The original idea was to generate big savings for students on their course textbooks, while also sheltering library expenditures.
Three years later, the Espresso's true value has become clear. It is nothing less than the long-sought El Dorado of the vanity press.
Todd Anderson, director of the University of Alberta bookstore, says about 60 per cent of the Espresso business these days is devoted to self-published books brought in by the general public. The demand from would-be authors is such that Anderson is now lobbying U of A bursars to buy a second machine.
"Good lord, the amount of things we put through here now," Anderson marvelled this week. "Novels all the time, and poetry all the time, haiku, graphic novels, family history -- lots of family histories -- memorial books, lots of non-fiction stories by people who were in the First World War or the Second World War ...
"People want 20 of this and 30 of that and 40 of this. It's especially busy around Christmas. People have written a Christmas story and they want to hand it out as a gift."
The situation isn't unique to Edmonton. The McMaster University Bookstore purchased its Espresso in 2008, mainly to compete with online retailer Amazon. At the time, customers could order a book from the store and wait two weeks or order it online and have it mailed out the same day. Now the books have been balanced. The Espresso machines have a database of more than a million books that can be printed on the spot.
"We're really just a bookstore who happen to be able to make the book in our store for you," Mark Lefebvre, operations manager at the McMaster store and also president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, told the National Post.
But once again, what's really surprised Lefebvre is that most of the money generated from Espresso has been from self-publishing. "The demand for people who want to tell their own stories is absolutely phenomenal. Overwhelming, even."
The U of A's Espresso machine paid for itself within the first 11 months and now prints some 22,000 books annually, Anderson said.
"It's been running day in and day out. Since we put this thing in, it's been sitting in the basement here, pumping out books."
And for some of those self-published authors, a book in the hand has proved especially satisfying.
"For people who want something printed, and the validation of a name on a cover, this is a great thing," Anderson said.
"But we had one fellow who did a novel, and printed five or 10 and was quite happy with it, and decided to print some more, and went to New York and got signed by an actual publisher because he had something to show them."
The question is: Do they want to disappear?
Yet we’re not talking about high-stakes thrillers here, full of midnight abductions and ticking bombs in car trunks. In fact, the majority of the characters in People Who Disappear are regular folks who live average lives in unassuming towns. But they all have breaking points. And when things get too heavy, they don’t think twice about leaving it all behind.
“Preservation” features a teenage girl fed up with everything about her stuck-in-quicksand hometown: her “living fossil” father, her girlfriend who’s afraid to take their relationship public, as well as the nearby pit of actual turtle fossils that seem to silently taunt her dreams of escape. “What you are, we once were.”
The uncle-niece team in “Ghost Stories” travels through the wilderness of Vancouver Island in search of entire towns that were left to rot following the end of the mining boom.
And “Like Mind” picks up just as a woman’s loyal but mentally unstable friend quietly returns to Vancouver after a three-year retreat to his mother’s basement in Edmonton. Before, when she’d asked some mutual friends where he took off to, one vaguely told her, “I think somewhere it snows a lot. He mentioned it snowing in an email.”
This latter story gets at the idea of disappearance more explicitly than most. The duo spend all day driving around the Lower Mainland, picking up furniture posted for free on the Internet so the man can rebuild his old life. At one place, they get a Buddha-shaped lamp from another woman, who argues that it’s all but impossible for anyone to actually leave the city for good.
Privately, the narrator agrees. “I still saw my classmates from kindergarten at concerts,” she thinks. “Several people I’d been to high school with had become managers of Starbucks in different neighbourhoods.” Plenty had left for school, or to travel — and then they returned. “Back in Van, they shrugged, as if it had happened by accident.”
That’s the urban version, anyway. The other half of the stories take place on the isolated forests of Vancouver Island, where fallen trees and vicious rainstorms can make you disappear whether you want to or not.
Leslie is a skilled writer, too, though there are many places where she struggles to find her footing. This struggle tends to manifest itself as a leveraging of mood over story, which dims the lights on several of the collection’s weaker stories in an attempt to disguise their flaws. Sometimes her stabs at plot run completely off the rails; see the ending of “Face,” when a group of suburban neighbours decide to dispose of a recently unearthed skeleton in just about the most ridiculous way possible.
What the author does very well, however, is relationships. People Who Disappear is full of tense families and lovers alike, whose futures are always just one argument away from dissolving. In “Long Way From Nowhere,” one of the collection’s best and boldest stories, Leslie never fully spells out the relationship between the vagabond trucker and his alleged daughter — though we can figure out the disgusting truth without much trouble. Then, just as we’ve gotten our footing, the story takes a wonderful leap into the unknown as the girl runs off into the forest with a group of protesting hippies (with names such as Yggdrasil and Happy) and moves into their treehouse community, which is suspended more than 200 feet off the ground.
The other standout piece takes a similar kind of risk, and yields just as much reward. “People Who Are Michael” tells the story of a teenaged pop star’s rise to fame, but only through the prism of videos uploaded to his YouTube channel. He starts out high-voiced and anonymous, standing nervously in front of a Bart Simpson poster; before long he’s fending off legions of fans and marvelling at his own success. Then a dark twist in the middle turns the story into an electric cautionary tale.
Obviously this is inspired by Justin Bieber, with a dash or two of Michael Jackson thrown in. The clinching moment, though, comes when the fictional Michael references his “swagger coach,” who, he tells an interviewer, “shows me how to be smooth and stuff.”
When Bieber told the Toronto Star about his own swagger coach in 2009, I remember marvelling at what a great detail that was. Obviously Leslie was paying even closer attention.
My opinion: This sounds like an interesting book. I’m not really a fan of short stories, but there seems to be a good bunch of stories here to read.