The book business is turning to a new page: on-demand printing.
Here's how it could work in the not-very-distant future. Looking for a volume of retro rhymes, some bell-bottomed bibliophile will bop into a local shop and browse menus on the computer screen of an automatic book machine. Passing a credit card through an electronic reader, the customer will transmit an order to a digital library, which will then bounce a signal off a satellite to the book machine's built-in printer.Within five minutes or so, the book lover will be holding a fresh paperbound copy of Rod McKuen's "Listen to the Warm" - groovy, but sometimes hard to find, poetry from the '70s.
This emerging technology could resurrect thousands of titles that have gone out of print and exponentially expand the choices for book buyers.
"It should have a big impact in terms of customer service," said Joyce Meskis, manager of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, where the first BookMachine is to be installed by the end of this year. "There are so many titles in print that no bookstore, now matter how large, could stock them all."
The in-store BookMachine is still being developed by the On Demand Machine Corp. of St. Louis, but publishers and printers are already using similar technology to take orders by phone or Internet to provide next-day service on custom-made books.
"The real significance is that a book never has to go out of print," said Larry Brewster, an Ingram vice president and general manager of Lightning Print. "In the long run, more books are going to be available in the market-place. . . . Publishers no longer have to worry about unprofitable print runs and warehousing costs. With on-demand technology, you print to meet your demand - whether the demand is one copy or 1,000."
The system reduces publishers' reprint risks for books that sell slowly or sporadically over a long period. With on-demand printing, the publisher no longer has to print a minimum run of 1,000 or so copies and keep the books on shelves until orders hopefully arrive, or allow books with some, albeit slight, demand to go out of print.