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Google Library and Harvard Offer On-Demand Books

Starting next week, customers at Harvard Book Store will be able to buy in minutes books that once would have taken weeks to find. The service comes courtesy of the retailer’s new printing machine, which will make it the first bookseller in the nation with the ability to print 3.6 million titles on demand.

The Espresso Book Machine—produced by New York firm On Demand Books—has been rolled out to a select few stores to date, but the one at Harvard Book Store will be the first with access to the 2 million public-domain texts digitized by Google, which also announced a deal with On Demand last Thursday.

After the unveiling on Sept. 29, Harvard Book Store customers will be able to order a printed copy of Google’s titles or On Demand’s 1.6 million works—all in public domain because they were copy-righted before 1923.

Store Marketing Manager Heather Gain said owner Jeffrey Mayersohn ’73 bought the machine in pursuit of a broader vision for the store—which he took over from long-time owner Frank Kramer last October.

“He would like to provide customers with every book ever written,” Gain said.

The Espresso Book Machine will be able to print a 300-page paperback book in four minutes, according to Gain, who added that printed books will be competitively priced and indistinguishable from those sitting on the shelves.

Customers will be able to request a book to be printed online or in the store, after which they can either pick it up in-store within minutes or have the book delivered by bicycle either the same or next day. Books can also be shipped to domestic or overseas locations.

On Demand CEO Dane Neller said he hopes the Espresso Book Machine will revolutionize the book industry by eventually making any book available—regardless of its popularity. “We want to make sure that a book never goes out of print.”

Daniel Eastman, general director of Schoenhof’s Foreign Books on Mt. Auburn Street, said he was intrigued by the potential benefits of the Espresso Book Machine—even though most of the books available were published before 1923.

“Many of my customers are interested in classic literature,” he said, “They want to read Madame Bovary in French.”

Eastman called the trend “something to keep an eye on,” but said Schoenhof’s will wait to learn more before investing in a machine due to its $100,000 price tag.

Allan Powell, the Harvard Coop’s corporate general manager, expressed greater reservations about the technology.

“Until printed books on demand moves to include current publications/editions, and resolves the copyright and pricing issues, we won’t know if this is a viable model for consumers and bookstores,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement.

For its part, Google plans to continue trying to add more books to its burgeoning digital collection, according to spokeswoman Jennie Johnson.

At Harvard Book Store, where customers can see the machine starting this Friday, Gain said regulars won’t have to worry about the new technology changing the store’s feel.

“We will not be removing the opportunity to browse from our customers,” she said. “We are just exponentially increasing inventory.”