Scores of photographers have opted for customisable on-demand photobooks.
If you weren’t rich and you weren’t famous, you faced a near impossible task persuading a publisher to risk it all on a 1000-copy print run of your treasured photobook concept. But with the arrival of a new business model, combining digital print technology and dot.com savvy, you can do it yourself using one of the burgeoning number of companies that are able to print on demand.
The ability to print as little as a single copy has also unlocked the potential for sales and infinitely customisable self-promotion presentations. Scores of wedding photographers have gladly turned their backs on the locked-in costs associated with traditional photo albums, and commercial shooters are replacing their portfolios with Blurb-type books, which are affordable enough to leave with a potential client to keep.
Once it became possible to store documents as digital files and print out as many – or as few – copies as and when required, the concept of ‘on-demand’ printing had arrived. The number of copies printed was now dictated only by the quantity needed at the time, rather than what was an economical number to produce, and there was no need to find shelf space to stock copies for the future.
The earliest examples of on-demand publishing came from black-and-white laser printers, with pages bound together using one of the many proprietary systems available. They couldn’t get anywhere close to the quality of traditional offset lithographic printing, but the technology had the great advantage of allowing the economical production of a small number of books – even a single copy – and conventional printing could not compete with that.
Traditional offset printing involves a number of “fixed” costs, in the sense that you incur them irrespective of how many copies are produced. Plate-making and “running-up” the job until ink weight, registration and colour balance are correct are prime examples of these. You therefore need to print a substantial number of copies (typically in excess of 500, and ideally more) before the costs are split to the extent that the unit cost is economical. With digital print no such fixed costs exist and so a single copy becomes feasible.
Although on-demand digital printing has been around for many years, only recently has the reproduction quality approached the standard of lithography and so begun to spark the interest of photographers. The early laser-based systems fused toner powder to the paper’s surface and produced a result that simply didn’t look like “proper” printing with ink. But now the technology has improved markedly and there are ink-based digital presses too. The three main suppliers of these digital presses are Xerox, Kodak and Hewlett-Packard: the first two using toner-based technology, while the latter puts good old ink onto paper.
In tune with the burgeoning Web 2.0 market, there are now myriad internet-based businesses offering on-demand print services to would-be self-publishers. There are far too many to keep track of. It is, however, easy enough to identify the most popular ones, and I have been helped in this by other photographers and readers of my own magazine (Ag) sending in copies of their masterworks for review.
In my view, quite a lot of the options can be discounted solely on the basis of cost. Why pay four times what another company will charge while delivering a perfectly acceptable product? If you search the web you will see that the more expensive end of this market tends to target wedding photographers with a modern alternative to the conventional album, and here cost is less of a concern to the photographer as it gets charged back to the client.
When choosing a supplier, the three things you might look at are cost, quality and how well you get on with the layout templates provided. The latter is easy to discern as you can trial it without committing to a book.
Cost is also easy to gauge. As I have suggested, it can vary considerably, and taking eight of the more popular services, here follows a rough guide, based on an 80-page A4-equivalent colour hardback. Blurb and Lulu are the least pricey, followed by Cewe, Bob Books and Myphotobook at 2-2.5x the cost, and then Apple’s iPhoto service, Shared Ink and Mypublisher at 3-4x, representing the top of the market. These comparisons do not factor in shipping costs, nor variations of paper weight, which could prove crucial to the look and feel you are trying to achieve.
When it comes to quality you can check out what’s on offer by ordering just a single copy of your book, perhaps containing fewer pages than are planned in the final version to keep the cost down. Only some of the suppliers let on which presses they use, but I would certainly favour the ink-based HP Indigo for a litho-like finish, and Blurb, Bob Books and iPhoto are all known to use these. I currently favour Blurb on the basis of cost, quality, customisable templates, the choice of standard or premium paper, plus the option of creating the book outside its software and uploading it as a print-ready PDF.
Because the technology is relatively new and continually improving and, one suspects, the size of the market has proved to be much bigger than had been expected, new services appear regularly and existing ones evolve constantly. So you need to keep shopping around.
For instance, when I made my first on-demand digital photobook five years ago I chose Lulu, which had started life as a distribution stream for music and video, but which is now focused on books. At the time Lulu was the least expensive service I could find, offered a range of formats in both hard and softback, and had the facility to accept books in PDF format created using professional standard software, such as Quark Xpress or Adobe Indesign. Pretty much all the other online services relied on you dropping your pictures into their predesigned templates and offered little in the way of proper typographical control. In other words, you had little creative input into the final object, other than having made the pictures.
Until recently, being stuck with someone else’s templates was what had prevented me trialling Blurb.com, despite its service having built up an enthusiastic following. Then, in order to research a book I was writing on the subject, I decided I was duty bound to test out the Blurb software, Book Smart – which is a cross-platform free download from the website. In doing so it became apparent that nearly all the perceived shortcomings of predesigned templates could be worked around, even allowing the use of full-page bleed templates to import individual pages created in other more sophisticated software and saved as graphic files, ie pictures.
And although the typographic control was rather rickety, because the software ran on your computer you had access to all the fonts you had installed on it. This was a big improvement on web-based systems where you only had access to a small range of cheesy typefaces sitting on the company’s website. Lulu’s template system adopts this web-based approach so has its drawbacks, but is much improved from its original manifestation.
Book Smart has since appeared in an improved version wherein not only can you edit the templates, but you can also save them for future use. This is also the case with the Bob Books templates. Type handling is still inferior to a commercial layout application, but it is a free download after all. Blurb now also offers the option of uploading your own PDFs and there are downloadable templates for Indesign users, with others in the pipeline (for Quark Xpress, one would expect), but not available at the time of writing.
If you, or a designer friend, are in a position to make the book in a commercial layout package, you should consider going directly to a digital printer, avoiding companies such as Blurb altogether. All that’s required is that you can supply the book and its cover as print-ready PDFs. The specification can be discussed with the printer. This should be about half the cost of even Blurb or Lulu because you are cutting out the middleman. You will also have a much greater choice of page format and papers, and quality control should involve more human intervention, with most companies letting you be there during printing.
The provisos are that they will probably only be interested in an order of 20-25 or more copies, and the lower price will only apply to softbacks. The internet firms can offer cheap hardbacks by having few sizes to choose from and pre-manufacturing the cover boards to fit a range of paginations, rather than the precise thickness of your book. Several Ag magazine readers have sent me impressive examples printed by Advantage Digital Print in Dorchester.
So who might consider producing an on-demand book? As mentioned, wedding photographers spotted the opportunities early on. It’s less expensive than buying a fancy album and filling it with prints, and it offers the client a novel and contemporary product with added value, when compared to the traditional album. And it doesn’t stop them buying prints as well.
Alternatively, it’s a way of getting your work into print if you’re not famous enough to attract a commercial publisher and do so while retaining full creative control. Commercial publishers these days consider the work of lesser known photographers if they are able to contribute funding and/or sponsorship to the production costs, and if you are in that happy position you should still consider a digital book dummy as an effective way of selling your idea to them. If you have an exhibition a short print run catalogue is a good way of generating additional revenue on top of print sales, and those who can’t afford the prints might well buy a book.
For commercial photographers the on-demand book is a versatile alternative to the conventional portfolio. As it’s inexpensive to produce you can leave it with favoured clients. It can be made in a variety of edits to suit different markets, and is easily updated at each reprinting to include new work. No matter what field of photography you’re involved with, there’s a book in there somewhere.
Chris Dickie, the former editor of British
Journal of Photography, is the editor and publisher of Ag magazine, and author of
How To Make & Publish A Photobook, available from www.picture-box.com.
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