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Getting beyond Gutenberg
What I did not know in 1999 was that the book machine I envisioned already existed. The next year, one of my lectures appeared in the New York Review of Books, where it was read by my friend Michael Smolens, an entrepreneur also interested in print-on-demand technology. He told me that such a machine was even at that moment making books in a small workshop in Missouri. Its inventor, Jeff Marsh, would welcome a visit from us. (Disclosure: Smolens, I, and a few others are now in business together: our company hopes to build a print-on-demand machine for less than $100,000.)

At Marsh’s workshop we watched a machine, about two-and-a-half meters long and half as high, receive a digital file, adjust itself to the dimensions of the desired book, and transmit the file to a duplex printer. The printed pages were then gathered and bound within a cover produced by a separate, four-color printer. The entire automatic process took about two minutes. The bound, 256-page book was next conveyed to a trimmer and finished, all without an operator.

It was a transcendent moment.

In the electronic future, everything ever published will be recoverable by searching on Google or sites like it (see “What’s Next for Google?”). Enthusiasts for any activity under the sun, booksellers, publishers, and eventually authors themselves will post digital files of texts on their sites. At their computers, readers will select books from an infinite library of many languages and transmit them to the nearest book machines, where they will collect the printed books at their convenience.

A post-Gutenberg system could be assembled now from existing technologies. But while the technologies exist, the commercial infrastructure to support them does not. Music publishers sell directly over the Internet to consumers who play tunes on devices like the iPod. But before book publishers can sell titles directly to readers, they will need to build thousands of book machines.

Unfortunately, the new system cannot be implemented without a viable market: none exists at the moment. One possible solution lies in the unprecedented ability of these new technologies to reach previously inaccessible markets: for example, the 47 million Americans for whom English is a second language but who have no convenient way to buy books.

Gutenberg was a Catholic entrepreneur who sold religious trinkets and printed indulgences before creating his famous Bible. He thought he could cure the schisms of the 15th century by distributing a uniform missal to all the churches of Europe. Instead, he helped create the Protestant Reformation.

The impact of today’s more powerful technologies can scarcely be imagined. What seems to me certain is that these technologies will soon overwhelm the obsolescent Gutenberg system and confront us once again with unprecedented risks and opportunities.

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