A Book Monger and His Printing Monster

MIchael Wallenfels

MIchael Wallenfels

Michael Wallenfels wants to make you books with his crazy Frankenstein book machine, and you should probably let him. Last June, Wallenfels took the post as Editor, Book Designer, and Chief Paper-Wrangler at the University Book Store Press, a small but substantial operation tucked inside the University Book Store. Since then, he’s edited, designed and published several books and journals by local writers, whipped up collections of family letters, promoted a number of out-of-print or rare collections, and saved at least one birthday: “An older gentleman came in looking for a number of books for his niece’s birthday. One title was Voyages of Sinbad; we didn’t have it in stock, but were able to print it up for him. He went to the café for a coffee, and by the time he came back the book was in his hand.”

The Suessian thingamabob at the center of all this production is called an Espresso Book Machine (EBM). The employees in the bookstore call it Homer. Through the company On Demand Books, the machine is hooked up to Google Books Library Project and also to the digital library Project Gutenberg. Basically, that means the machine has instant access to millions of books in the public domain—and a certain number not in the public domain—and can print its own editions of those books. But that’s not all: “There are so many books that we do,: says Wallenfels. “We’ve done genealogies, soil studies, obscure books manuals from 1815—there’s this one guy who’s been coming in and requesting all these 19th century books with blank covers, so we print those up for him and then he customizes them and makes little art objects out of them.”

Victorian bicycles

Authors can also publish their own books through the University Book Store Press. The Basic Publishing Package is pretty simple: for $50, you get a one-time consultation, an upload of your files, a first and second printed proof of the book, and then as many copies as you want to buy at cost.

At at any point, Wallenfels says, you can upgrade the Author Package. “We put the book on our system, stock it, track their sales, and send them 25% of the list price they chose. We welcome all comers, as long as the book’s not slander and not plagiarized. But if it can go on a printed page, we can do it. All we need is two files: a file for the interior book block and a file for the cover. That’s it.”

As long as you’re comfortable with self-promotion, that contract ain’t too bad. Several first-time fiction writers commonly sign what are commonly called 85/15 contracts, which means that you get an advance, but only 15% of the book’s profits. Granted, in the case of the University Book Store Press agreement, people can only buy the books from the University Book Store, but the bookstore’s catalogue is all online, so it’s as easy as buying a book from Amazon. 

Some writers seem to have done really well with this system: “Nick DiMartino has had a lot of press. He’s got his 13th book coming out through us. He’s been publishing his back catalogue through us, promotes really well, and he just gets his book out there.”

And, perhaps most importantly, the books look pretty! “We’re particularly excited about publishing Brad Craft’s book The Serial Doodler. Craft runs a popular blog called Used Buyer, and we were pleased to slap a spine on this collection of his drawings.”

Brad Craft

So, like, go publish your book, right? If you don’t want to ask permission from a publisher, or if you’ve always wanted to bind your father’s war letters, or if you can no longer sit on your extensive but approachable and nuanced knowledge of beekeeping, then Michael Wallenfels is standing beside his caffeinated book machine, waiting to say yes. And if you want to browse On Demand Books’ catalogue for rare, out-of-print, and public domain books, just head over to their website and start searching. I don’t know why, buy I am probably going to buy this book called How to Make Money in a Country Hotel. Or maybe even this book I didn’t know existed about my favorite poet Frank O’Hara.