Would you like a book with that?

A couple of weeks ago an octogenarian friend of mine asked to read some of my writing, ‘None of that Internet stuff though,’ she said, swatting the idea away with her hand, ‘only real writing.’ She is a little old-fashioned, but the truth is octogenarians aren’t the only ones who value a printed page. At this year’s Emerging Writer’s Festival I heard three young writers express their desire for a real book to, ‘show Mum and Dad’. On hearing this, audiences giggled nervously. E-books seem such a given these days that there’s something a little naughty in the desire for print.

With the demise of the newsroom, the fracturing of traditional publishing models and the ongoing evolution of digital communications I have accepted that print is not a place my byline will often be. But what I haven’t considered is that while the digital world evolves, so does the physical. The field of print on demand (POD) has recently made a nice addition.

Many writers are aware of POD outfits that produce a book in a cost effective way (for example: blurb.com and lulu.com). Just like an e-book, these outfits generally allows you to prepare and upload your cover and content. You then pay a fee for the cost of printing. You can print as few or as many copies as you like. And in a short while they will appear at your door, ready for you to show your parents and your elderly friends.

Before POD, self-published writers desirous of hard copies had to pay for print runs in the hundreds.  To this end, POD has been liberating. But whether it’s three or 300, POD doesn’t help to resolve the challenge of getting your work out there. Or does it?

The Espresso Book Machine (made by On Demand Books) captured my imagination recently. It looks like a photocopier retrofitted by an enthusiastic geek. But looks aren’t everything. The Espresso Book Machine prints and binds an entire book in minutes and has mobility due to its size. Thus, Espresso Book Machines are popping up all over the industrialised world. For now they seem to be focused in bookshops, libraries and academic institutions.

It’s early days for initiatives like this. But their geographical and intellectual locations make these machines a potential boon for self-published writers. It will literally put our work within reach of readers (currently at libraries and bookstores). It could also enable writers to promote our work in particular locations that have both geographical relevance and social impact. This might involve a community you have written about, or a topic that affects that community. Or it could be targeted to people who are interested in your work simply because you are near them.

As the name implies these machines could appear in other places too. Like cafes! Readers who prefer our work in print could order an article with their coffee (both take the same time to produce). The reader’s choice could be based on word-count or time available (though the Espresso Book Machine currently requires a minimum of 40 pages).  In this scheme, local writers could be promoted.

The truth is that my folio lacks what my friend called ‘real writing’. The Internet was well entrenched when I started. The plastic bag of work I eventually took to her was diminutive. Air ballooned around the magazines. Were it not transparent, the bag would be mistaken as empty. She was very polite in receiving it. But I can’t help but wonder, would I have genuinely impressed her if I could take her for coffee, and when the waiters ask, ‘Would you like a book with that?’ I could answer in the affirmative, then dazzle her luddite-like ways with a version of the ‘real’ writing.

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