Blackwell believes the introduction signals the end to the frustration of being told a title is out of print or not in stock. The Espresso offers access to almost half a million books, from a facsimile of Lewis Carroll's original manuscript for Alice in Wonderland to Mrs Beeton's Book of Needlework.
The company hopes to increase the catalogue to more than a million titles by the end of the summer, the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space or more than 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are out of copyright, but Blackwell is working with UK publishers to increase access to in-copyright writing. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, the firm says.
"This could change bookselling fundamentally," said Blackwell's chief executive, Andrew Hutchings. "It's giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon ... I like to think of it as the revitalisation of the local bookshop industry. If you could walk into a local bookshop and have access to one million titles, that's pretty compelling."
Amazon.com and other services have already provided the disruptive benefit of consumer convenience in ordering and the ability to choose from vast numbers of titles. Now the added convenience of getting the book in a few minutes instead of several days could add disruptive potential to this innovation.
Before Amazon or other booksellers begin to worry, though, there are some limitations that may keep the product at the curiosity level rather than mushrooming to disruptive status. People still need to be physically present at the machine. Five minutes for a book isn't long, but it is when there are three people ahead of you in line. I haven't seen the printed product, but it may lack some of the pizazz (4-color dust jacket, quality of the paper and binding, etc.) that people value in a printed book. Will it really meet the needs of non-users or low-end market segments? Maybe not when the premium price for the on-demand books is considered. Much depends on the execution and the details of the business model. Given the premature hype about this being the biggest revolution since Gutenberg, I suspect it will fall into the category of the Segway. Great innovation, but not yet poised for disruptive dominance.