Joerg Investigates Self Published Books

- - Book Publishing

Joerg Colberg has an good post on his experience and comments from readers on their experience with, on demand printing of photography books (here).

“…the images inside the book look like crap. They look like something printed on an extremely cheap printer…”

“What I do want to point out is that while printing books on demand might sound like a great idea, it is ultimately up to the photographer to perform quality control. And getting books printed on demand might in fact lower the threshold of the quality of photography books to a noticeable extent…”

“…I find it slightly surprising that while many photographers – especially those who grew up before the so-called digital revolution – know the names of expert analog printers, there does not appear to be a corresponding pool of expert digital printers.”

If anyone knows of any high quality on demand photography book publishers it would be good to hear about it (or email Joerg so he can add to his post). The very first books I started seeing with portfolios came from .mac and I remember the photographer telling me she tried them all and .mac was the only one where the color was consistent. Not sure what happened to them but now I only hear about blurb, although I’ve only actually seen a couple and they seemed fine but then again, I’m used to magazine printing; )

There Are 37 Comments On This Article.

  1. Overall a great post, and I agree about the quality of the small books. It was a bit disheartening, because I love the square format and size.

    He does miss one thing though – not only can the quality be bad in a book, the overall quality is not dependable: I’ve had some small books look absolutely amazing and some have the kind of color shifts he describes or worse. The ones you saw that seemed fine might be at the top of the curve.

    Not only are the printers different, each book is shipped out of a different plant. If one is ordered in the uk, it might be a different printing process altogether. Sometimes a book will show up with a big barcode on the back page and cover.

    These things are not mentioned up front, but if you search the blurb forums the information can be found – along with a lot of annoyed customers. The unpredictable barcode thing irks me in particular as it can really upset a cover design if not planned for.

    That being said, I haven’t found a better solution yet. The one he ordered from the other company (which I’m going to try) may have just been one of the ones that came out well. The next one he orders might come out horribly again. I wonder how many he’d have to get to have a statistically dependable idea of the quality from a particular print on demand company.

  2. Thanks, Rob, for giving this a bigger audience.

    I think I should add that I am a bit of a perfectionist, which clearly lifts my threshold for what good print quality is quite high. I have seen OK Blurb books (you have to pay for it, and it’s not entirely sure that there wasn’t an element of luck in this), and it depends on the *purpose* of the book whether or not it’s acceptable or not.

    But I think regardless of whether you do “fine-art” or “commercial” photography, it seems to be clear that getting a book via Blurb or any of those other publishers requires a *lot* of work and attention to detail – more than most people seem to think.

    @IAA: There *is* a very simple alternative solution (and it’s not even that expensive): Make your own book. Find someone who can bind books, and provide prints. The satisfaction of having a book like that (and the oohs and aahs those books always produce) outweighs the fact that it might be more expensive to do that than to use an on-demand publisher.

  3. Ooh, significant update to the post since I last checked. Good stuff, and I’m glad someone tried Lulu. I’ve heard that site passed around as well.

    @Jorg: You’re totally right. The books I’ve made myself far outway the quality of anything I could afford to have printed right now.
    The benefit, as I see, to blurb is that I don’t actually have to pay anything and people all over the world can have something of mine to hold. It’s not the best, but it’s something. My grandma and friends appreciate the option, at least. It’s not a solution, but it is a step. As you’ve said before, the process isn’t always the most important, and in my experience if people really dig the images they really dig the book. I’ve had to fight to convince people there was a color shift on the page – I guess not everyone has the same level of perception we’re trained to have – although I bet on a gut level they might feel something is off about it.

  4. I’ve done this process with Asuka Book, not with Blurb, and while the process was a bit gut-wrenching, I do think it’s possible to get good color. Is it “CA Photo Annual good color” — maybe not quite — but for the money it’s still a good product.

    I provided the images to Asuka embedded with sRGB; it was not until I shipped the first job that I found their own ICC profile on their site, but it was buried very deep, on some remote page. That was frustrating. So with any company, ask up front if they have an ICC Color Profile for their press — that way, you can load their profile and Softproof in Photoshop to see any potential issues.

    And Joerg is correct — it IS up to the photographer to maintain the color, but that applies to most anything that we do now in the digital realm. Welcome to the year 2008 — you are responsible for your own technique, (just like a craftsman should be).

