The Espresso Book Machine

I have a recurring nightmare in which I am consumed by a longing, both for the opportunity to buy and consume an espresso and for the means to purchase the hard-to-find G.K. Chesterton classic, The Man Who Was Thursday. I awake wrapped in sweat. I had given up hope of ever sleeping again, until in April I read an article, suggesting that Andrew Hutchings, chief executive of Blackwell, had masterminded a cure.

In a move that Hutchings believed “could change bookselling fundamentally”, Blackwell have unveiled an in-house printing service, which makes possible the printing and binding of both freely available digital content and out-of-print texts. Over half a million titles are available. Blackwell print-on-demand service is provided by ‘The Espresso Book Machine’, an industrial laser printer capable of printing around 40 pages per minute, leaving the customer just enough time to grab a titular espresso as their book is created. So has Hutchings cured me?

The reality of the print-on-demand phenomenon is still too awkward and frustrating to transform my nightmares into bibliophilic fantasy. Finding a book to print is not straightforward. The customer chooses a title from the selection offered by publishers collaborating with Blackwell; a choice which can be made through the complicated and user-unfriendly interface on Blackwell website. When I arrived in Charing Cross, the interface problem becomes apparent. It took ten minutes to find the files, followed by another twenty minutes to print and bind. The machine’s operator was blunt. “Whoever designed this made it difficult to use.” (And didn’t waste time thinking about the aesthetics.) If the title is available online, ordering it from Amazon is cheaper and easier. The online library is an odd, labyrinthine net, replete with manuals for car parts and entomological field guides. The books are not pretty. The binding is very glossy, sticky even.

I have my Chesterton novel now, but given the protracted printing process, I drank more than the one espresso. The nightmares are history, but only because I’m totally wired. Print-on-demand is not the future of bookselling.

Robert Thomas


The e-book

At the heart of the British Library in London is the King’s Library Tower, an imposing steel-and-glass structure built to house the private library of George III. The Collection, donated to the nation in 1823, holds some 84 000 volumes, including a Gutenberg Bible and Caxton’s first edition of The Canterbury Tales.

Tucked away behind this temple to the printed word is a lime green sign welcoming readers to the “virtual bookshelf”, inviting them to “explore the future of reading”. Beneath are four Sony Portable Readers, the company’s latest foray into the burgeoning e-book market. With each device theoretically capable of holding up to 40,000 volumes, these gadgets, no larger than a paperback, could between them store the King’s Library almost twice over. I approached the idea of trialling an e-book with scepticism. I picked up the Reader and tried to read something. Foxed by an admittedly uncomplicated menu, I seemed only to be able to access a table of contents. In German. After a few minutes of fiddling I did manage to read a few pages of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, tracing my finger across the screen to turn each page and trying to ignore the pixels dissolving and then reappearing to form the words on the screen. It is easier on the eyes than reading from a computer or television screen, but it still doesn’t measure up to the simple joy of flicking through a paperback. It’s all rather cold and unromantic. There was no feeling of excitement as I opened the front cover for the first time (there was no front cover), nowhere to indulge the jealous desire to pen my name onto the first page, to take possession of the book and make it my own. Given that much of the demand for the Kindle, Amazon’s answer to the e-book, is being driven by the romance and erotic romance, one might be tempted to observe that someone looking to read Lori Foster’s Real Men Last All Night would probably feel let down by a battery that doesn’t.

Though the number of books available in electronic formats is increasing, there are still considerable gaps in online catalogues. Amazon, for example, offers Rosie: Her Intimate Diaries, “a delicious and voluptuous voyage of endless arousal” but not Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee’s classic account of a Gloucestershire childhood. If the e-book and the much-hyped Kindle prevail over traditional paperbacks, gone would be the days of lugging hefty tomes from place to place, of being stuck on the beach without a word to read, of trekking through endless corridors in search of a book. But gone too would be the pleasure of browsing dusty bookshops, of third-hand dog-eared paperbacks passed from friend to friend, of small-scale, independent publishers, and of a cultural aesthetic that has taken almost a thousand years to develop.  David Shone

The Blog Turned Book

The phenomenon of blogs turned into published books – or ‘blooks’ – is recent enough to still have publishers and agents talking about it as the next big thing – and established enough to have its own ‘Blooker Prize’. Although this novelty in publishing has generally been met with interest and curiosity, some argue that ‘blooks’, by making amateurism acceptable, are a false move for the publishing industry.

There are parallels between the frenzy over such success stories as Belle du Jour – the allegedly true diaries of an anonymous London call girl (unmasked this week as research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti), first published as a Guardian blog before being turned into a bestseller and a TV series – and the overnight sensations found by shows like the X Factor and Pop Idol. Amateurism, in publishing as well as music, has become not only acceptable, but formidably commercial as well.

