A photocopier-like digital book printer and binder, is due to be launched in the UK in the new year. It apparently makes a bound book in as little as seven minutes, although I suspect the production-quality will not be anywhere near as high as from www.lulu.com. The commercial ‘Expresso’ machine costs £25,000, but is based on simple laser-printer technology. Which suggests the price will tumble as time goes on. The interface will be interesting; people will need some kind of recommendations to guide them through the vast landscapes of literature available. The problem for out-of-copyright books is that you can’t just license Amazon’s database of ratings to help guide people, since relatively few out-of-copyright books are on Amazon. If I want to know what people think of Horace Donisthorpe’s classic British Ants: their life histories and classification (1927), for instance, I can’t find that out from Amazon because it isn’t there.

And, as I wrote earlier, there is some doubt about the business model of High St. POD machines. Here are some more thoughts about the superiority of buying a POD book online rather than in the High St.:

1) they can be browsed and ordered at leisure rather than standing with tired legs in a queue to reach an unfamiliar thumbprint-smeared touch-screen, and then in another queue for the shop delivery of the printed book an hour later. I doubt that they will be allowed to be ‘photo-booth style’ operations, most shops will want them operated by a human assistant behind a counter;

2) buyers get more advice from fellow readers about the worth of buying the book, and can also shop around for the best price;

3) the books will be cheaper online because of centralised printing and delivery, and the absence of expensive in-shop touchcreens and the technicians and customised IT systems needed to keep them running. Based on the experience of our university photocopiers, even the latest models break down frequently when they get constant heavy use;

4) the customer will not have to carry the books home jumbled in with their other shopping, because they will arrive cleanly and well-protected by post (postage being generally cheaper than the cost of travelling to the High Street in person).

5) there will be competition from the used-books market, which is now very accessible online.

I think the advantages of buying online will still prevent most buyers from traipsing down to their local High St., and make them willing to wait four or five days to get their chosen POD book through the post. The only thing that would force people to go to a High St. POD shop would be if that was the only place they could buy the book, such as if the publishers had an exclusive sales agreement with POD shops. There’s a precedent for that, in HMV’s occasional ‘exclusive’ DVD sets. However, that would seem like a strange way to maximise sales, and the Competition Act 1998 and Enterprise Act 2002 would probably have some bearing on such a cosy arrangement.

One area that might thrive is location-sensitive books; airports, travel destinations, entertainment venues and suchlike “souvenir” publishing. Replace the carousel of tatty paperbacks with a machine; and sell disposable novels, concert programmes, and up-to-the minute city-guides. Particularly in places where you don’t feel comfortable flashing your £500 mobile/e-book reader/iPod/Palm.

For those who are interested, there’s an Autumn 06 report on trends in the UK publishing industry, from industry analysts and insiders, here.