The Hottest Book in Charing Cross


I’ve long been convinced—see my Village Voice piece from a few years back—that the eventual maturing of in-store Print on Demand technology could spell the end for chain stores in their current form. Chains rely on an insane system of return credits to wallpaper their stores on everyone else’s nickel; take away the need for returns or for massive retail spaces with huge physical inventories, and you pretty much take away the chain’s reason to exist.

Although it hasn’t been covered nearly as much as the new Kindle, the unveiling of the Espresso 2.0 Book Machine at the London Book Fair sounds like a big step. The bugs haven’t been worked out, but an account in the Times of London this weekend sounds intriguing:

Yesterday The Times was offered a special preview at Blackwell’s in Charing Cross Road, in which we were allowed to print the book of our choice and take it away, literally hot off the presses. How hot? Well, the glue used to bind the book is heated to 350F, that’s how hot. It has cooled down by the time it pops out at the end, though.Our first attempt to print a book was not entirely successful. The Times‘s choice – from a rather limited list, the full catalogue not being available until next week – was a 1919 volume called Heroes of Aviation…. Thor Sigvaldason, co-founder of On Demand Books, the people behind the machine, clicked a mouse and it started making whirry, photocopier-like noises. Laser-printed pages started flying out from the first half of the machine into the second, where the book is made. It was clamped, glued, stuck to the cover, cut to size and spewed out of a letterbox-sized slot in the side of the machine – where it promptly fell apart.

“Things do happen,” said Mr Sigvaldason, phlegmatically. “It is actually perfectly bound. It just doesn’t have a cover.”

Another attempt and, after 13 minutes – rather slow, but then there was a pause to empty the wastepaper box – a perfect, warm and rather industrial-smelling copy of Heroes of Aviation was in my hands, mint-fresh and looking just like a real book. Which it was.

Paul Collins teaches writing at Portland State University, and his work appears regularly in New Scientist, Slate, and The Believer. His next book, The Murder of the Century, will be published in June by Crown. More from this author →