Books-A-Million Will Test A Giant In-Store Book-Making Machine

After years of trying to convince major bookstore chains that printing single copies of books onsite is viable, one print-on-demand vendor has finally gotten a nibble. The 253-store Books-A-Million (NASDAQ:BAMM) chain has said that it will put a print-on-demand kiosk in its store in Portland, Me., and another one in a store to be named later.

Books-A-Million doesn't appear to be trying to reduce its need to stock inventory with the machine. Instead, it's going after sales of books it wouldn't normally stock anyway. The idea is that instead of sending customers away to order an out-of-print book from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) (or theoretically have the store order it and wait a week, but how likely is that?), the kiosk will be able to download and print the book in a matter of minutes. The reality is likely to be a little more complicated.

For one thing, the book-printing kiosk is five feet high, three feet deep and almost seven feet long. (The vendor, On Demand Books, describes it as "compact" and recommends a 10-foot-by-15-foot space.) It's essentially an industrial-grade Xerox machine attached to a complicated mechanism for collating, binding and cutting the pages once they're printed.

The books that come out at the end have full-color covers on cover stock and are priced starting at about $10 for out-of-copyright works. The available in-copyright books include titles from Random House, Hachette, McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, WW Norton and Macmillan, but not their complete catalogs.

That's the bad news—the machine is big, the books are printed xerographically (so if they sit in the sun too long, the ink may melt and stick the pages together), and the pricing isn't especially attractive.

The good news is that the kiosk is potentially an attraction in its own right. The collating-binding-cutting part of the machine has clear plastic panels that let customers see the machine's inner workings, which means that, for $13, customers get their photocopied edition of The Prince and the Pauper but also get to watch it manufactured.

That's a gimmick museums have been using for decades to sell vacuum-formed dinosaurs and busts of Abraham Lincoln—if you want to see the machine work, you put your money in, and you get something to take away when it's done.

The machine is also undeniably faster than even same-day delivery—about five minutes to actually manufacture the book, not including whatever time it takes for the store associate to order and download the book.

And as retail technology goes, it mainly requires a fast Internet connection and clean power, since the store doesn't actually have to (and in fact can't) keep any digital books stocked on a local server.

That leaves the same three questions that any customer-facing in-store automation has to answer: Will it work? Will customers accept it? And will it fit into the store's culture? There's good reason to believe the machines will work in a chain bookstore, since they're being used in a few dozen university and independent bookstores already.

But the customer and culture questions are a lot iffier. Bookstores aren't known as high-tech places—for example, even though it lets Nook owners browse titles via WiFi, the Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) model is still a rough approximation of a library with a coffee stand and a point of sale at the door. Installing a watch-it-work book making machine, even in its own room to keep the noise from being disruptive, is bound to generate some culture shock.

(To be clear, the machine isn't that disruptive. It makes about the same amount of noise as a large photocopying machine, while the gluing and trimming process mostly involves whirring servo motors and the occasional thunk of the edge cutter. That would be barely audible in some stores, but annoying in a quiet environment.

Still, at least as long as it's a curiosity, an on-demand printing machine is likely to draw in more visitors than it drives away. And if every group of rubber-neckers that wouldn't ordinarily set foot in a Books-A-Million pays for one book just to see the machine work, they've become paying customers.

That doesn’t guarantee Books-A-Million won't become the next Borders. But at a time when many bookstores have expanded into cards, collectibles and non-book gifts just to stay afloat, it's one way to attract customers that actually involves selling books.