Print on Demand Photo Books

My Experiences with Print on Demand Photo Books

June 2008

As far as I know, there are currently 3 printers being used for print on demand Photo books:

Xerox iGen (toner-based); HP Indigo (4 color inks, though it is possible to upgrade this to a 6 color printer) ; and Kodak NexPress (toner).

I don’t believe that any of the books ordered are using NexPress.

There are some things I’ll never know – such as how the quality of the book changes from one order to the next, since as I rule out various POD publishers, I’m not ordering any books from them.

I began with Lulu.com (3 years ago) and wasn’t happy with the results. I then decided on SharedINK.com as the best solution for me. I have signed up for their Premium Professional Photograper Program. Although this has all taken a lot of time and effort, if you are serious about giving your prints a good home – then SharedInk is the place. Second on the list would be MyPublisher. (Since writing this, I’ve switched to MyPublisher.com for all my printing).

With all of these printers, a lot of the quality depends on paper choices, and especially on often and carefully the machines are calibrated. This is a major issue with print on demand technology as opposed to traditional off-set printing. I don’t imagine it’s such a big deal if you’re printing your latest novel, but it is a big deal with professional-looking photo books and even more of an issue if you are using a four-color system for a black and white printing.

For black and white printing, you have two choices: 4 color (cyan, magenta, yellow, black); or strictly black and white with either one toner color or ink (black).

The tonal range with four color is wider than with all grayscale printing – but you then take the chance of color shifts, or various types of color added to the b&w photo.

Grades are from A+ (the best) to F (awful) and are slanted towards the final result. Ease of use, turnaround time, price, I don’t give these as much weight as I give the final quality of the final product. For example, if the turnaround time is great, and the book looks like crap, then I don’t give turnaround time much credit. Somebody else might look at these grades and say, I loved my Blurb book. Or I couldn’t stand using SharedInk. In short, as much as I’m trying to quantify this, a lot has to do with my own biases, and esp. my biases towards black and white printing (which is a big factor).

VioVio was a softcover book, not hardcover like the rest. And I haven’t put Lulu into the grid because I tried them almost two years ago. I still have the physical book I did with thm, and they were the worst: streaking magenta, grainy, and thin paper. But as I say, that was two years ago, and so I haven’t included them in this chart. This grid includes books produced during the last two months or so. The other

Online vs. Client software. Online means that you upload jpgs, or pdf file (could be both) and arrange the book online. Client side means that you download and install software on your PC / Mac and eventually upload it through the software to make the book.

Blurb is sort of odd because their client software still is marked as Beta. Although I didn’t have any major issues with it, their forums are filled with people who are having issues going from one version to the next; along with program lockups etc. Sometimes these issues don’t arise until you’ve done a book with lots of pages. On the other hand, some of the other forums have more moderation, so there could be similar issues that I’m not aware of.

None of the client software is perfect. For example, MyPublisher is easy to use, and seems stable and well-thought out. But the supplied templates aren’t as flexible as say the Blurb or Digilabs software. But MyPublisher has many features that Blurb doesn’t offer. If you are doing your project with client-side software and haven’t done an upload and the program stops working for you – then you could be in the position of losing your work. On the other hand, none of the web-based interfaces were as easy to use as the client-side software.

Turnaround time is more important than I first realized. If you are doing Print on Demand and it takes two weeks to get a book produced, and you are shipping to clients, than this can be an issue. You may decide that you need to order a bunch of books at one time, rather than order one each time someone requests a book. On the other hand, if you have "built-in" clients, such as what a wedding photographer has, and you know about how many books you’ll need, then slight differences in turnaround time may not be a big deal.

In my own case, MyPublisher was so quick, that I’d feel comfortable ordering individual books as the orders came in. The other plus, and an issue to keep in mind, is where the company ships from. MyPublisher, shipping from New York, saves me money on shipping since I’m in New York. Also, if you are doing a bunch of test printings, then cost and time to get the book is equally important. At any rate – turnaround time in the grid doesn’t include ship time. Also to keep in mind, is that turnaround time may be related to the complexity of the book, and of course – time of year.

Consistency from Order to Order. This is something I can only guess at. But as a general rule, the larger and more diverse the POD publisher, the less likely that you are going to get consistency from order to order. Blurb books are sent out to various printers, as was Lulu. And whenever two books were ordered at different times, the color management and printing were different. I still have two books done by Lulu, one leaning towards magenta, the other one towards green. With Blurb, I returned the first book because it was overly magenta, and the next book arrived, with still traces of magenta – but with better (less grainy) printing.

Other notes: SharedInk – I’m using the Professional Photographer program.