    What you ship them is what they’re going to print. There is no Magic Wizard behind the curtain at any of these companies, reviewing your images, and then saying back to you: “Are you sure you want this image to look this way?” That is the gut-wrenching part — every pixel in the entire book, you are now responsible for.

    One thing Asuka does to address this is to offer the first book that you order at a 50% discount. This way, you can think of this first book as a “test strip”, if you were in the darkroom. Be as thorough as you can, and keep good records of your file prep, and when it comes back, fix the images that need dealing with, and then resend the final PDF back to them.

    Asuka also offers various papers and coatings/laminates, each of which will have an effect on the overall “pop” of your images. I opted for the next-to-the-best, which was a laminate, but not the most glossy one. The most glossy just screams 1985 Black Book, if you know what I mean; out of date.

    I have no relation to Asuka. I’m merely a customer, but a pretty satisfied one. I’ve also heard good things about Blurb, and FastBack too.

  5. @IAA: I hear you about the colour shifts! I can see them sort of well myself, but my wife (a professional graphic designer) knows *exactly* what’s wrong every single time. I guess in part it’s a question of training (given I shot a lot under artificial light, I now see the different colours of flourescent lights). I know when my in-laws used to get totally magenta photos from their 1-hour photo place they never noticed anything…

    @RT: When you write “Welcome to the year 2008 — you are responsible for your own technique” there’s a slight problem: As a matter of fact, photographer were *always* responsible for their own technique UNTIL digital technologies (and companies like, yes, Blurb) made it sound and look as if that wasn’t true any longer. I think it’s EXTREMELY important to realize that: Digital technologies will *not* allow you to do away with quality control or tedious work. The only difference is that in this year 2008 the kind of tedious work is different from what you would have done in, say, 1968.

  6. My own Blurb experience has been somewhat of a roller coaster. The intent was/is to use their product for self-promotion. It is in many ways a kin to using Modern Postcard. Primarily one chooses such a service because of cost, convenience and a degree of flexibility, at least I certainly did.

    The major lesson I have learnt in using an on demand service is compromise. Yes as photographers we are perfectionists but you give up a lot of control and I had to let go and dim my own expectation.

    In an ideal world I would have had $ 20,000 to spend and would have taken myself to China to over see a custom print run of my own. This wasn’t an option and besides that the project I was showcasing was ongoing so I didn’t want to get stuck with a one time printing.

    I think it is important to explore all your options and to be honest in what you are hoping to achieve, what is the end purpose. The Blurb books have worked out great for me although the process has been heartbreaking at times.

    Color hasn’t been so much an issue (thankfully) for me as everything else. The first books I got done a year and a half a go were by far the best. It seems to be the way these days as companies become more successful quality and control become less of a concern. In the beginning great pains are taken to attract consumers but then the mantra seems to get forgotten as demand, popularity and of course profit increases.
    There seems to be acceptable percentage of reprints and costumer inconvenience built into the business plan.

    As Blurb has expanded more printing presses have come on line in different parts of the country. In my experience anything produced in the Rochester NY plant is inferior to that printed on the West coast. There appears to be no consistency and as of late my major problems have been with the binding. Of course you have no control over where your work is printed. Believe me I have looked into that.

    My own first book was a 7×7 and I later learnt that this is printed using a process inferior to their other offerings. Had I known that in the beginning I would have made other choices. It is infuriating that such information is not readily at hand and had to be sourced on the message boards. So negative points for that.

    The first thing I noticed about 6 months or so back was how they were shipping and packaging the books. In the beginning everything was individually wrapped as part of a bulk order, each piece treated with great reverance, now it was just crammed in. No love or care. Yeah I don’t need to be precious but its the little things that are always a sign and anyways the books were getting damaged.

    I have had a lot of friends use Blurb and there has always been an issue or two somewhere along the way. I think it is the inconsistency that hurts most, especially if you have been happy to date. You get one printed as a test et voila ready for the big order only it comes back kind of different.

    Personally I think that more services will come online that will offer ever more varied product with an emphasis on quality and service. Part of the problem with someone like Blurb is that they are trying to attract a mass audience and therefore quality gets stuck in the middle somewhere. Great for the happy snapper acceptable for the like of us.

    While by no means perfect Blurb has been good for me although when all is said and done probably won’t be far off affording a custom print run.

