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Self-publishing via local bookstores
Machine lets users print a variety of texts

Clare Dickens only wanted to share her story to help others. But in the process, she became a successful independent author -- with the help of a local bookstore and its instant publishing machine.

Dickens wrote "A Dangerous Gift" with her son Titus, a memoir of their life dealing with his bipolar disorder. She completed the novel after he took his own life at age 25 in 2006.

Though Dickens found a publisher in Iceland to release the book in 2007, she still wanted a broader reach. The Espresso Book Machine at Politics and Prose in the District of Columbia allowed her to bring the memoir to local bookshelves and beyond earlier this year.

Her book has since become the best-selling self-published title at the local bookstore and its website.

"I didn't expect to sell any at all," Dickens said. "I didn't want to be a best-seller. It's really about getting my son's story out there and helping other people."

Self-publishing has been made easier since the Espresso Book Machine by On Demand Books debuted in 2006. The machine also can make copies of out-of-print editions.

The first machine was installed briefly at the World Bank's bookstore. Through a partnership with Xerox, the company now has machines in about 70 bookstores and libraries across the world, including in London; Tokyo; Amsterdam; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Melbourne, Australia; and Alexandria, Egypt.

In Buffalo, booksellers are well aware of the Espresso Book Machine and its value to independent bookstores.

But Lucy Kogler, a manager at Talking Leaves, which has locations on Elmwood Avenue and Main Street, said you probably won't see them here anytime soon.

"It's an expensive machine to get, and it takes an enormous amount of space and training," Kogler said. "It's a huge commitment."

Such a machine could easily pay for itself in a larger store in a city with a larger population, she said, but it probably wouldn't make it in Western New York.

"The point for independents is it's something that will bring customers into our stores. It's faster to get a print-on-demand book than ordering it through Amazon. You can get it that day in the store," Kogler said. "It's probably going to be a big part of the future for independent bookstores."

Thor Sigvaldason, chief technology officer of New York-based On Demand Books, said the technology can help book retailers twofold.

"It can, potentially, give them a huge virtual inventory so they can have as many books as Amazon, all in a little bookstore," he said. "It turns independent bookstores into places to get books published. It's a new thing for the bookstore to do: not just sell books, but actually create books."

Dickens' book costs $10.38 to print and sells for $16. Bill Leggett, a bookseller who co-manages the machine, said about a dozen copies sell a month. "That's better than a lot of authors who have major publishers," he said.

Politics and Prose has produced almost 5,000 paperback books -- some in as little as five minutes -- since receiving the book machine nicknamed "Opus" last November. Leggett said about 90 percent of the books printed on the machine are self-published works by local authors.

The others are out-of-print editions, millions of titles available in the public domain -- through Google Books, for example -- and digital formats licensed out through major publishers, including Harper Collins.

This is how the Espresso Book Machine works: The machine uses two PDFs, one for the cover and another for the text. The cover and text, both generated from digital files, are printed simultaneously on opposite sides of the machine. They meet in the middle section of the machine, where they are bound, before dropping to a trimming station on the bottom. The book is dispensed through a chute.

As bookstores continue to close their doors, crippled by e-books and digital reading devices, more are embracing the Espresso Book Machine.

Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., has produced about 5,500 books a year on the Espresso Book Machine, starting with the beta version in 2008 and with an upgrade since 2010.

Debbi Wraga, the book machine coordinator, said about 85 percent of their customers use it for independent book publishing; about 350 titles have been self-published so far. The others use it to produce rare books, such as foreign titles, or to personalize books, such as Christmas carols with inscriptions and family photos.

"Besides the novelty of it, to have customers come and strike up a conversation, it's a way for us to really engage our public and move forward and find a creative way to still sell the books," Wraga said. "It's a wonderful feeling when you take it off the press and hand it to the author. You can smell the glue and the book is still warm. It's almost like handing a newborn baby to a mom."

Wraga said the book machine accounted for nearly 4 percent of the bookstore's 2011 revenue and garnered publicity well beyond what the store could afford in advertising.

News Business reporter Samantha Maziarz Christmann contributed to this report.