Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

RedBoox – Bread, Milk, Bestseller

Print books will never go away. Not completely. It isn’t just the nostalgia factor, either. Paper is cheap, and despite what shopping for replacement cartridges would suggest, ink isn’t expensive either. Modern print-on-demand (POD) books are practically indistinguishable from their large-batch brethren. A 300 page novel can be ordered from CreateSpace for less than $4, and that means it’s even cheaper to print (CreateSpace is making a profit at that price).

Print books are great for gifts, for tossing in a beach bag, for reading in the tub, and for piling up beside the bed. They are also wonderful impulse buys. And they cater to that urge for self-improvement, much like underused exercise equipment. Even if e-books move to 60% or 70% of trade fiction, that leaves a market for paperback novels. A trend that began years ago — the selling of novels in grocery stores, big-box discount stores, and airports — will continue. The problem with these outlets has always been shelf space and therefore selection. But imagine every book ever written being available right when you walk in the door at your local grocery store.

The video rental market has already moved there. Bookstores could as well. The Espresso Book Machine and its ilk already reside in some independent and university bookstores. We came very close to ordering one for our bookstore at ASU. These printers are compact, and they produce a trimmed and bound paperback in just a few minutes. Imagine walking in, wrestling those two stuck carts apart (sometimes you have to use a water hose), and then stopping at the RedBoox machine before you tackle your list.

There are two screens on either side of the machine. Someone is already browsing the cookbook selection on the other screen. You swipe your credit card, which logs you in and shows recommendations based on your prior purchases. You choose “Fiction Bestsellers,” and the screen shows you what’s selling the best nationally. You drill into the option to see what has sold the best in that particular store. A few local authors pop up. The usual names are there as well: Grisham, Collins, Patterson. You pick the book you want. The machine is already humming with existing orders. You sign the pay screen and go about your shopping.

On the way out, you stop by the machine and swipe the same credit card in the pick-up side of the printer. Some more robotic whirrings, and then the book you ordered slides down a chute. You pop it your purse (I’m using myself as an example here) and off you go.

Millions of books on-hand. No more guessing how many copies to print. No more wasteful returns system or environmentally damaging trucking of unread books several times across the country. No more printing overseas. Now, paper and ink come in the loading docks with the toilet paper and eggs. Books come out the other side. Want to own a RedBoox of your own? Good. We franchise. There’s some regular maintenance and the occasional breakdown. And since the system works by credit card, the funds go once a month to the copyright owners of the printed books, with the rest going to the owner of the RedBoox.

This won’t replace bookstores. The reason indie bookstores are experiencing growth the past few years is because they offer a unique discovery mechanism and a place for literary community. I think they will continue to thrive, at least for cities large enough to support them. There’s room for growth in the reading community, and print on demand offers the ability to put bookstores into very small footprints. If Amazon opens physical stores to showcase its electronics and Amazon Publishing titles, I could see them using those locations for same-day delivery and also print on demand titles.

There are all sorts of solutions to explore. Hey — how about a copy of the ebook sent to your device the moment you order that print title? If you get caught in a long line at the register, you can read the first chapter of the title you just ordered on your phone. Sign me up and take my money, please!

31 replies to “RedBoox – Bread, Milk, Bestseller”

Great idea, although I am one of those people who almost never wants a print book anymore (unless it is an art book, a book that works better in print because of format, or a “classic”). I already have a lot of books and not much more room.

That said, when I learned how wildly inefficient the current print system is, I was floored. It causes so much waste, including ecological waste. It is really shameful and should be phased out. This would be the perfect solution.

Also, I tried to support an indie bookstore in a town I visit often when I tried (twice) to buy “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” in print (because it sounds like it would work better as a print book). Both times, they were out of stock. If I could print on demand, I’d definitely purchase from them.

I would go broke. In very short order, I would have fed my ENTIRE bank account into that machine. I would, in fact, probably help run that thing out of paper. (Biggest danger in our town, things are ‘Out of Order’ because nobody has time to refill the stock inside). Its’ an awesome idea. I think it would be even MORE awesome if I could pick up the huge selection of non-fiction books (usually pertaining to art and research subjects) that sits in my Amazon wishlist at the moment.

My only caveat is durability. I read and reread books till they fall apart. How well do these copies hold up to hard use?

Nice. And at the next door Threedbox you could print out limited edition action figures of characters from your favourite books, or grab a customized bookmark with your name and a quote from one of those books.

3D action figures from our books? Love it. Only problem is that I would want the customer to get their vision of the characters–not mine. I have a practice of selecting pictures of a particular pose of an actor for each of my characters when I’m writing a novel to help me keep their looks straight in my mind. But when I shared a set of these pics with a friend who had just read one of my books, she was appalled. They didn’t look at all the way she had pictured them in her head. But if your 3D kiosk could somehow read the customer/reader’s mind… ;)

I don’t think the creation and printing of your own 3-D vision of the characters is far off. If you ever played Wil Wright’s game, Spore, the creation interface was amazing, fast, intuitive, infinitely customizable. You can design anything in Minecraft using those little boxes, including photorealistic artwork and scale models of entire cities. Put an intuitive design interface with a 3-D printer and you’ll be all set — design your character at home, send it to print at the store, and pick it up when you go out for bread. Oh, and you’ll be able to get an amazing array of goods this way, too. Manufacturing is about to go through a huge change, but I begin to drift off topic.

