Book printing has taken a giant leap forward not only off the page and into space, but also reincarnating in digital format through an amazing automated “book making machine” known as the Espresso.

Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and founder and CEO of On Demand Books, the company that markets the Espresso, is one of the pioneers of the new book printing and storage revolution.

The backlist--backbone of the book industry

In 1951 when Epstein went to work for Doubleday, it didn’t take long for him to learn that the key to book industry survival is “backlist.”

As Epstein expounded in his 2008 Hong Kong Book Fair address, publishing cannot exist without backlist:

“Backlist is a publisher’s most important asset: titles that have covered their initial costs, earned out the authors’ advances, require no further investment except the cost of making and shipping the book itself and which sell steadily year after year without advertising or significant sales expense.”

“Without a substantial list of such titles a publisher cannot survive,” stated Epstein. “The same can be said of a civilization, for the books that survive the test of time, books that are treasured and read year after year, are humanity’s backlist, our collective brain.

“I do not refer simply to the classics of our various traditions but also to the more recent books,” continued Epstein, “hundreds of which are published every year and join the backlist if not permanently at least long enough to move the process forward, provide depth and complexity to our understanding for those who seek it.

"Backlist deepens our knowledge of human experience past and present. Without these books we would not know who we are or where we came from or where we may be going.”

Publishers are secular priests

“Publishing is not really a business at all, at least not a very good business,” declared Epstein. “If it’s money you want to make, go into a real business and take your chances… publishing is a vocation, a secular priesthood for publishers are caretakers of our collective memory, indispensable servants to those other caretakers, poets, story tellers, librarians, teachers and scholars.”

Did I cringe when I read that statement? I hope so—otherwise I, like many other publishers would be living in denial. Every serious publisher is well aware that it’s not the brass ring of a best seller but something else far more significant that motivates us to dedicate ourselves to bringing forth quality books.

We “secular priests” are also deeply committed to the backlist: preservation of the written word. If only one person finds value in a book that is out of print, it is worth the effort to reissue that work and make it available.

Epstein’s backlist mission began with the creation of paperback books: lower cost and easier on the publishers’ budget. However, paperbacks still required print runs that often led to out of print books and investments in inventory and warehousing.

Print on Demand – Backlist Bonanza

The major breakthrough occurred when digital technologies burst into the marketplace and print on demand became a reality.

As a writer who signed a contract with one of the major publishers for a book that was censored shortly after it appeared, and as a publisher myself who opened my company in 2000 expressly because I was concerned about valuable books that got lost to the latest cookbook or diet book, I was among the first to recognize digital on demand production and delivery technologies as a way to save the backlist… and also distribute censored books to a public hungry for the truth.

“Books written last year, ten years or a hundred years ago will always be available, thanks to print on demand,” I wrote in newsletters and press releases that described the Dandelion vision.

I recall my own “visioneering” with colleagues when I would describe one-off book buying and seamless order and fulfillment from a shopping cart website.

Colleagues thought I was crazy. “It’ll never happen,” they retorted.

“And then,” I added, ignoring their rebuttals, “one day someone will come up with a portable print on demand machine that will print books a minute at a time. Like a jukebox, the buyer will punch in the letter and number code, press the "Start" button and out of the chute will slide a perfectly produced paperback book. We can then place these glorified printers in bookstores, coffee houses, libraries… wherever people want to read, discuss and buy books.”

“It’ll never happen,” they repeated.

Today, thanks to Jason Epstein and his mission to save the backlist, it has happened… and all the nay-sayers are now jumping on the bandwagon.

For more information about Jason Epstein and the Espresso machine, check out the On Demand Books website. Also, I urge you to read Epstein’s entire Hong Kong Book Fair speech.

Author's Bio: 

Carol Adler, MFA’s first ghost-written book listing her name as co-editor, Why Am I Still Addicted? A Holistic Approach to Recovery, was endorsed by Deepak Chopra, M.D., and published by McGraw-Hill. Other publications include three novels, four books of poetry, and well over 200 poems in literary journals. She has ghostwritten over 40 non-fiction and fiction works for a number of professionals in the education, health care and human potential industries.

Carol is President of Dandelion Books, LLC of Tempe, Arizona; a full service publishing company. She is also President and CEO of Dandelion Enterprises, Inc., Write to Publish for Profit and President of the International Arts & Media Foundation, a non-profit subsidiary of Dandelion Enterprises, Inc.

Her business experience includes co-ownership of a Palm Beach, FL public relations company and executive management positions in two U.S. rejuvenation and mind/body wellness corporations, for which she founded publishing divisions.

Carol has served as editor of several poetry and literary magazines. Her career experience includes extensive teaching of college-level creative and business writing, and conducting of writing workshops in prisons, libraries, elementary, junior and high schools, and senior citizen centers.

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