July 25, 2012

Gutenberg in the copy shop


I like businesses and gadgets that aim to bridge some technological transition—for instance, the machines advertised in Hammacher Schlemmer that convert your LPs into CDs, and now into digital formats. Maybe they’re so appealing because they seem doomed to eventually expire, even though they’re an intelligent, extremely specific response to current conditions? They’re like geniuses with consumption. Case in point: Japan’s 1dollarscan, profiled in Publishing Perspectives today, a company that will take your library and turn it all into PDFs for you for the rock-bottom rate of $1 for every 100 pages. (In the process, of course, they destroy your actual library—industrial scanning still demands its live book sacrifices, and I think of Hrabal’s Hanta and his paper crusher in Too Loud A Solitude.)

Another company that has stepped into a breach in the publishing landscape is Paperight, which is basically a POD operation that runs out of copy shops, rather than plants like Lightning Source or BookSurge, or lustworthy-but-expensive machines like the Espresso. In other words, it turns copy shops, the land of much intended and unintended piracy, into legitimate outlets for book sales and distribution. Paperight is based in South Africa and it addresses the infrastructural problems and facts of the region, namely that copy shops are much, much more common than bookstores.

The way it works is that publishers license books to copy shops or other outlets, at a price that they set. Paperight takes a 20% cut of the license fee (this should start to sound familiar—agency model anyone?) Consumers pay the license fee and the printing costs; the full printing costs go to the copy shop. The final cost of books can be lower than it would be for a print copy in a bookstore, because the publisher doesn’t have upfront printing, shipping, warehousing, and retail discount costs. Again, echoes of the e-book pricing debates, and it’s funny to come at them in this corner, where we are talking about hard copies, print-outs, practically pre-codex, the other end of the spectrum from e-books. But Paperight’s idea is based on the technology that makes e-books possible in the first place, and yet it doesn’t see e-books as the only possible or desired result. It’s an interesting combination, made possible by the mutual existence of relatively cheap copy machines and materials, and relatively cheap computers and internet access. Whether the company succeeds or not will depend on whether publishers allow this use and whether consumers know about it and can find the books they need at the prices they are willing to pay. (Also, of course, piracy may still be an issue, despite the measures Paperight puts in place to discourage it.) But, for its sheer gulf-straddling qualities, I hope that Paperight sticks.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.