A Print on Demand Primer

A Print on Demand Primer

Print on demand books are hot right now. Many artists love the idea of publishing their own book, whether as an artist book, a portfolio, a thesis or even a self-published novel. Of course, we book artists have been doing this for years, binding our books by hand using traditional techniques and materials. But, sometimes you don’t want to do the binding yourself, or you are looking for a more commercial-style book. Enter the world of Print on Demand (POD books).

POD books are pretty much what you would imagine—you have a book idea, and through the magic of your computer and the internet, you can self publish one copy or hundreds, allowing you total control of the book publishing process.

Most print on demand vendors make it very simple to upload, layout, and create your book. But, as with all digital endeavors there are variables and a long list of seemingly intimidating vendors and options. So, this article is intended to offer my own experiences in the world of print on demand publishing.

One Best Bit of Advice

My most important tip for anyone considering their first POD book: create one copy of your book using each of the vendors you are considering. Try out at least two or three different vendors, design and upload your book and order one copy of the same book from each vendor as a proof. When they arrive you can compare the same books side by side to decide your preferences for image accuracy and resolution, paper stock quality, size, binding methods, and even website interface. Believe me this is worth the time and effort involved. You’ll be amazed at the differences in options.

Order a Proof My second bit of important advice is to be sure you order one proof of your book before ordering multiple copies. I can almost guarantee that you will see changes you want to make to either text or images before you order multiple copies.

Pricing Will it be cost effective to print your book? That depends on a few factors. Do you want to resell your book or just publish a few copies for gifts? Prices will vary depending on the size of the book and number of copies. On the flip side, the more copies you order, the less they will cost per unit. I tend to use different vendors when I am looking for top quality than when I am looking to re-sell books with a profit. Some of the vendor’s prices are so high that there is no room for markup. You’ll have a hard time selling a soft cover book for $50.

Image Quality POD books have really found a strong niche in the photography world. The simplicity and speed of the process is appealing, making POD books a terrific showcase for photographs or an excellent portfolio presentation option or self-promo piece. Of course, those of you with a keen photographic eye will wonder about the accuracy of the reproduction. Again, this will vary from publisher to publisher. You’ll have to balance our your need for own subjective need for quality with the prices offered.

Software Considerations Many of these vendors require you to download their software to access their templates and book creation software. Their templates may offer just the level of design that you need, or you may want something more customized. If you have professional graphic design software you can design your own book, output to a PDF and then upload the PDF to the vendor.

A tip for photographers: Photoshop is not a layout program. Image layout in Photoshop is fine, of course, but its not acceptable for type. Photoshop naturally “rasterizes” type which will result in fuzzy edges. Use a design program.

Storefront Options Many print on demand vendors have an online storefront that you can create for your books. This is a great way to sell your books online and not have to deal with payment, order fulfillment, shipping and such. Most of the services can sell you ISBN numbers and offer packages to have your book listed on Amazon or other bookselling avenues. Click here to see what the store for my own books looks like.

Curling Covers Caveat One thing to watch out for: some covers on soft cover, perfect bound books seem to have a very pronounced upward curl, perpendicular to the spine. This is due to improper cover paper grain direction. Blurb seems to be the worst culprit. There are plenty of complaints about this issue, but I haven't heard if it has been corrected.

My Vendor Experiences I have had a lot of experience creating POD books. Several of my own artist books have been printed as POD books as a second edition after the initial first edition handmade book sold out. Plus, for five years we have created two catalogs each year for our big national juried exhibitions in the gallery. We also had an exhibition back in March of 2009 called Photo+Book that provided a terrific sampling of vendors and options. If you live in the Portland area stop by the gallery some time. I’ll show you my box of sample books from several different vendors.

Here’s what I’ve learned from trying various vendors. All of these vendors have varying pluses and minuses depending on the user preferences for quality/price. Keep in mind, this is not a comprehensive list of vendors, there are many, many more. These are just the vendors I have tried myself.

1. Blurb.com. Simple to use software and templates. Top quality. Very good color accuracy and resolution. Upgraded paper options available. Very expensive. Storefront available for selling your own books on their site.

Bless This House, my trailer park book, hard cover with dust jacket costs me $40 to print at Blurb, not including shipping. Soft cover, perfect binding runs about $30 on Blurb.

2. Lulu.com. Simple to use software and templates. Medium quality. Medium color accuracy. More noise in photographs, especially in mid-tones. Lower prices mean a better profit margin if color accuracy is not as important. Storefront available.

Bless this House, soft cover, perfect binding, slightly smaller than Blurb costs $17 at Lulu, about half the price of Blurb. My exhibition catalogs cost about $15.

3. Apple, iPhoto. Easiest to use of all. Build books in iPhoto or Aperture, then an easy upload process. Very good quality. Limited size and paper options. Highest price. Limited template designs. No storefront. I made a book as a Christmas gift one year using iPhoto. Each book cost $65.

4. LightningSource.com. Very difficult to use. No templates, no design software, long list of rules for creating files, plus a $75 set up fee. Best for professional designers. Long turnaround time. Pretty good quality/color accuracy. Photos tend to be slightly noisy. But, all of this is compensated for by their very low prices. About half the price of Lulu. No storefront. I’ve used this company for a few of our exhibition catalogs with good results. One warning. Lightning Source will not let you open an account if you use Lulu as they are one of Lulu’s suppliers.

5. CreateSpace.com (an Amazon company.) Very low prices. I could get my catalogs down to less than $6 per unit, but I chose not to sacrifice quality. Color not horrible, a bit flat. Paper seemed very thin and flimsy. Great option for a very cheap, down and dirty book. Storefront available.

Buy Local I love that POD book printing and binding has become a local option as well. There are a couple of local Portland options to explore:

Publication Studio, also based in Portland is really more of a publisher, creating books for authors and artists they love. But, they also provide print on demand services. Last I heard their cover options are limited, but worth exploring. More info here.

Powell's Bookstore. Portland’s famous Powell’s Bookstore has recently purchased an Espresso Book Machine. Not a publish-your-own option, just a retail purchase option. Order any book title from a computer database and it prints a fresh copy just for you in minutes. This should be very interesting to watch. I love how Powell's is working so hard to adapt to this crazy digital world instead of just rolling over and dying like many bookstores. There is a terrific video of the Espresso machine in action here.

So there you have it. Everything I know about print on demand. Now, go make a book!