Let’s say you wanted to go into the print-on-demand book business. You want to get started on the cheap, so you rent some time on an hp Indigo, cobble together some kind of fulfillment service, and start taking orders. To make customer support less of an issue, you go after a market where your customers know what they’re doing; graphics artists and others who are already preparing files for offset presses. There’s another advantage to targeting that narrow customer set; they are very likely to order many copies of each book. You set up a web site, publish the profiles for your chosen printer, prepare Quark and InDesign templates that your customers can download, one for each format that you’ll be offering. You set up an ftp site and have your customers upload their completed .qxd and .indd files. If you’re confident you can handle the color management issues, you say you’ll take Acrobat files, freeing up your customers to create their work any way they want. You’ll need some imposition software to prepare the input files for the printer. Then you sit back and watch the money roll in.
That’s the way I’d do it, anyhow. Funny that nobody seems to see it that way. It looks like the folks offering POD books are either targeting publishing neophytes or wedding photographers. EmbassyProBooks and AsukaBook say their target market is graphics artists and professional photographers, but they support only Photoshop as a content creation tool. While I admit that it’s possible to lay out a book in Photoshop, it’s about as easy and as much fun as using Excel for a word processor. There is probably a workaround; I suppose it would be possible to lay the book out in InDesign, export the pages to Photoshop, and lay them into their templates. Graphistudio, Pikto, and Zookbinders are aimed at wedding photographers. All of these companies require registration, and some say that you must be a professional photographer producing the books for resale to qualify to be their customer.
The companies trying to capture the broad amateur market fall into two groups. KodakGallery, Flickr, Mpix, iPhoto, Shutterfly, and Photoworks are shooting for the unsophisticated users. Kodak, Snapfish, Photoworks, and Shutterfly use web-based layout tools. Flickr acts as a front end to other POD providers. iPhoto and Mpix both use layout tools that run on your own computer, but iPhoto has a 100-page limit on the length of a book, and Mpix is even more restrictive on length.
On to the more robust offerings. Lulu has an apparent intent to capture the serious customer, but uses web-based layout tools; there appears to be an option of uploading Acrobat files. Blurb, MyPublisher, PrintMyPhotoBook each have proprietary book layout applications that you download from their web sites and run on your computer. These applications are greatly simplified (read restrictive, if you’re a competent designer), and rely heavily for their simplification on limiting the user to a (thankfully large) set of unchangeable templates. These templates consist of containers into which the user can paste text or images. The position, shape, and size of the containers are all fixed.
For many people, there are benefits to using predesigned templates. Many esthetic decisions have been pre-made by the template designers, and those decisions are uniformly thoughtful and pleasing. This does not in itself guarantee a well-designed book, but it’s certainly a good start. Included in the templates of some of the services is content-checking software that can warn about such things as a) text clipping due to overflow or b) lack of sufficient image resolution to support its size on the printed page.
The typographical support of the proprietary book layout applications varies from rudimentary to painfully limited. Not all of them allow you to use the fonts already installed on your computer, which is one of the reasons to run the layout application locally instead of over the web; instead, they restrict you to their own small font set. One of the ones that does let you use your own fonts works fine with TrueType, but not with Postscript fonts. None of the applications allows precise adjustment of character or line spacing, or provides the indentation flexibility to allow dropped caps.
If you’re at all creative or critical, you will run into a situation at least once in the design of your book where you just can’t live with the restrictions of the book layout software. Fortunately, there’s a work-around. All the templates support full-page, full-bleed images. You can create a page to your liking in InDesign, Quark, or even Photoshop, and drop it into the full-bleed template. Because the book layout programs only support JPEG images, you should be concerned about preserving the crispness of any text in the full-page image; setting the resolution and quality to the maximum supported seems to do the job. Because the JPEG file format doesn’t support transparency, you will have to figure out a way to match background and accent colors in your full-page images with the corresponding elements in the templates. There are a couple of ways to do this; I’ll have more on it later.
I think that the flexibility of the proprietary book layout software over the more rudimentary web-based tools is important. Serious photographers should choose a service that supports a layout application that runs on your own computer. I’ve found that the ease of use of the proprietary book layout software makes it the tool of choice for laying out 90% of a book, especially when compared to the labor of transferring full-page layouts of the whole book from Quark or InDesign.
If you’re thinking that having your POD book is the first step towards having your coffee table book in Barnes and Noble, there’s good news and bad news.
First, the bad news: it’s almost impossible to get into retail stores with a POD book. Per-copy costs are high when compared to offset. Quality is low, by the same comparison. And there is still a lightweight, unvetted, vanity-press aura that surrounds POD.
The good news: if you walk into the office of a real book publisher with the physical embodiment of your proposed project, you’ll be a lot better off than showing up with a pile of prints and some sketches.
Next time: some details.