There are lots of reasons why a white elephant technology doesn't catch on. Sometimes the technology is ahead of its time. In other cases, no amount of time can make a misguided technology useful or attractive.
Then there's vending machines that sell books.
The first book-dispensing vending machine was built by Richard Carlile in England in 1822. Carlile was a bookseller who wanted to sell seditious works like Paine's Age of Reason without being thrown in jail. His answer was a self service machine that allowed customers to buy questionable books without ever coming into contact with Carlile. The customer turned a dial on the devise to the publication he wanted, deposited his money, and the material dropped down in front of him. It's unclear whether this was an automated process, but that didn't stop England's own automated process from convicting one of Carlile's employees for selling "blasphemous material."
The next book-dispensing machine was the Penguincubator, which appeared in London in 1937. Conceived by Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, the Penguincubator dispensed classic literature in paperback form for about the same price as a pack of cigarettes (see photo below).
Lane was an iconoclastic figure in British publishing. Credited with popularizing high-quality, mass-market paperbacks, he was viewed as a radical intent on destabalizing the book industry. According to Penguin's website, the Penguincubator's origin story goes something like this:
After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, Allen Lane found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London.... Appalled by the selection, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores.
Some reports suggest the Penguincubator was apocryphal, but it appears at least one was installed near Charing Cross Station in London much to the consternation of local booksellers.
Sir Allen may have succeeded in changing English reading habits, but the Penguincubator had little to do with it. Specifically, it was never manufactured in sufficient quantity to make an impact on the market, but that didn't stop others from expanding upon the idea.
The Book-O-Mat, Readomatic, and A Novel Idea
In June 1947, Popular Science featured an early book vending machine called the Book-O-Mat (see photo below), which featured a selection of 50 books any one of which could be purchased for a quarter.
Two years later the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation introduced an upgraded version also named the Book-O-Mat. Rock-Ola, which is known for making slot machines and jukeboxes, decided at some point that books might also make a buck as demonstrated by their advertising for the device:
"Here for the first time is a coin operated automatic merchandiser which permits the operator to share in the profits of the multi-million dollar paperback book business" (see photo below).
Today, at least half a dozen Chinese companies build and distribute book vending machines. Japan, where vending machines dispense a variety of items including beer and pornography, has had long-standing success distributing wallet-sized books and comics the size of a phone directory via these devices (see photo below).
Western success with the technology has proven more elusive, however. An Irish company made an initial splash installing A Novel Idea at London's Heathrow airport (see photo below), but went bankrupt in 2010.
On the plus side, the New York Times sighted a paperback vending machine in a Barcelona subway station in 2008 (see photo below). Filled with Spanish translations of Nora Roberts and Victoria Holt novels similar machines have since been spotted in Madrid and appear to be on the rise.
Last year, the Readomatic was sighted at Stockholm airport (see photo below), and book machines appear to be flourishing in Germany as well. As a result, there's still some hope for this on-again-off-again technology.
Recently, the Fullerton Public library in Orange County, Calif. installed a book vending machine near its local train station. Described as a "Redbox for books," it dispenses up to 500 bestselling titles at no cost to the user provided they have a library card and no outstanding fine above five dollars.
Although vending machine distribution necessarily limits book selection to mass market bestsellers there is one notable exception. Last year, a Toronto bookshop named Monkey's Paw debuted the BIBLIO-MAT, the world's first vending machine to dispense a randomly selected second hand book for the price of two Canadian dollars (see photo below). Stephen Fowler, owner of the Monkey's Paw, calls the BIBLIO-MAT an "antiquarian book randomizer," which makes sense given you never know what you're going to get. As charming as the concept sounds it's doubtful it has legs.
Although vending machines have long been considered acceptable for newspapers, they've never really caught on where books are concerned. Books aren't disposable items like cigarettes or candy. As a result, there's something counter-intuitive about buying a book from a device that dispenses soda pop. Bestselling titles may help to diminish this disconnect, but do little to improve reading's perceived intellectual value.
Still, it's a surprise more books aren't sold via vending machine given you can buy a set of headphones, or an MP3 player, at Sony's "robotic stores." Then again, maybe it's not such a surprise given the competition.