Eric G. Rose – Where It's At

Print on Demand – Dammit Janet, let’s get published!

by on Oct.31, 2012, under Commerce, Darkroom, Developing, Digital, Film, Location, Photographers, Scanning

As the affable Brad said in Rocky Horror Picture Show – “The future is ours so let’s plan it, Janet

I don’t know about you but I’ve always wanted to get a book of my images published by a respected publisher.  For my generation it was the holy grail.  You had arrived once you could thump a 20 pound photographic tome of your images on the dining room table. There were only five or six publishers doing credible photographic table books 15 or 20 years ago.  Not having Weston’s talent nor being anointed as today’s (or yesterday’s) flavour of the month photographically speaking has relegated my dreams to the dustbin.  Alas my delusions of grandeur were trimmed back to the odd appearance in photography magazines.  Fine art print sales were always as strong as I could handle.  Some years I would neither have the time nor inclination to produce museum quality fine art black and white prints.  I’m a temperamental artist, what can I say.

My creative juices are feeling rather frisky these days and part of this new found energy is due to my ability to produce quality print on demand (POD) books at a reasonable cost.  Years back I flirted with Lulu but the results were quite dismal.  From what I’ve seen they have improved somewhat but are still not up to the minimum standards I would be happy with.  Blurb  on the other hand has made tremendous strides.  Recently I have seen books published by photographers I respect and must admit I was feeling a little jealous.

As fortune would have it our local camera emporium The Camera Store organized an information session on self publishing.  Dan Milnor was the featured speaker.  Check out his website for his bio.  You will see he has extensive experience in both photography and publishing his own material.  Rather than a dry how-to session Milnor offered up a spirited discourse on photojournalism, the photography market and publishing trends.  Dan has published so many Blurb books and pushed Blurb’s processes to the extreme and got away with it, they decided to hire him as a type of “artist in residence”.  Good move on Blurb’s part.  A more enthusiastic pitchman Blurb couldn’t find.  Along with Dan’s audio/visual presentation, Blurb brought at least 30 different books showcasing their papers, bindings, colour and black and white printing.  I was impressed with the quality and paper options to say the least.  Colour images were reproduced very faithfully but more importantly to me the black and white reproduction was VERY good.  Not LensWork good, but darn good.  I was hooked.

The only Blurb book I had been impressed with in the past was produced by Frank Petronio.  In all fairness I had only seen early examples of POD books.  To say POD production standards have come a long way in just a few short years would be an understatement.

In my years of conversing with Frank either directly or via various photography forums I developed a deep respect for his vision and artistic integrity.  Petronio is uncompromising when it comes to the quality of his imagery.  I have several of his fine art prints in addition to his Blurb book.  All are very well done.  Over the years Frank has reinvented himself photographically.  Whatever the genre, Frank pushes his vision to the boundaries.  His extensive experience in publishing and as a professional photographer  prompted me to ask him to share his thoughts and experiences on POD with you.

Blurb has made it very easy and cost effective for short run editions to produce your own photographic publication.  Maybe too easy.  Rather than unleashing a Flickr type avalanche of images in book form, it would be best to seek an education in the fundamentals of book design from the likes of Frank Petronio.

I asked Frank to share some of his experiences with you on POD publishing.  Naturally his sense of humour also shows through.  If you want to learn more about POD, layout and graphic design I encourage you to contact Frank directly.  Some of Frank’s more recent images are included.

 

POD Experiences by Frank Petronio

Eric asked me to write a little about my print-on-demand (POD) book publishing experiences. I’ll remind everyone that I grew up doing farm and construction work and somehow managed to avoid getting a PHD so I’m worthy of a quick skim (ed. – a subtle reference to my last blog) .

