at a time, they can rely on having electronic content as needed,” he said.


The new service relies on content from an agreement with Ingram and other publishers, which have 1.8 million titles available, and the Google public domain titles numbering more than 2 million, including rare books that have never been reprinted.


Customers at the Grand Rapids location would be able to order a book and walk out of the store with it on the same visit; it takes the machine about four minutes to print a 300-page paperback book.


Fehsenfeld said Schuler will also provide self-publishing services to individuals, writing groups and community nonprofit organizations. A person could provide an original cover for "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" or a limited-edition family cookbook.


The Espresso books are paperbacks and can be four and one-half inches by six inches to eight and one-half inches by 11 inches. They are printed in what is called “perfect bound” and can include a fourcolor cover, making them indistinguishable from mass-roduced paperbacks.


Bookstores see the technology as another way of cutting costs while meeting consumer demand. Fehsenfeld cites books by May Sarton as an example. Her book, “Among the Usual Days” has been out of print since 1993, but buyers will be able to go into the Grand Rapids Schuler store and request an on-demand copy and be on their way in 10 minutes. For bookstores, it means it’s one less book they have to carry on what is called a backlist.


In a typical arrangement, Google gets a buck for the book, and OnDemandBooks gets a buck, and where appropriate, copyright costs are paid. But that makes the margin pretty thin for bookstores, which, on average, will spend about $3 per book. OnDemandBooks says a machine could print up to 60,000 books a year.


“We will see what the actual cost is once the equipment is delivered and tested,” said Pierre Camy, who is managing the Schuler ondemand system. “There are a lot of variables, like the cost of paper and ink,” he said.


It’s likely the cost of an on-demand paperback would be similar to the cost of a mass-produced one, but the real value is in speed and availability, and if Google has its way with the publishing community, another 4-to-6 million titles may make their way into the available content.


If Google gets court permission, it will be able to offer millions of titles it has already digitized that fall under the category of “orphans,” which are out-of-print books still under copyright protection, but the copyright holders can’t easily be located or the copyright isn’t readily apparent. In most cases, copyright currently extends to anything published after 1923.


A good example of potential orphans might be John Voelker’s “Laughing Whitefish” or the “Michigan Murders,” by Edward Keyes. Both books are in high demand on the used-book market but have not been reprinted. Interestingly, negotiations are underway to reprint both books.


On-demand printing would still pay copyright costs on these books, but, in essence, would wrest control from the tra ditional publishing process, which often includes lawyers, rights specialists and estates, which, to the uninitiated, look like roadblocks to reprinting a book. Currently, even if a publisher is available, some books or collections of stories and articles are virtually not printable due to copyright irregularities.


Everyone from privacy advocates to publishers have lined up against Google, but it’s likely the courts will grant the Web giant publishing rights with some controls.


Fehsenfeld and his wife have seen a lot of changes in the book business since they began working in the industry 27 years ago at an Ann Arbor bookstore owned by Louis and Tom Border, which later became Border’s Books.


He said the print-on-demand concept is another step in the evolution of bookstores, from sellers to publishers. “No one knows where it is going,” he said.


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