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Near-instant book printer adds Google Books titles

On Demand Books' Espresso Book Machine can print a 300-page book in four minutes, and will now have access to Google's digital library of public domain books.

A morning's worth of output from the Espresso Book Machine, which used Google Books as the source of the data. Tom Krazit/CNET

Google is hell-bent on digitizing the world's books, but it's also aware that sometimes you just want to turn the pages.

On Demand Books, makers of the Espresso Book Machine, are expected to announce Thursday that they have been granted access to Google's library of public domain digital books for use with their product. The Espresso Book Machine can print a 300-page book in four minutes, complete with a cover and a bound edge. It ranges in price from $75,000 to $97,000, depending on the configuration, and is found mostly at universities, libraries, and institutions around the globe.

The machine has been around for a while, earning a "Best Invention of the Year" award from Time Magazine in 2007. And the concept of using smaller on-demand printers is also old: Barnes and Noble was playing around with the idea 10 years ago, and publishers have long wanted a system that would allow them to match book supply and book demand more closely.

A few companies, such as Lightning Source, a division of Ingram Content Group, have signed up with On Demand Books to help publishers get their content into the Espresso Book Machine, but adding Google's public domain library dramatically increases what is available through one of the machines, said Dane Neller, chief executive officer of On Demand Books. Around 2 million public domain works have been scanned by Google, while On Demand Books offers 1.5 million titles through its existing agreements.

One way of thinking about Google's Book Search project is that it creates opportunities for other companies to develop businesses around new ways of distributing and consuming books, since a digital book is nothing but a large file. While things like the Kindle show that people are interested in acquiring and reading digital books in digital form, the Espresso Book Machine allows authors and publishers to reach an audience that isn't ready for a digital book reader without having to spend the money required for a full-scale printing run of a book with limited appeal.

Of course, Google's participation in On Demand Books' service only involves public domain books, which don't inspire nearly as much controversy as the out-of-print yet copyright protected books at issue in Google's settlement with book authors and publishers. It's not clear whether if the proposed settlement is approved in October, On Demand Books (and other such publishers) will have access to those books; a Google representative said that would be "speculation" at the moment.

Correction, September 17: This post was updated to clarify Lightning Source's business model, and to fix incorrect information provided by On Demand Books as to the corporate parent of Lightning Source.