But are blooks really doing anything new? Or is the controversy that surrounds the phenomenon nothing but a publicity stunt – a new gloss over a format that has existed for centuries? Since blogs are naturally written in short vignettes, over a long period of time, and usually personal in tone, they tend to resemble the diary format. The ‘blook’ is, essentially, a techno-savvy diary.

Where explorers have traditionally published their journals, sinners have published their confessions, and columnists have published their columns, now bloggers are publishing their ‘blooks’. Had De Quincey had access to the internet, he too would have written a blog and perhaps he would have been picked up by a publisher and offered a contract for his confessions.

The defining characteristic of the blog format is that it creates a dialogue between writer and readers, before the publishers even come knocking. This notion of collaboration acts more as a means for the writer to gain popularity (and, possibly, to feign intimacy) rather than anything more substantial. It is a useful selling point (and a canny bit of pre-publication market research) rather than an intrinsic quality of the writing.

The phenomenon of the ‘blook’, doesn’t pose any real threat to the traditional format of the book. After all, the move to publish these blogs suggests that leafing through pages is still preferable to tedious scrolling down.  The idea that the blogging-to-book process is any more intimate than any other publishing process is a marketing strategy at best, designed to flatter not only the reader’s ego, but the author’s too. Christiana Spens


Poetry goes digital

No account of twentieth century poetics could be complete without some mention of the trail blazed by Harriet Monroe, the poet-cum-essayist-cum-founder of Poetry Magazine. Writing and editing prolifically between 1891 and 1936, during the halcyon days of the Modernist movement, Monroe cut an inspired and remarkable public figure amongst the literary establishment, advising poets as important as Hart Crane and Ezra Pound. Announcing her generous editorial attitude, Monroe declared “The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine – may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half shut, against his ample genius!”

Today these enduring and inviting tenets are maintained by the Poetry Foundation, an online organisation which, whilst allowing visitors free access to its content on their computers, continues to distribute Poetry Magazine in printed form. Katherine Coles, director of the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Institute, is eloquent about her budding project to “ensure a vigorous presence for poetry in various forms of new-media outlets.” The conviction behind this rather weighty aim is illuminated by an extensive archive of audio recordings and lectures, blogs, and video documentaries which complement a searchable archive of verse that includes excerpts from everything from Chaucer to children’s nursery rhymes.

After immersing myself in some of Poetry Foundations offerings (the chance to hear three separate recordings of Pound’s Cantico del Sole being a particular delight) I begin to wonder whether Coles’s comment that “We don’t expect new media to replace the book, though we do think the book will change somewhat” isn’t slightly tentative, hedged and overly even-handed. Though much better staffed and funded than is typical for a website of its kind (its team is made up of two distinctly different parties: academics and ex-investment bankers and is backed by a $200 million grant) the Poetry Foundation deploys its resources with the same openness endorsed by Monroe almost a century ago, allowing great poetry to animate accessible technology with a view to building a larger and more sensitive community of readers. If literary history must take an electronic turn, this might just be a valuable one. Eliot D’Silva

The Independent Bookshop

James Daunt, founder and manager of Daunt Books has little sympathy for predictions about the end of the bookshop at the hands of all-conquering warrior Daunt estimates that the curse of the Independent Bookseller is to “sit there convinced that the end is nigh and not invest in people or their premises”. If there is one thing Daunt Books does well it’s people and premises. Their flagship shop in London’s Marylebone High Street is a former Edwardian bookshop complete with oak bookshelves, a light-flooded atrium and William Morris wallpaper. The intelligent, knowledgeable Daunt staff, who rotate between the four branches, never ask customers if they could spell ‘Dostoyevksy’ while they peer blankly at an online catalogue.

Daunt Books has continued to thrive where others have floundered, overwhelmed by Amazon, Waterstone’s and Tesco. Daunt opened his first shop in Marylebone High Street in 1990, just in time for the 1991 recession. The shop lost money for four years. A second shop in Soho opened in 1996 and closed soon after. James Daunt has weathered enough storms to be sanguine about gloomy predictions about the future. Bucking all trends, Daunt Books has opened a further three stores in Belsize Park, Hampstead and Holland Park.

Daunt is sceptical about the major booksellers’ stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap methods. Daunt has so far resisted “promotions as inane as 3 for 2” and laments that it’s a “depressing way to do it”. “Tesco,” he concludes “is never going to be a Heffers”.

If the Daunt Bookshop has become a destination, then the canvas Daunt Book bag has become an unlikely fashion icon. Designed by Diana Liu, the bag achieved cult status when it was photographed on the arm of model Anouck Lepere outside the Tuileries on the Sartorialist Blog (a shining example, incidentally, of the blog turned book.) The green and white Daunt bag is now the sine qua non in the wardrobe of any aspiring blue-stocking about town.

Daunt Books has survived where others have struggled because of its informed staff, its thoughtful buyers and its own highly defined brand, from the oak shops windows to its distinctive bag. “Bookselling was a perfectly honourable profession” observes James Daunt. In his hands, it is again. Laura Freeman