Espresso Book Machining with DR's Prez + The Novella Is Back

On the web, it's a truism that one thing leads to another...and so, somehow or other, I ended up at the Harvard Crimson website, and came across this brief video interview, on the Crimson's FlyBy blog, with Leonel Fernández Reyna, the President of the Dominican Republic, who was visiting the US a month ago, and happened to stop at the Harvard Book Store to, as he said, load up on books, particularly nonfiction ones. While there, he got to see an Espresso Book Machine (EBM), this one named Paige Gutenborg after its Fall 2009 rollout, in action.

I've been waiting to see and try out one of these print-on-demand machines, another option in the transforming book world, since I first read about it Joseph Epstein's book The Book Business a few years ago. According to Adrian Versteegh's article in the March/April 2010 Poets & Writers, Epstein and Dane Neller co-founded of the New York-based company that debuted the EBM four years ago, and the company

has entered partnerships with the Open Content Alliance, Lightning Source, and Google Books, giving users access to over three million titles, both proprietary and public domain. The "ATM for books," as Neller describes their device, has so far been installed at about twenty-eight locations throughout North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Africa, including the University of Michigan, McGill University, and the University of Melbourne. On Demand expects the EBM—which sells for slightly over a hundred thousand dollars, depending on the choice of printer—to have found its way into at least forty independent bookstores by the second quarter of 2010. 

Versteegh notes that so far, universities and their presses, and self-publishing authors have been the major users of such machines, but sales have been low, and for the vanity system, a stigma remains. (As the large, traditional publishing conglomerates vanish, how much longer will this be case?) He adds that most of the books produced by these machines aren't in bookstores, and most readers are encountering POD-ready books online, via Amazon and online publishing organs like Lulu and iUniverse, though given that this is increasingly the way most readers, especially in the US, are coming into contact with books. If more of these machines and databases featuring out-of-print, hard-to-find and rare but desired books become available, it would be a boon for writers and publishers, especially those that focus on the "long tail" approach. Another way of looking at such machines is that a book never need go out of print now, and, should one not have access to an e-reader and want a print book, one can hold one in no time.

Speaking of bookstores, Barnes & Noble, the largest bricks-and-mortar book retailer, is planning to hock itself. With the rise of online bookselling and the popularity of e-readers like the Kindle and the iPad's iBook app, I figured this was coming sooner or later. (Is anyone buying Barnes & Noble's Nook?)  Will one response be the return of small, independent booksellers in some cities, as the Wall Street Journal article above suggests? Is this the twilight of the bookselling conglomerates?


Speaking of books, Taylor Antrim writes in a recent The Daily Beast piece that that beguiling but unloved creature of the American prose fictional world, the novella, is making a comeback. (English 394 students, all of whom have written at least one by the time you graduated, take note!) Sort of. This makes sense to me especially now that people's attention spans and leisure habits (and time) are changing (if not shrinking) to a sizable degree because of digital technologies. Or so some researchers suggest. My own experience, I should say, bears them out.

In addition to Melville House, the novella-focused, Brooklyn-based publisher of old (Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol) and new (Tao Lin, Imre Kertesz) short novelistic works, and New Directions, which has been publishing novellas for years, including under its Bibelot line and now in its $10 Pearls line, bigger publishers and a number of contemporary authors are getting into the act. Takeaway quote:

But it's not just a pair of small presses championing an underdog form. Even the major houses have proved themselves surprisingly novella-friendly (though they seem to prefer the more approachable term “short novel”). Scribner gave us Don DeLillo's wispy thin Point Omega in February and Ann Beattie's Walks With Men (July) is the most sneakily intelligent read of the summer. No, novellas don't score blockbuster sales—even Stephenie Meyer's new Eclipse novella The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner from Little, Brown put up disappointing numbers in its first week—but they're around, people are writing them (see also Ian McEwan, Rick Moody, Nicholson Baker, newcomer Josh Weil, and others), and they're a reminder in a digital age that a printed book need not be a cumbersome relic. I can slip Walks With Men into my back pocket on the way to the park. A Kindle? Not so much.

Antrim goes on to ask what a novella is. His answer: a pretty short novel that need not be heavily plotted, though neither does a long or very long novel need to be.  He also cites Tao Lin's Shoplifting from American Apparel, a delightfully sad little enigma of a book,  to say that any two of its pages might not stand out, but the cumulative effect is significant, which one should extrapolate to novellas in general. In a short story, of course, any two pages had better stand out, since they might constitute the entire story; in a novel, any twenty pages might not. Antrim ends by discussing Jean-Christophe Valtat's 03, the new French sensation I cannot claim to have read, but which I've read a great deal about. It's a lyrical novella about a suburban teen who empathizes and falls in love with a developmentally disabled girl, which sounds all wrong....