Though by profession I am a software developer, like most developers I am also a voracious software consumer. My job requires me to use many different software tools, and I also use software to automate and manage many aspects of my personal life.
So naturally when it came time to produce a photo book for my parents’ joint 75th birthdays, I jumped on the new wave of “Print-On-Demand” (POD) book publishing. With POD, you create your own book in a word processor or desktop publishing program, and then you can publish one or many professionally-bound copies of your new hardcover masterpiece for a very reasonable fee.
Print-On-Demand is Booming
Conventional offset printing requires film, plates, and press make-readies, which result in high setup and cleanup costs that are economical only with large-quantity print jobs. With POD, however, documents are stored and printed digitally, making it affordable to print short runs of just 1-10 books and then print additional quantities as needed. (more)
Though offset printing still dominates the market, its growth has slowed in recent years, while the POD market is booming. For example, InfoTrends forecasts the POD market in western Europe will expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 30% through 2010.
Following are some of the POD market leaders:
- Blurb – proprietary software (currently buggy!), accepts full-page JPEG’s from other software (works well), good value, good quality books
- Lulu – accepts PDF’s only, good value, average quality books, offers rush service for softcover books
- MyPublisher – proprietary software, more expensive for larger books, average quality books
- Picaboo – proprietary software, very expensive especially for larger books, high quality books
Be sure to check out each of these vendors when you are ready to publish, because they will all likely improve as the competition heats up and consumer money flows into this market.
My Experience with Blurb.com
I developed a 160-page book with a mix of text and color photos on every page. I chose Blurb.com as my POD publisher because Blurb sells a good-quality hardcover book of that size for a very reasonable $40 per book (shipping extra). The price also includes a printed dustcover, full-bleed printing (meaning that pictures can print right up to the edge of the page with no white border), and 80-pound heavy archival-quality paper. From what I could tell, most Blurb customers were happy with their results. There were a few printing and binding problems reported, especially in Europe, but usually Blurb would redo any bad books.
To create my book, I used Blurb’s proprietary publishing software called Booksmart. Unfortunately, when my book approached 60 pages, Booksmart slowed to a crawl, taking over 30 minutes to load my book project and 2-3 minutes to execute any command including moving between pages. Booksmart would also consume 95% of my CPU, bringing my screaming developer’s PC to a halt and rendering it unusable for anything else while Booksmart was chugging away. After 22 hours work and time spent with Blurb tech support and new Booksmart versions, I restarted the book from scratch in Microsoft Publisher, which worked great even with my full 160-page book and nearly 200 high-resolution photos. Publisher also allows for any type of page layout, whereas Booksmart offers only a limited number of fixed page layouts. I then imported the Publisher pages as full-page JPEG’s into Booksmart, which worked fine with this approach.
The interesting thing about Blurb is it’s not really a software company. Blurb is first and foremost a printing company that produces short runs of custom books using digital printing technology. But to appeal to the broad consumer market that will make Blurb’s investors happy, Blurb must also provide relatively simple book-publishing software. Perhaps this split personality and lack of focus has resulted in the serious software problems that Blurb customers have been experiencing for months, especially with larger books.
Given the complexity of software development, bugs are inevitable in an application such as Booksmart. The larger issue is Blurb failed to notify customers that its software has a trap–a fatal, unrecoverable problem that users will not discover until they’ve already invested many hours building their books in Booksmart. In addition, Blurb did not attempt to fix the problem for over two months while waiting to add new features to Booksmart, leaving customers stranded and frustrated. This Booksmart performance problem persists today, as discussed in the Blurb forum here, here and here.
Though Blurb is experiencing serious growing pains, especially with its software, Blurb appears committed to improving its POD publishing service and support. Blurb hosts a very open and lively user forum on its web site. Blurb employees regularly respond to forum questions and complaints. Blurb’s email-based tech support is responsive, usually replying within 1-2 business days, even though most replies are simply apologies for current known problems.
Blurb rightly gave me a credit for my next-day shipping for the three days work I lost with its faulty software. My books arrived in 8 business days, within Blurb’s promised 7-10 day window. My parents tell me the books look (and smell!) terrific, and the binding is solid. If you avoid Blurb’s Booksmart software, and instead use more mature software such as Microsoft Publisher to build your book, then you will likely find that Blurb provides a good value especially for larger books.
All’s Well That Ends Well
When it became clear the books would not arrive in time for my parents’ birthday party, I ran out to Staples and spent $100 to print a draft of the book. Given its 8×10″ custom size and full-bleed edges and limited time, I was unable to cut and bind it into a hardcover book the way I wanted. But of course in the end that didn’t matter. What mattered were the beautiful words and pictures and memories that my parents and family were able to enjoy at the party and for years to come. That is the promise and magic of print-on-demand book publishing.
Recommendations for Print-On-Demand Customers
Given the high-cool factor but immaturity of the print-on-demand industry, customers are encouraged to approach a POD project with gusto and caution. Here are some tips for the would-be publisher:
- Allow plenty of time, at least one month from when you start your book publishing project to when you hold the first bound book in your hands.
- If you have access to decent desktop publishing software such as Microsoft Publisher, use it! For books more than 20 pages, shy away from the custom software the POD publishers provide until the software matures.
- Expect printing issues, so order only 1-2 books the first time to proof. Once you correct any errors and publishing problems, then order any additional copies. Most POD publishers enable you to send a Web link to family and friends where they can order any number of books and have them shipped directly.
- Before plunging in with any particular POD publisher, scan their forums and Google them to see the current issues and roadblocks that may prevent you from meeting your publishing deadline.
Article published on October 31, 2007
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