  7. I think Andrew is getting pretty close to the point here. You’ve just got to be realistic in your expectations. These printing companies fill a niche in the marketplace, where they delivery pretty darn good printing and amazingly low prices. I’d file it somewhere between a decent Epson print, and a CMYK reproductions of one of your images in an offset magazine.

    One other thing to remember: the brain has this weird capacity to make things OK. You know how you obsess and obsess about pulling those five points of Cyan out of a certain area in an image? Well, just remember that the people receiving these books have only seen this ONE version of the image — that is the Normal for them — they don’t have anything else to compare it to in their minds. So to them, your clients, the image is probably perfectly fine.

    And even on images that you have seen before, say, Andrew’s cow image, when the image is that strong, you’re looking at the image, and not obsessing about the color accuracy. Again, the brain just makes it OK.

    Best thing to do with any of these companies is: get their ICC profile, look at your images in Softproof, and then send it off. Throw some salt over your shoulder for good luck, and you’ll be just fine. And remember, that client on the receiving end is going to spend about 4.2 seconds looking at that image, and they’re going to see about ten thousand more images that same day, so just exhale and know that. If the image is strong, their brains will take care of the rest.

  8. I haven’t used any of the online, on-demand printers but have had short-run perfect bound booklets printed by a local traditional offset company that met my expectations for what I was able to afford. I think Andrew is right on the ball when he says one has to be honest with what the achievement should be. I’m not sure if online printers are the proper source to print the next blow-your-mind-photo-art-book, but maybe for editorial photographers looking to find a quick way to get promotional work in many people’s hands all at once, it would be a great resource. Like Rob said, magazine printing is very hit or miss.

    Besides, I’m not even sure traditional book printers have that much of an advantage in quality for photo books. In my less than a year old copy of Bruce Weber’s “Blood Sweat And Tears” by teNeues, the binding has come apart from the spine and the print quality is *okay* at best.

  9. Has anyone tried MagCloud yet? I’m putting together a little promo right now that I intend to try printing through them, but I’m a little skeptical. Images are mostly black and white.

  10. Once you get into this self printing thing you had better be ready for whatever is thrown your way. After my first one or two Blurb forays I began to get a little more thick skinned about the whole business. I have two friends, who after seeing my Blurb book decided that their promotion pieces would be in the same vein. They thought mine looked terrific. Both fine art painters, they went down different self publishing roads. One used “Livredart” and spent close to $15,000.00. Yep, lot of cash. On his first viewing he bitched about the color reproduction. He’s gotten great feedback though.The other went with a designer and “Torquere Books”, his ended up being about $4 a piece, and yes you guessed it, bitched about color reproduction. He took his to Basil this summer and sold some work. Its the nature of the beast to be self critical but as Andy said, “it is what it is”. If your not standing over someones shoulder while their printing it, there’s a good chance it will come back with an imperfection, at best, or a major flaw that will drive you up the wall. Try getting a hold of these guys to get some answers when there is a problem, not that will drive you insane.

  11. MagCloud was my first attempt at using a self-publisher and I was very pleased with them. Well except for the mailing label that they attach onto the back page, but the actual printing quality is quite good with no color cast and nice shadow detail.

    I’ve only ordered the proof for myself though so I can’t say for sure if there is consistency in their print quality but another photographer told me that she ordered my magazine and said it looked good so that sort of verifies the quality for me.

    http://magcloud.com/browse/Issue/2852

  12. I ordered a MagCloud piece done by somebody, and I thought the quality was abysmal. For what you get it’s *way* overpriced. You might as well have Kinkos print some stuff and have them staple it. Might even be cheaper.

    @TP: Well, it depends what book publishers you take. I’m not sure I’d compare teNeues or Taschen with, for example, Steidl…

  13. @R.T. Re:Brain ok

    Yeah, I was trying to make that point a little as well. It’s like looking at images on a monitor. We all have pictures on the internet now, but an old crt monitor with a horrible shift will display it far from our perfected systems. However, the person used to that monitor can still tell that it’s a good picture compared to what they’re used to seeing. There’s a lot less control over the final product in the digital age.

  14. Very interesting. I had used My Publisher as a lark a few years ago for a family travel book, but never thought about using it for anything more. I just the other day ordered my first Blurb book–hardcover, dust jacket, black and white polaroid nudes. I should have it in a few days. First impression-the software could certainly be easier to use.

