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Reading the Future

The Ashland Media Exchange and the Espresso Book Machine seek to put books back in people's hands.


With the recent finding that 27 percent of American adults didn't read a single book last year, signs of bibliopocalypse abound. But authors (and readers) might take solace in two new efforts that seek to put books into people's hands.Last April, when federal subsidies dried up, southern Oregon was the scene of the largest set of library closures in U.S. history-15 in one month. The debacle spawned all kinds of creative grassroots action, including the Ashland Media Exchange, which combines garage-sale capitalism with the wired economy. Anyone can rummage through the nearly 8,000 donated books in stock and grab what he or she wants, for free (and forever). The for-profit business makes money by cherry-picking the most valuable books to sell online."There's no such thing as overdue, and you don't need a library card," says Jeff Napier, the veteran bookstore owner who founded the Exchange. "Meanwhile, the very book that no one here would want-the hardcover on underwater welding, say-is the book that sells online."In New York, a much flashier effort is betting that brand-new books have a future, too. The Espresso Book Machine-which appeared this spring at the New York Public Library and can now be found at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.-can print a single copy of any book from a digital file in about four minutes.Dane Neller, the former CEO of gourmet food empire Dean & DeLuca, teamed up with the former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein to found Espresso's parent company, On-Demand Books. Neller believes the Espresso can revive out-of-print titles, prevent overproduction of best sellers, and provide instant access to books too rare, foreign, or specialized for mass consumption."The Espresso reverses the traditional publishing model," Neller says, "which is print it, ship it, and sell it. Now you can sell a book before you print it." He foresees Espressos in cafes, hotel lobbies, airports-anywhere a prospective reader might suddenly be desperate for Dostoyevsky, The Da Vinci Code, or a romance novel in Tagalog.LEARN MORE
ashlandme.com; ondemandbooks.com