First off, for about 15 years I worked as a graphic designer, art director, and pre-press monkey, progressing through the industry at the same time that Macintoshes, Photoshop, and QuarkXpress started to take over and revolutionize the industry. While I was never a full-time book designer, I did do several fairly successful coffee-table books and a few smaller corporate and vanity publications. If you’re reading Eric’s blog, chances are you’re a large-format photographer “of a certain age” and that means you probably see publishing a nice quality book as a sign of success, an important part of being recognized as a serious photographic artist. And for good reason, since even 20-30 years ago, publishing a quality art book easily cost several tens of thousands of dollars. Getting a publisher to invest serious money into your work is impressive in its own right. However the sad fact is that most artistic photo art books have been self-published using grants or the photographer’s own capital – and unfortunately, many of these books end up on the remainder shelves or in attics… unless your work is truly popular, it’s almost impossible to break even, much less profit, with a photo book.

I once did a nice book for a university photo professor – he needed to publish or perish (as in getting tenure) so we slaved away for a about a month one summer. He printed 2000 books at a unit price of about $12 each, $24000. I doubt he sold more than 50 but he got tenure. That’s how it went. Ironic that so many photographers call themselves environmentalists….

Around the Turn of the Century, once people got over the Y2K jitters, some of the digital printing technologies matured enough that printing-on-demand became a reality. At first these were little different than simple black and white xerographic copies with customized covers and a slightly better binding than what Kinkos offered. The photos were a bit coarse and quality control was lacking. The early vendors using proprietary layout applications and their online interfaces were not robust – the whole process was clumsy. It was about 2005-06 before there was a really solid, reliable online platform for print-on-demand available for consumers and that was http://www.lulu.com. They are still around, using Xerox toner based printers and do a credible job with text book quality projects. Their pricing is fairly reasonable but they are not geared towards printing fine photography so the old adage that you get what you pay for comes into play.

But… finally you could publish your own book for less than $50. To hold something in your hands, condensing your life’s work into a real book… well if you do it right you could fool your Mom and the tenure committee into thinking you’re a famous photographer!

Once the potential was pioneered by lulu, up popped competitors. Several companies started to produce photo books of varying quality using proprietary software – Apple makes creating a nice “consumer” quality color book pretty easy using iPhoto for example, see http://www.apple.com/ilife/print-products.html. And some fine art studios also came in on the high end – my friends at
http://www.booksmartstudio.com – using professional fine art quality inkjets to produce short run artists books costing hundreds and even thousands of dollars. But let’s talk about the most popular POD printing service with serious photographers – Blurb http://www.blurb.com.

Blurb hits a sweet spot in the tradeoff of price versus quality. For $35 you can get a decent softcover book that actually feels like a store bought book, albeit you might only pay $20 for it retail. They also will make a lovely “imagewrap” hardcover book for between $50 to $150, about two or three times what you might pay for a mass market retail book.

The quality, to my eye is remarkable, in large part because they use the ink-on-paper digital presses like the HP Indigo as opposed to the less expensive toner-based printers that most POD vendors use to keep the costs down. They can also run a slightly heavier, more opaque paper through the HPs, although the paper will still be on the thin side compared to a top-quality book printed with traditional offset lithography. Color images look punchy and vibrant, I can not fault them. Black and whites (or greyscales) are more problematic, although they have made significant progress in getting them to appear more neutral. In 2007 my greyscale images would print strongly green or magenta ~ but for the last couple of years they’ve been looking neutral… except they they are plagued by metarism. Slightly green under incandescent, purple out in the sun. But better than before and showing signs of improvement… I am not sure if the problem can be licked or not? In any event, you need to be cautious and follow Blurb’s directions for image prep to the T and accept that these will never quite be perfect in the real world. You get what you pay for.

If you shoot color, Blurb can reproduce your photos quite nicely, with a little extra contrast and deep blacks. You may want to open up the quarter (shadows) and mid-tones 5 to 10% in addition to the recommended image prep.

As a designer comfortable with Adobe InDesign, I like that Blurb lets you submit press-ready PDFs. I haven’t used their proprietary online book design Booksmart app in years but I image it has improved over time and is more responsive with a fast internet connection. With all of this, read and follow the instructions, which in Blurb’s case are extremely well-done compared to their competition and a big reason why photographers have developed a loyalty towards them.

