So I bought an Espresso Book Machine (EBM). Well, maybe in my wildest dreams. (I'm pretty wild, huh?) For those who are unaware of what this $100,000 printer does, see their website (On Demand Books) or watch the video:
The printer is able to print, cut and bind a book in a matter of minutes, and for a relatively inexpensive price. On EBM's web site is a list of locations which have an EBM. Harvard has one. The library in Alexandria, Egypt has three. The NYPL? Nope. (There is at least one in New York City though.) Oddly there are two EBMs in Utah alone. I can't think of an appropriate comment to make about Mormons, but you know and I know that this reflects pretty well on, well, something. Utah just likes to keep everyone confounded.
Lately EBM partnered with Google, such that almost all Google Books that are freely available for download (this usually means pre-1923) can be printed and ordered from various locations which have an EBM machine and are willing to sell printed books to the public. Incidentally, you can order books directly through EBM's web site, where you can get many books offered to the public by self-publishers as well, but it's easier to find the book on Google if you're buying a Google Book.
Here's an example of how the process works:
Let's say you have a desire to have your own copy of the 1545 Venice edition of Machzor according to the Romaniote Rite, as depicted below.
One would click the link for On Demand Books, like this:
And you would see the following choices:
As you can see, there are 5 book locations which will print it along with the prices. The University of Utah Library one is of course useful only for people who can pick it up, since it will not ship. Also, apparently they charge a flat fee of $10 per item, which works out nicely in cases like this book which cost more elsewhere, but not so nicely if you wish to order something that costs $5.95. The prices are determined by whatever little mathematical formula the individual stores use. I'm not sure if it is solely determined by number of pages, or amount of ink, if it is heavy on pictures, etc.
For some reason the Harvard Book Store is not taking orders now, but because they were among the two offering the lowest price on the two items I had decided to purchase, and figuring they were the most reliable - based on very little - I placed my order through them. Sure enough, in a few days a package with my two books were delivered, and I was not disappointed. With the caveat that I don't know if there are uniform standards in all of these locations which partnered with Google, I will say that the paper was reasonably heavy stock, and lightly cream colored, so it is very easy on the eyes. The binding seems solid; the binding doesn't fall apart when you dare to turn the pages and press it open a little. The covers are paper, with a fairly nice, plain design. Best of all, the prints were clear and readable, although read below.
Now the criticisms and suggestions.
I realize that much of what I am going to say goes with the territory, but that doesn't mean there can't be some way of addressing these issues.
1. The title. Since it works with Google, whatever the Google title is, that's what is going to appear on the cover and spine of the book. Google Books has notoriously lousy bibliographical information. Thus, if you wanted to order that 1545 machzor be prepared for it to come back with Sēder Tefillôt ke-minhag qehillôt Rômanyâ proudly displayed on the cover and spine. So my suggestion is that there be a way for the customer to customize the title and author info.
2. Extraneous pages and mistakes. Google Books are full of irrelevant pages, typically in the beginning and end; library card jackets and so on. They also often have the title page or some others scanned two or three times. It would be nice if there was a way to edit the pdf somehow to remove these pages which you really don't want in your printed copy. Obviously the machine cannot do it, and the operator won't. But the purchaser can. It also goes without saying that Google Books can sometimes be missing pages (although not usually) or have pages out of order. Often if this is the case they will have two or three other editions which do not have that flaw. So it is the purchasers responsibility to make sure that the book they choose is not missing pages or has any out of order. That said, again, if you could edit and upload the pdf yourself then you can easily fix those things.
3. How about combining pdfs to produce a larger book? Say I want to print five related pamphlets of 45 pages each, or even two volumes of the same book. Wouldn't it be a good idea to do that and send the pdf exactly as I want it to appear rather than getting multiple books?
4. Hebrew. Someone should clue the EBM into the fact that Hebrew and Arabic read from right to left, and therefore Google Book pdfs should be printed backward so that the book starts on the right, rather than the left side. It's not a huge deal, as I readily saw when my books arrived, but it seems like an improvement that could be added.
5. Size. While EBM determines the proper size to print the books, this can result in ridiculously lopsided results. I didn't measure them, but let's say one book printed as a standard of app. 8" x 5". The other was an odd size, almost like a square - let's say 4" x 4". If the proportion needs to be maintained, I don't see why there can't be a way to at least ensure that one of them (say the width) stays consistent. In this case, instead of having a 4" x 4" book I could have customized it so that it printed 3.75" by 5" so that I could have books of the same 5" width. This is to improve bookshelf stocking, you see. (Yeah, yeah, I can't do math. Correct me with the proper proportions.)
6. Google Books's pdf are notoriously . . . spotty. In the case of one of the books, it was immaculate. The other one was only as good as the pdf. I knew this up front of course, and it is still readable and great. But cleaner pdfs - which is Google's issue, not EBM's - would be nice.
7. There seems to be an upper limit of about 800 pages. I saw that some books with some more pages could be printed. Others cannot. At the very least there should be a way of splitting up a large book into two manageable volumes rather than having no option of printing something simple because it is 850 pages long.
My chief suggestion is that EBM should have more partners. EBM should partner with Archive.org, which generally has beautiful, clean pdfs and thousands that are not on Google. They also should partner with the Hathi Trust, which makes many pre-1923 books available which Google never got around to doing. Same source; Google scanned the books in the Hathi Trust. But more material would be available to the public. Also, in my humble opinion, an operation like HebrewBooks.org should approach EBM and try to partner with them. Once they realize how funky and critically acclaimed HebrewBooks is, I figure it should be a cinch. Did somebody say copyright?
Naturally some will want to see the results of my fantastic photographic talent, so here is more or less what you will receive.
As is often the case with technology, the excitement is almost more about what it can and almost certainly eventually will be than what it already is, which is pretty special already in this case. All in all, I give it an 8 out of 10, but only because I know that it can be improved so that EBM books will rate a richly deserved 10.