SHAREDINK.COM MYPUBLISHER.COM DIGILABS.BIZ VIOVIO.COM BLURB.COM
Overall Rating A++ B C+ B- C
Page Weight & Feel A++ B (medium size) B+ C C-
Ink or Toner INK (Indigo) INK (Indigo) ? Toner (iGen) Both, depending on size of book. (iGen or Indigo)
Online or Client Software Online Client Client Online Client
Client Software Doesn’t Apply B+ B Doesn’t Apply B-
Turnaround Time B A++ B- B-
Estimated Time vs. Actual Time A A++ B- B+ C
Cost Most expensive* B+
lots of discounts
B Cheap Middle of the road
Single-sided printing. Unlike the other PODs, they don’t charge for the blank pages if you do the entire book single-sided. (left side of two page spread) is blank. Also, if you are doing a small book, 6 x 8, the paper costs are very reasonable. Charged Charged Charged Charged
Can customers buy your book online directly at the price you set? No. No. No. Not sure. Not sure, but I think so.
Good sizes offered for photobooks. Yes.
Dustjacket Not official, but it’s coming. Yes. And the software allows you to print on the inner flaps and spine. No sure. Yes.
Hardcover extra choices The most. Good selection of linen, as well as leather, and even a new "see-through" acrylic cover.Gold or silver foil stamping.You can also choose the endsheet papers.Translucent "flysheets"included standard. Translucent "flysheets"included standard. A strange laminated cover that reminded me of children’s books.
Archival Paper? Yes Yes ? Maybe. But both the paper creases very easily.
Shipping Packaging A A+ B B B
Support Excellent. You are dealing with a company that knows what’s involved in making a high-quality photobook; and has been very helpful. A+ Didn’t use. Okay. Fair.
Binding A++ (beautiful job) B+ Good. C+
Other features: Allows purchasing single or multiple proof pages before you do the whole book.In the Professional Photographer program you can use them as a binding service. i.e. You could, for example, do your printing at home on your inkjet and send them the prints (based on their hardcover specs) and they’ll bind it for their base price for that sized book.Sharing book preview on line with general public included. Nice online interface for "sharing" your book with the public.
How easy is it to get accurate information from the site? In other words, you should be able to go to one page and get all the technical specs you need: dpi, color management issues, what printer are they using, etc. Excellent. Good. Okay. Fair.

PRINT ON DEMAND PHOTO BOOKS: CONCLUSION

I’ll fill in some of the empty cells in the grid, at least for Digilabs as I go along. But the bottom line, is that I’m hooked on SharedInk. It’s true that they don’t supply client software, but the process is also very simple. You create the page according to their specs as a " 10 quality" jpg and upload it. This can be via FTP or through their web interface. You can rearrange the pages online with drag / drop.

You preview the book, make your material choices, and in about ten days you receive a very beautiful book.

SHAREINK also offers the use of the G7 curve, which is a relatively new way of getting neutral gray. I just order a few sheets printed this way to see what the difference looks like, along with a swatch package which includes sample paper and sample covers, etc. Read more about the GrACol G7 process.

The old saw about Garbage in, Garbage Out, still goes; and one of the things that you need to realize about making POD fine art books, is that you’ve become the printer. You need to know how to "open the shadows" for printing; the best sharpening techniques; and of course – how to make an interesting book. If you were working with a good fine-art printer, you’d be looking at proofs and teling them what you’d like done to tweak the images. Now there’s no one to tell – that’s going to be your job. You’re responsible for calibrating your monitor. You’re in charge of page layout. The more you know – technically – the better your chance of producing a high-end book – so long as the folks on the other end are also artisans.

Other quirks: Blurb was especially annoying because they give you an estimated ship date, and then miss their own estimation by a couple of days. You pay 10% extra for their "silk paper"but frankly this paper crinkles easily. As you turn the pages, if you are doing double-sided printing, the image from the backside shows though. They say that there product is like a coffee table book you’d buy in a store. This isn’t true. At least VioVio is honest about what you should expect.

MyPublisher has the best client software, but unlike some of the other client software you can’t move the template containers around on th page. MyPublisher also forces you to pay (order) before uploading. You also can’t add fames to the image container.

[Note, since I wrote this I’ve also ordered a book from Picaboo. Haven’t received it yet – but their client-side software is every bit as good as MyPublisher, maybe better. However, I haven’t figured out if there’s a way to have automatic page numbers inserted. Their pricing is about halfway between MyPublisher and SharedInk. MyPublisher just has so many discounts that it’s hard for anyone else to compete. But, it should be noted that Picaboo does have a professional photographers program with a 20% discount on all orders. Not quite the 40% discount that MyPublisher routinely offers, plus MyPublisher cost per page is cheaper – still if Picaboo quality is better than it’s worth a look.]

Picaboo: The first book I received from Picaboo had some ink smear on two pages. The quality of the printing is good, on par with MyPublisher. One thing I’m not crazy about is that the window in the cover opens onto the first page of the book. That’s not great in terms of protection. All-in-all, since their pricing is higher than MyPublisher, and the print quality is about the same, I can’t rate them highly. (I’m not taking points off for the smeared ink, which I guess can happen with any printer, though it never happened with MyPublisher and I’ve done many more books with them as of this writing.)

In short, I’d cross Blurb off the list. VioVio is a maybe for a softcover book. MyPublisher for a hardcover book that is moderately priced. The MyPublisher softcover is small, and the cover isn’t great – not a laminated cover – but the print quality is the same as the medium-sized book and the price is right.

SharedInk for the best quality (and support – assuming you are doing this through their Professional Photographer program. I don’t know what if any are the differences for the general consumer process). But pick two PODs and do sample books that are as close to the "real" book you’re planning. That’s the best advise I can offer.

One note about Digilabs. I don’t know what paper / printer they used, but it had a distinct "photo quality" look and fairly heavy sepia tone. None of this is bad if that’s what you want; but it didn’t feel like a book to me, more like a collection of photographs that had been bound together.

CONCLUSION: The best bang for the buck is the Deluxe book from MyPublisher. It uses the heaviest paper (other than SharedInk) and the overall quality is great. You can usually get it at a 50% discounted price.

4 thoughts on “Print on Demand Photo Books”

  1. Wow, That is a great resource. We are about to launch a photobook service. We presently do 200,000 unique personalized books a year, and some with photos. We intend to offer outstanding quality at low entry prices. The industry feels like everyone wants to sell a higher priced book but I feel there is a market for people who don’t have a hundred good pictures to fill a book and a smaller, quality, cheaper soft and or hard cover book may do well. That same client can grow into bigger projects as they get confidence. We are also thinking of offering product to the professional market and really appreciated your viewpoint. Thanks, again.

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