Chances are you aren’t a book designer…. here is some advice: Start looking at photo books from a design point of view. Do you like photos on facing pages? How much margin is comfortable? If you do a full-bleed (running the photo off the page) you get a larger image but your thumbprints are also going to be on the image. Spreads give up half-an-inch or more into the gutter’s nether regions. It isn’t ridiculous to use a ruler and take notes. Look at sizes, page counts, flow and feel. Notice the type and where they put it. Captions? How far are the captions from the image? Measure it! Even deciding where and how to do page numbers can be a huge topic.

Once you start designing, start with a master page and, at the least, a “grid” so that you are laying images and text boxes out in a consistent manner. Run a few prints off your desktop printer and trim them out, then set them into an existing book. Do they make sense, can you read the captions, is the photo in the best place on the page?

Editing and sequencing is challenging, few people are good at it. Some people can do it on-screen but most of us like to print out small prints, trim them out, and shuffle them around on a large table (or better yet, a wall). Think in terms of side-by-side pages and how images may “point” visually inside or outside the book – experiment to see if an image is better on the right or left page, especially in relationship to another image.

Also, while some are inclined to square and center everything, once you start measuring well-designed books you’ll be surprised to find that they often cheat images a fraction up and out away from the book’s spine. What looks fine on a flat 2-D computer screen is not the same as a physical object with bound pages, and that bindings will soak up page area. If you simply center an image on the page, depending on the binding it will not look balanced and centered.

And so on… there are a jillion considerations and in the end please realize that book design is – or was – a profession, just like photography used to be. You’re going to screw up. Accept this as a cheap education and reiterate. That’s the beauty of POD, you can tweak it and do it over.

Also, I would avoid attempting to do a 200-page hardcover magnum opus as your first project. Not only will it be more expensive, but it will be tedious and crushing. Also stick to the standard sizes and pay attention to price versus page counts – sometimes dropping two pages can save you a bundle. And you probably have too many mediocre photos anyway so shorter and simpler is almost always better. Make the first few books cheap, without all the extra options like fancy endpapers or premium anything. Maybe by the third or fourth book you’ll have something worthwhile… and what do you expect? Were your first few photos and prints all that great? A book is much more complex!

I have to say that getting the Blurb package a week or two later is great excitement every time. Sometimes they mess up, in which case you contact their customer service and they rectify things very quickly.  Sometimes they want a cell phone picture of the problem or ask you to send the book back on their dime, but they always make good on their mistakes. Don’t abuse this, try to think it through rationally as to whether you failed to follow the instructions properly or otherwise messed up – ask questions on the Blurb community forums and you’ll learn a lot.

I’ll also mention that as a man of the earth, if you want to pick my brain or have me help you, that time is money and it is perfectly fine to pay me to advise you and the quality of my paid advice is much superior to the free stuff.

OK it’s late, I am sure Eric will edit this perfectly and clean up all my misteaks (sic) 😉  Good luck self-publishers!

I hope you got some valuable information from Frank’s piece.

Blurb has come through with a special offer for readers of this blog!  Here are the details:

20% off (no minimum purchase required)

Code: ERICTHANKS   (I receive no compensation from this, it’s a special thank you from both Blurb and myself)

Expiration:  12/10/12

Link to:  blurb.ca

Fine Print: *Offer valid until 10 December 2012 (11:59 p.m local time). A 20% discount is applied to your product total. Maximum value of $150 CA / US.  Valid for printed books only. This offer is good for one-time use, and cannot be combined with volume discounts, other promotional codes, gift cards, or used for adjustments on previous orders.

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1 Comment for this entry

  • Bob

    Hi Eric,
    Enjoyed this posting. It took me about three tries before I finally got a Blurb book that I liked. I finally went in for a hard covered volume with more modestly sized images and kept the text succinct.
    Now I have my first portfolio in book form to share with others.
    However, it is nothing like having an established publisher come to me to work on a book project of my fine-art work. I’m still one of those who would consider that as a certain level of success in this genre of artistic expression.
    Also had a look at your website and enjoyed the images – wishing I could have been with you on some of those outings.
    Take Care

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