IBM will provide the technology and manufacturing components for the operation, which will eventually be available at all Barnes & Noble distribution centers, starting at the Jamesburg, N.J., facility before spring.
New York-based Barnes & Noble and Barnesandnoble.com will use the technology to print books to order, as the company looks to cut costs and better manage inventory. The book retailer expects the service to be a boon for specialty titles that are out of print because of small press runs.
"It's going to open up the market to an enormous amount of content that hasn't been able to reach the marketplace," Barnes & Noble vice chairman Stephen Riggio said, adding that the cost of traditional publishing has prohibited many authors from getting their books distributed.
"Many publishers consider that a book sells a few hundred copies a year a liability. We see that as an opportunity," Riggio said "Publishers don't just turn books down because they think the editorial quality isn't up to stuff, they just don't see a big enough market for it so they can't justify the cost."
Print-on-demand services also will be available to iUniverse, a portal serving new and out-of-print books. Barnes & Noble owns a 49 percent stake in the operation.
Barnes & Noble and IBM next month plan to make the digital services available to the entire publishing community following a test run of select publishers. The publishers, which neither IBM or Barnes & Noble would name, digitize books so they can be printed on demand.
"We plan to go to all of the publishers we do business with and say, 'Look, you've got an enormous amount titles that aren't even on your shelves that we're getting calls for, we'll convert that to digital format and output it electronically or print on demand,' " Riggio said.
Besides print-on-demand services, Barnes & Noble also plans to offer electronic versions of books in a variety of formats, including Rocket eBook, Microsoft Reader and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Barnes & Noble in September started offering NuvoMedia's Rock eBook in its brick-and-mortar stores.
"The book publishing industry is starting to go digital, and in the process of starting to go digital we've made some books available, both online and print on demand," said Bill McCracken, general manager of IBM printing systems.
Customers will be able to order books in two ways: at Barnes & Noble in-store kiosks and online from Barnesandnoble.com. Books will then be printed at one of three Barnes & Noble facilities and drop-shipped direct to the customer.
Barnes & Noble plans eventually to offer print-on-demand services inside stores, allowing the customers to place orders and pick up books within about an hour. But that is still about two years away, Riggio said.
The printing services deal is its first, but it is the largest. Three smaller booksellers also use Big Blue's print-on-demand services.
"The important thing here is this: Once a book is digitized, it will never be out of print. You simply go in, say you want a copy, and they print one out tonight," said Rich Troksa, customer segment manger for IBM printing systems.
Barnes & Nobles estimates there are more than 1 million titles out of print, with 90,000 titles disappearing each year. "This is an enormous opportunity to make the words 'out of print' obsolete, and that's what we plan to do," Riggio said.