I read my Kindle in the tub and the pool. I just put it in a clear zip-lock bag first and seal the bag:)

And book machines sound great, but what happens when they turn on their human masters and rise up?

An awesome idea. What is increasingly clear is that we need experimentation in content delivery if books are going to be kept fresh and alive as a source of entertainment for the public. Despite what the publishing industry often seems to think, these kind of ideas are the future!

My idea. I hate paperbacks because I reread my books and they fall apart so quick. How about a printed book with a smart phone scan symbol which lets you download the E version for free?

I’d be much inclined to buy paperback or hardback if it had the option of lifetime E conversion.

Wait, Hugh, you carry a purse?! (Kidding, just kidding!)

Brilliant, as always. I’m going to suggest to my local Indie bookstore that they take a look at these machines!

LOVE this idea. Love it. Hope it comes to pass soon. I am an admitted eBook addict (and hoarder) but sometimes I just gotta have a print book. Would love to have this everywhere, coffee shops, used bookstores with comfy sitting areas, libraries, etc.

I’d love it! And I actually prefer PoD books to mass markets. The quality is so much better. Hopefully this won’t be science fiction for much longer ;-)

I like the idea of also setting up an Espresso Book Machine / Redboox in retail environments where shoppers are happy to wait for their book to be made just for them because they can take care of another errand while they wait (pick up the groceries, or wander through the big box store to pick up a prescription or that last-minute birthday present). Our society grows increasingly impatient, so this could have tremendous appeal to folks who rarely visit bookstores (and to those of us who have a hard time resisting the siren call of books wherever they are sold).

We’re nowhere near having an Espresso Book Machine or the eagerly-anticipated Redboox in my tiny little town. But my biggest gig over the past year has been doing page layout, design, and editing for an updated version of a postcard book. Sounds boring, I know, but this thing will have over 1000 images of historic cards and even old glass plate negative slides. The first edition sold like crazy-good hotcakes with syrup built in. What’s cool is we’re negotiating with a local grocery store chain to carry the book, which will give us regional print placement. This kind of book will not translate well to ebook, so the physical presence is crucial. I hope to someday include other local authors, but for now we’re just trying to convince them this idea will indeed work for all of us.

So yeah, I agree 100% about the grocery store placement! Books need to be where people are as much as possible. It’s hard enough to get folks to read as it is. I hope to have good reports about that grocery store impulse book purchase sometime in the next few months. :)

I love this idea!
The possibilities are endless.
Imagine the selection of titles Redboox could offer.
I would even suggest a smartphone ap to sort through the available material beforehand, as I know I’d be standing at the machine forever with a line-up as long as the Australian Highway behind me.

Regarding paper books, I just blogged about Goodreads’ paper books giveaways. I am baffled by the very low number of persons registering to giveaways, even for the most popular books on Goodreads. You just have to compare with free ebooks downloads of popular ebooks to get an idea of the difference…

I could see this happening in the future when printing technology has caught up with this kind of PoD model. I imagine someone buy a book or a magazine this way and when they are done with it, bring it back and slide it into the “recycling” slot. It shreds the book and turns in back into a reusable “pulp” for printing more books. Give it 10 years… maybe sooner.

I for one will always enjoy print books and will continue to buy them. My preference is to read (and absorb) on public transportation or on a quiet evening at home. The act of turning a page, not to mention the less stress on the eye, is very fulfilling. Those of us constantly dialed in to our electronic devices deserve a break.

Seriously, how are you not getting paid for these brilliant inventions?! I would TOTALLY buy into this. I love love LOVE my Kindle, but it will never replace the feel and smell of a solid book.

This is a GREAT idea. Especially for those people who don’t own an e-reader and never will, like my mom. But it also is better for the environment and saves on shipping costs. The only problem I can see is only having two windows. I don’t know about you, but I tend to browse through book sections and there is potential for a long line to form while someone takes their time to select a book(s). This idea gives self-published authors one more store front where people can view their work. Love it.

I love this idea! Some years ago I had a similar idea about magazines while I was watching a lady switch out old editions with the new ones. She was there for almost 4 hours. I thought: “wouldn’t it be cool if you came up to a machine, selected a magazine, and it created it right there.” It would save time for those stocking people, save paper by eliminating the extra unsold editions, and offer customers instant access to current or past editions of any magazine. After standing there lost in a haze of ideas for 5+ minutes I dismissed it as something that would never be taken serious without lots of $ backing the idea. But now… Maybe:-)

Hugh, you had me at “every book ever written” damn, you’ll have to just open up a place serving coffee with big fat chairs and sofas cuz with “every book ever written” you will need TIME (and a babysitter) to sift through that list baby!

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