The 2.5-Pound Cell Phone and the Future of Book Publishing

by | Nov 18, 2009

Motorola cell phone

Motorola cell phone

The phone rang, and for some reason Jill started talking very loudly into the receiver, like she was in a construction zone.

“Yes! Yes! Where? Are you serious?” Was all I could here. I waited until she hung up a minute later.

“Who or what was that?” I wanted to know.

“Morrie, calling from Melbourne. And guess what? He was calling from a phone in his car, going over Punt Road!”

A phone in the car? What?

The 2.5-Pound Cell Phone

You can date this conversation pretty easily as taking place in the 1980s. The first call ever made from a cellular phone took place on April 3, 1973. Ten years later, Motorola introduced the first commercial cell phone, the Dyna-Tac, which weighed 2.5 pounds and cost $3,500.

Well, we all know what happened next, don’t we?

But this post isn’t really about cell phone technology or miniaturization. It’s about the future of book publishing and distribution.

Meet the Espresso Book Machine

At the end of this article you’ll find a link to a short video that demonstrates the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), pioneered by On Demand Books. The first EBM was installed and demonstrated in June, 2007 at the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library. There are now about 25 of these machines throughout the US and Canada. Here’s how it works:

Espresso Book Machine

Espresso Book Machine

A user sits at a terminal and connects via wireless internet to a server where digital files for a book’s interior and cover are stored. She selects the book she wants from a list of over 1 million titles. She gets up and walks over to the coffee bar to order a latte.

While she’s waiting for the barista, the EBM downloads the files from the remote server, prints them, glues the bookblock (interior pages) onto the cover, and trims the whole thing to size. The finished book drops out of a slot on the side of the EBM. The earliest version of the EBM produces a 300-page book in about 7 minutes.

The OnDemandBooks website tells us that:

The new EBM Version 2.0 is measures approximately 2.7 feet deep, 3.2 feet wide and 4.5 feet high, comes with high speed black and white and color printers, and will print, bind, and trim a 300-page book in less than four minutes. Production cost is a penny a page and minimal human intervention is required for operation. The trim size of a book is infinitely variable between 8.25” x 10.5” and 4.5” x 5.0” and the EBM Version 2.0 can bind up to 830 pages.

Sound (or Look) Familiar?

What will this machine (or its descendants) look like five or ten years from now? Perhaps a kiosk, like those found in malls, with a screen and a keyboard. You won’t need a seat, because by that time the books will probably drop out of the machine in a minute or two.

Or perhaps the “bookstore” of the future, recognizing that people like to look at an actual book before they buy, will become “showrooms” with the top 5,000 or 10,000 titles available for examination only. When you find the one you want, you just wander over to the “book machine” and push a few buttons on the touch screen. Your card is charged, your book is printed, and you’re on your way.

I mean, all we’re talking about is copier technology, toner and paper, and a wireless broadband connection. Much simpler, in a way, than cell phone technology. It’s a mashup of a couple of copiers with a computer stuck to the front.

Future, Here We Come!

And it isn’t science fiction. As noted, these machines are already in operation even though few people have seen one. But then, in the 1980s not many people had seen a cell phone either. It was very exotic and exciting to get a call from a friend in his car half a world away.

And while we argue about discounts, “gatekeepers” and print-on-demand brokers, the future is happening around us. Don’t you think there’s something incredible about this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here’s the link to the video I promised:

Espresso Book Machine video (3:03 min)

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Stefania Clayton

    Best IT solutions they are empowering us with. I appreciate their work and the efforts they are making. They are leading in the field of technology and IT which they can visit to get free phone number lookup services. It is impossible to compete them with. Being a student of IT I have learned a lot from them in a positive way.

  2. m88

    Why viewers still make uuse of to read news papers whn in this technological glohe all is presented on web?

  3. Laurinda

    Hello, all the time i used to check blog posts
    here early in the daylight, since i enjoy to learn more and more.

  4. admin

    @Mike, thanks for stopping by. I *vividly* remember the $1000/month cell phone bills, and the insanity of it all. It makes you wonder where we will be 20 years from now.

  5. Mike Lipsey

    My first cell phone was the size of a breadbox behind the front seat of my van. A few years later a bag phone the size of a hefty purse. Then the monster first “portable” handsets. We used to spend a thousand a month on cell service. From this to the iPhone and Android, about 20 years. That’s when every author will have a complete book producing machine under his desk!

  6. admin

    Betty, let me know what you think of it, I’m curious too. I print lots of digital books but haven’t seen an EBM book. Actually I’m thinking of going down to the Internet Archives which is here in the Presidio in San Francisco, because they have an EBM there. I’m going to see if I can get a “tour” of the operation and if I do I will certainly blog that.

  7. betty ming liu

    Hmmm, interesting. Thanks for explaining! My friend actually ordered a copy of this expression machine-made book and I can’t wait to get a look at it!

  8. betty ming liu

    Hey Joel — first of all, thanks for the additional comment on my blog post on chapbooks. Now I’m wondering…are the books that come out of expresso machines considered chapbooks? I ask because a friend of mine sent me a link to a book that will be published via this machine during the author’s reading. The attached link shows the author’s reference to this book as a chapbook. Can you clarify for me? Thanks. Oh, and here’s the link:

    • admin

      Hi Betty,

      The books that are produced by the EBM are perfect bound paperbacks. That’s all it does. It may be that Steve Almond or whoever is writing the copy is using the term loosely for a less-than-book-length publication. If you did a 48-page half-sheet perfect bound book with an uncoated paper cover, I guess you could call it a chapbook. The term is a throwback in any case, and would defy exact definition other than a generic pocket-size publication. Most of the ones I’ve seen over the years are exactly as you described in your post, and the hand sewn binding seems common to the genre. Actually it seems kind of cool to make the books while the author is speaking. Geeky but cool. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Christopher Finlan

    Hi Joel,

    I think these machines really could become as ubiquitous as those DVD kiosks that everyone laughed at when they first came out a few years ago which turned into a huge revenue producer. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find these in any number of unique locations, maybe combine it with quickly printing out a copy of your favorite newspaper or magazine? Imagine putting this in every airport!

  10. admin


    Thanks for the comment. Yes, this is interesting stuff. The list of where the EBMs are located is at the OnDemand site if you’re interested. You can’t help but think that these machines will be widespread someday in the not too distant future.

  11. Herrin

    Wow and Cool.

    I just got a little Minority report on me then!

    But as you point out it’s not exactly new technology. It is surprising we haven’t seen this yet, or at least not in my town.

    Great article and good to get the imagination going! :-)



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