  15. I am in the process of switching my portfolios over to on-demand book printing with Paper Chase: http://paperchase.net/ They have a long history of printing traditional litho for photographers, and tend to be very dialed-in regarding shooter’s needs. With the digital book printing (using the Indigo), they provide a round of proofs to review, which is better than most providers that make you upload and cross your fingers hoping for good color/results.

    The results have been fantastic, and feedback from art directors and designers have been great.

  16. The only thing I’d caution is, if you’re going to use these things for your Commercial Book, once it’s printed, it’s printed, and it’s in stone. Obviously, it’s very hard to update it.

    I used these for my commercial books, and at the time of printing, thought I’d devise some workable way to slide in a separate update of sorts, into the books, with new work. If the book was 10″x10″, I’d make up something on the Epson that was also 10″x10″. But I found that it’s just clunky.

    I”m heading back to the old Brewer book, with the vinyl pages. I also wondered if the whole “printed book” thing came off as too fine-art feeling; not commercial enough.

  17. It goes without saying that when printing photographs in any format, the proofing stage is crucial. I don’t know of any printing process that allows you to bang out the perfect image without slaving over the color adjustments, whether it’s in the darkroom, on press, or using print-on-demand services. You need to get feedback and make adjustments, and this always costs more time and money that you would expect.

    I prefer using Lulu.com for a few simple reasons. The cost of making a soft back Lulu book is at least 1/2 the cost of making a Blurb book. ($18.93 for a 96 page soft back book on Lulu costs $37.95 on Blurb.) This makes it less painful when you order multiple copies so you can work out the edit, design, and make color adjustments. It’s also possible to make very short and inexpensive books that cost around $10 which is not an option with Blurb or MyPublisher. Some of the other reasons I prefer Lulu is that they offer wider range of soft back book sizes, and you can use InDesign for your layout so there is no fussing around with new software. Last but not least, there is no logo automatically placed inside your book, and no additional $10 fee for removing that logo!

    Even if you have to make multiple proofs and adjustments, it’s still enormously cheaper and easier to make a book using print-on-demand than any other process today. I think this alone is well worth being excited about. Unfortunately, it is still complicated and involving process since just because its ‘digital’ doesn’t mean it’s going to be automatic. But it still is much easier, and five years ago it simply wasn’t an option at all.

    Comparing a print-on-demand book with a Steidl book is, naturally, absurd. But those of us who don’t want to wait for Steidl to publish our books can get started conceptualizing and making mock-ups of our books right now, which is extremely empowering and inspiring if you asked me.

    And luckily, what makes a good photobook is not wholly determined by print quality. Just like in music, there are countless examples of work made with high-production values that ends up being horribly uninspiring, and just as many examples of lo-fi work that absolutely resonates with you. A strong group of images edited and designed well can still shine in print-on-demand format too.

  18. @Ed: If you have “A strong group of images edited and designed well” why settle for less than you could get? Why spend a lot of time on shooting, fixing up photos, and on editing, only to then aim low and be happy with a badly printed book?

    Needless to say, if you’re happy with what you get that’s fine. And I didn’t even necessarily want to start arguments about the actual quality of the books so much – what I was mostly after was to point out that *if* you want to get a good book you’ll have to be prepared to spend *way* more work on in than expected.

  19. Nicole Austin

    I’ve done my work through a great company called Paper Chase Printing, based in Los Angeles. I had a number of promos and other materials done with them over the years because they specialized in working with photographers and providing them with color consistency (even going so far as to send someone to my studio to calibrate my monitor for me!). They’ve now added printing-on-demand to their list of services and I’ve been consistently happy with the results and the prices. They have great specials for book products, offer a variety of papers and varnishes, and best of all, its a small office with people you can actually talk to for support – no email runaround. I highly recommend them!

  20. anonymouse

    i made some books on Lulu.com and the quality was not acceptable at all. It would have done more harm than good to show it. The printing quality was bad but also the paper was too thin so it felt lame and you could see through it…see the image on the other side of the paper. Just really bad overall. maybe I’ll try Blurb.

