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Book machine misses the fine print – Print 21 magazine article

Thursday, 12 February 2009
By Print 21 Online Article

Bookstore giant Angus & Robertson knows that Harry Potter isn’t every reader’s cup of tea; so it introduced an Espresso Book Machine to print a range of out-of-print local and international books. But is it the equivalent of drinking instant coffee instead of a nice, percolated brew? Mitchell Jordan takes a sip and finds out.

Australian writing is fraught with problems. Perhaps one of the greatest is the limited print run and availability of titles that are more than a couple of years old.

As a fan of Australian fiction, I have spent too much time sifting through musty second-hand bookstores and op-shops searching for obscure titles that haven’t been in stock since before I was born; and if I ever did manage to find them, the degraded condition, dog-eared pages and dinged covers made the prospect of reading the book about as appealing as engaging with an assigned high school text.

So when Angus & Robertson launched its Espresso Book Machine (EBM) in September last year, I was excited at the thought of having once inaccessible books at my fingertips within minutes. But if Angus & Robertson wants to promote the EBM more then it could do with at least mentioning the service on its website, along with providing a catalogue of books available.

I went to Melbourne and all I got was this lousily-printed book: Mitchell Jordan with the EBM. Photo: Jordi Kerr.

Currently, the only EBM is located in Angus & Robertson’s city store in Bourke Street, Melbourne. When I enter the store on a Saturday afternoon it sits on the top floor, sedately surrounded by red rope and largely unnoticed.

Literature lovers are likely to be disappointed by the selection of 200 titles available from this service. With the exception of the Miles Franklin award-winning, A Horse of Air by Dal Stevens, Australian content is surprisingly low. There are cook books, travel books and even some history but not the plethora of Patrick White and Christina Stead titles I was expecting.

For my experiment, I pushed patriotism aside and instead chose L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz, the third in the extensive Wizard of Oz trilogy; not just because I am an avid Oz enthusiast, but also because it was one of the longest titles available and would give me enough time to see the machine in all its action.

At 2pm, Ozma of Oz is the first job for the EBM today. According to assistant manager, Lauren Thompson, who is in charge of the machine, weekends are always slower though on average 10 books a day are printed.

How it all works

The production process is simple enough. First of all, Thompson selects the book title from the online catalogue and clicks “order”. From here, the book’s text is downloaded onto the machine and then the printing starts.

The cover is printed by a Konica Minolta Magicolor 7450 and the pages by a Kyocera Ecosys FS9530DN. Thompson tells me that printing takes between seven to 14 minutes, though considering Ozma of Oz is 270 pages, it is more likely to be in the latter timeframe.

All is going well and there are only three pages left to print when the Kyocera gets a paper jam and, wouldn’t you know it, the whole book has to be printed again from scratch. (Printing folklore dictates that machines only ever misbehave when there is a reporter about and Thompson assures me the paper from the first run will be recycled).

So, when my book is finally printed it is almost 30 minutes later, by which time I’m well and truly bored with watching sheets of paper spurt out of a printer and begin idling through pages of the Lonely Planet guides in search of more exotic locations.

In between, I chat with Thompson about the EBM. Novelty value has so far been its strength, it seems. “A lot of people who come in are just interested in seeing how the book is made,” she says.

Unfortunately, the end result does not equate the first-time fun of seeing a book put together. For a start, people always have and always will, judge a book by its cover; and the generic covers available for most titles (Oz included) make me reluctant to want to pick the book up.

The spine was chipped, and title off centre, but most inexcusable of all was the poor quality print which, on some pages, is too faint to read. (And Ozma of Oz is a children’s book with large font).

Part of the problem is that the original text has been scanned from archives at such low resolution that it is impossible to gain the clarity of the original book, and Angus & Robertson are unlikely to invest the money and resources into rescanning entire books again.

Which is a shame, because for $20 – the price I paid for Ozma of Oz –, I could have easily bought a better-designed, more readable version from either a specialist bookstore or online store like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. (Or even a second-hand store).

50 EBMs are expected to be installed throughout Australia and New Zealand over the next year and as the number of print-on-demand machines grows, so too will the catalogue of books available. (This writer and reader hopes that the selection may eventually include some early books by Sonya Hartnett, Janet Frame and Kathleen Stewart). But most of all, I hope Angus & Robertson improves the quality of its print.

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