STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, let's report on what happens if you have an interest in an obscure book. You may have experienced that frustration of walking into a bookstore and being told that the book you want is out of print or not in stock. One company's trying to make books available on demand. They can be printed one at a time while you wait. Some are calling this one of the most significant steps in publishing in the last 500 years. That company has installed a trial machine at a bookstore in central London, and NPR's Rob Gifford went along to take a look.
ROB GIFFORD: Marcus Gipps is in love with a machine, or at least it sometimes seems that way.
Mr. MARCUS GIPPS (Floor Manager, Blackwell's Bookshop): Effectively, it's a great big office printer stuck to a rather lovely, in my opinion, but perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing collection of technology.
GIFFORD: The friendly, bespectacled bookseller is floor manager of Blackwell's bookstore on London's Charing Cross Road, perhaps the most bookish corner of one of the world's most bookish cities. The machine he's gazing lovingly at is the new Espresso machine - nothing to do with coffee beans. This baby's grinding out books.
Mr. GIPPS: The printer runs at about a 100 pages a minute, so, I mean, you can work out yourself how quickly you can get things done.
GIFFORD: The machine then sticks and binds the pages together itself, and out comes a book - a real book, just the same as all the other books on Blackwell's shelves. Marcus Gipps says they already have half a million titles saved digitally on the Espresso, ready to print. That's five times the number they have on the shop floor, and within three months, they should have more than a million available. He says it's changing the whole way people will look at purchasing books.
Mr. GIPPS: I just typed in my surname and I looked for a few things, and I found a book by my great-granduncle, which he wrote in 1901 and was published in Shanghai. I printed that off for my dad. It made his day. We've been printing off stuff like Darwin's early work. I mean, nobody really wants Darwin's work on earthworms. There's a small market for it on the secondhand market, where it goes for about 500, 600 pounds normally, even in tatty condition. We printed one off for a customer, and he walked out with it, and it was 10 pounds.
GIFFORD: That's a bargain at $15, and what that means is that in future, if other smaller bookstores get one of these machines - not cheap, to be sure, at about $175,000 - they'll be able to compete much better with bigger stores, with Internet stores and also with the rise of electronic books. The company that makes the Espresso, On Demand Books in New York, calls it an ATM for books. CEO Dane Neller says it's the biggest revolution in publishing since Gutenberg started printing more than 500 years ago. He says it will certainly keep paper books way ahead of electronic books such as the Amazon Kindle.
Mr. DANE NELLER (CEO, On Demand Books): You're right that our technology now makes possible for the printed page to move as rapidly as the electronic page. Still, the printed book still remains overwhelmingly the dominant way books are read. I mean, I think the last statistic I saw worldwide, the electronic book is still less than a half percent. I think it will grow, but I still think the printed book will be the dominant way people consume literature.
GIFFORD: Back at Blackwell's in London, in addition to the out-of-print authors and the academic authors, there's another type of author who's helped by the Espresso machine.
Ms. JENNIFER BROWN: My name's Jennifer Brown, and I'm here because I popped down in my lunch hour because I've finished my first book about a month ago and I really wanted to get it published. So this seemed the perfect opportunity.
GIFFORD: There she stands, fulfilling her childhood dream, an author holding a copy of her own newly printed first novel entitled "Abstractions of Feeling." Now trying to find an agent and a publisher, Jennifer Brown loves the Espresso machine.
Ms. BROWN: Wonderful. Makes me feel like a real author. Really feels like all that hard work is worthwhile. And now, even if don't get a publisher, I have something to give to my friends to show them that I've done something, I've achieved something.
GIFFORD: Books on Demand say they have five machines already available to the public in the United States. They plan 25 around the world by the end of this year and hope to have several thousand worldwide within five years.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.