  21. Print on demand is simply another tool and just like any tool it does certain things well and other things not so well. (the web is arguably another tool in which image quality greatly suffers but of course that does not seem to diminish the positive aspects that it makes possible, such as the ease of sharing your work with a wider potential audience, etc) Since it seems like most of this discussion was revolving around what print on demand can’t do, I thought I would at least mention a few of the positive features.

    I can think of a dozen reasons why you might want to make a quick and inexpensive book, even if the ‘quality’ isn’t optimum. Maybe you just want to see how your sequence works in book form, or maybe you just want to catalog and organize your work from the past year. Or maybe just because you’ve always wanted to make a photobook and now you can. Perhaps I’m seeing the option to make these books more as a tool that can greatly aid the process of making a body of work rather than as a final destination for a finished project, but either way, from my point of view the glass is definitely half full.

  22. Other options for LA based photographers besides Paper Chase include Castle Press in Pasadena and A&I in Hollywood.

    All three do exceptional jobs. More expensive than Blurb, Lulu. MyPublisher, iPhoto and Asuka, but this is because they cater to professionals who care about the end product. As other have mentioned, you get what you pay for.

    I have done both POD (Print On Demand) and custom bound books for promotion. The deciding factors to consider are obvious. Time, money and your target audience. If you want to make keepsakes to send to friends and colleagues for the Holidays, go with POD. If you want to make a promotional piece that will make a difference, go with a limited run printer. And if you really want to stand out, and have a limited number of people you want to impress, go with a self-bound, home-printed book. In fact you can even sell these as limited edition books and make good money. Raymond Meeks is a photographer who does this.

    Some helpful sites -

    Blurb – http://www.blurb.com/
    BlurbNation – http://www.blurb.com/blurb_nation
    Blurberati – http://blog.blurb.com/

    Lulu – http://www.lulu.com/

    Asuka – http://asukabook.com/

    Paperchase – http://www.paperchase.net/

    CastlePress – http://www.castlepress.com/

    A&I – http://www.aandi.com/

  23. I find that print-on-demand can do nice things with slightly toned B&W images. But you need to experiment. Order one proof book, carefully mark it up with all errors, upload the changed book, get proof copy no.2, repeat the error correction process. You may have to go through three or four proof copies before you can ‘fit’ your book to the presses being used. Even then there may be a few remaining flaws, but you’re getting a very flexible and affordable service. There are subjects out there that would never make it to a book form otherwise, since they’re only of interest to about 120 people in the world.

  24. Another Photo Editor

    I’ve seen my share of self published photo books and I think y’all spend way too much time worrying about the color and reproductions and not enough time on the design, sequencing, general structure, and captions of these books.

    If it’s for your personal use, fair enough. But in terms of showing a photo editor – at least from my own perspective – we all know Blurb and the like, and can look past some of the inconsistent quality of the reproductions. However, the content has to be there and, often times, a horrible design sense and bad sequencing can influence my ability to really see the work and understand the project, especially since I usually have limited time to look at it.

  25. @AnPE: That’s another topic matter. Plus, there’s a clear difference between showing work in a commercial context and in a fine-art context.

  26. i use pikto. they ship anywhere although i am in toronto so no shipping necessary for me. the quality i have yet to see matched on a print on demand book. turnaround time is a week or 2 and they show you proofs before they bind. all is done by hand. http://pikto.ca

    i have done over 10 there and i’ve heard nothing but positivity back.

    hope this helps.

    Carty.

  27. Gloria Golden

    I recently self-published a photography book with AuthorHouse. Upon my initial conversation with them, they offered to send a sample photo book, published by someone else. I was very happy with the paper and the design. My book was just printed, and it’s not the same paper. Therefore, the black and white prints look flat. It seems they changed printers and didn’t tell me. I’m at a loss and was thinking of republishing elsewhere. I have already called three publishing houses, and there isn’t anyone who will speak to you. I feel that my situation is different and wanted at least one conversation.

    Can you offer any suggestions? Self publishers, etc?

    Thank you.

    Gloria

    • @Gloria Golden, I have republished with Xlibris and the book, Desaturated Soul, will replace the first book on Amazon.com and elsewhere. The second book is an expanded and improved version of the first.

  28. I’m looking for a hardcover option w/a dust jacket for a photo book.

    Any recommendations for OD Printers? So far I have only found VioVio that offers this combo & only in 1 size, 11 x 8.5.

    Also, does anyone have experience w/VioVio?
    Thanks