There is no doubt that the rise of Print-on-Demand (POD) outfits like Blurb and Lulu have created new opportunities for photographers, galleries, and others printing fine art photo books. But if you are printing more than 50 copies, POD will likely be more expensive and offer less consistent quality than two other options: short-run digital printing (SRDP) and offset printing. Individual photographers, galleries, museums and journal publishers should consider all three options, not just POD. Each option has advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the right one can give you the right balance of quality, cost and turnaround.
Three Kinds of Book Printers
There are three kinds of book printers: POD, SRDP, and offset. While POD companies are familiar because they market specifically to individuals, SRDP and offset printers primarily service professional publishers, who are notoriously cost- and quality-conscious. The three types of printers are cost-effective at different run lengths, as the chart below shows. While the cost-per-book is highly contingent on the actual number of pages, page size, binding, etc., the chart accurately reflects the quantities at which each kind of printer has the best pricing.
Price Not the Only Difference Between POD, SRDP, and Offset
But price is not the only difference between the three types of book printers. In addition to substantial savings at larger quantities, SRDP and offset book printing can offer many more printing options, higher quality, and better customer service than POD. Here are profiles of each type of book printer, showing their strong and weak points from the point of view of producing a fine art photo book.
POD printers like Lulu, Blurb, and Bookbaby primarily serve individuals. They utilize digital printing equipment and automated order processing to print quantities of 1 or more books.
In running a book printing plant, every touch of a job by an employee adds to the printer’s cost to produce the job. POD printers, with their tiny run quantities and low per-order billing, address this by automating everything possible, and excluding processes such as traditional printing proofs that involve labor-intensive interactions with the customer and add to production time.
Because of automation, POD printers are generally unbeatable on price at quantities of 25 or fewer.
Quality is generally pretty good, but short run lengths make quality control spotty because the companies cannot afford to do much checking for the low dollar amounts involved. Also, whereas SRDP and offset printers provide printed proofs for review prior to printing a book, POD printers are slam-bam: the finished books are the proofs. No proofs means no opportunity to make sure everything is as good as it can be prior to printing.
POD printers usually have their own software to enable individuals to create their covers and book pages, or they can take files—either native application files or PDFs—created with professional page layout programs like Adobe Indesign or Quark Xpress.
Flexibility and Options
For POD, page sizes and printing options have to be severely limited in order to allow for maximum automation. For instance, with a POD printer you select the page size from the handful they offer rather than telling them what you want. Same with custom options like foil stamping, embossing, die cutting, custom endsheets, inserts printed on different paper, etc.: if they are offered at all they are strictly limited in material types and customization.
If it exists at all, it is likely to be extremely limited.
Lowest of all book printer types for quantities less than 50.
Delivery times range from 7 to 14 days.
Sales and Distribution
POD printers typically have a web bookstore through which you can sell your photo books. Some also provide options for selling through Amazon and/or general distribution to the book trade. Fees vary, but are fairly transparent.
There is another kind of POD printer that serves publishing organizations. These printers contract with a publisher to print and fulfill orders for dozens, hundreds, or thousands of the publisher’s titles. The biggest example is Ingram Lightning Source, which has hundreds of thousands of titles in its digital archives. Lightning Source takes electronic orders for these titles from booksellers—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many others—producing printed copies in quantities starting at one. The books are sold to the bookseller at the wholesale price of the book; the publisher is paid for the sale minus Ingram’s wholesale distribution cut and the cost of printing. Publishers can also order printed copies of their own books through Lightning Source for other purposes. While their main customer is the traditional publisher, Ingram Lightning Source serves individual authors through their Ingram Spark service.
Big POD printers like Lightning Source can give very good pricing, but only if you have a large volume of titles as a negotiating lever. Like all POD printers, customization and quality control is necessarily limited by the nature of an efficient automated POD process. As a side note, many of the consumer-oriented POD outfits actually use Lightning Source and other industrial-strength POD printers to produce their books, and do not actually have printing plants themselves.
Short Run Digital Printing (SRDP)
SRDP printers, like the industrial-strength POD printers, primarily serve traditional book publishers. However, for quantities from 50 to 1,500 they are the best option for photographers, galleries and other non-traditional publishers as well.
SRDP printers produce quantities of 50 to 1,500 per order, either shipping the finished books to the publisher’s warehouse or storing them in their own warehouse for future fulfillment.
While they often use the same kinds of digital presses as POD companies, SRDP printers’ workflows are not oriented around totally automated hands-off production, but around producing small to medium quantities of high-quality books at prices that work for super-cost-conscious publishers who also want lots of printing options. Service attributes that enhance quality and customer satisfaction, such as printed proofs and high-touch customer service, are maintained. While price quotes and order processing is likely to be highly automated, the actual production of the books is heavily hands on, with defined quality-control points for every task. The digital presses used are slower than offset presses, but produce book blocks that are ready for binding immediately without folding and gathering signatures. Binding machines are designed for fast setup, at the expense of fast production, because of the lower quantities produced per run compared with offset printing.
SRDP printers will expect you to provide print files produced in Indesign or Quark and will groan inwardly if you designed your book in Word or an amateur-oriented layout program, because these programs create a living hell for a printer with even basic expectations of quality.
Flexibility and Options
Because of the hands-on craft orientation of at least some SRDP printers, they can be much more flexible than POD printers. Here are some examples of what at least one SRDP printer, Bookmobile, can do that POD printers can’t:
- Infinitely customizable page sizes between the minimum and maximum sizes.
- Flaps on paperbacks.
- Printed endsheets.
- Endsheets on custom paper stock.
- Book sections printed in color.
- …and more.
While you are unlikely to need all these options, if you are producing a high-quality custom book that reflects the effort you have put into your photographs, you will likely want some of them.
SRDP printers vary in their customer service approach: some go barebones, while others provide phone and email support. Bookmobile is one of the latter.
The sweet spot as far as pricing goes for SRDP is generally 50 to 750 copies. From 750 to 1,500 copies, SRDP dukes it out with offset, and usually, but not always, offset wins for 1,500 copies or more. That said, which type of book printer is more competitive often depends on the specifics of the book being printed: there are cases where offset will kill SRDP at 600 copies, and, on the other hand, where SRDP beats offset at 1,500. When in doubt, quote with both.
Delivery times for 4-color paperbacks range from 12 to 16 days, contingent on your approving proofs rapidly. Hardcovers will be longer.
Sales and Distribution
If you use an SRDP printer you will likely have to sell the books yourself and/or arrange for selling through a book distributor. While the big book distributors typically will not take on one- or two-book publishers, there are indy distributors such as Itasca Books, Bookmobile’s sister company, which are happy to take on individual projects and provide an online bookstore like the POD printers as well as selling to Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other sales outlets.
Offset Book Printers
Professional print buyers at publishing organizations, including museums. However, for long runs offset printing is also the best option for non-traditional publishers—photographers, galleries, museums, and others.
The workflow of offset book printers typically utilizes a high degree of automation in order quoting and processing, fast offset presses, and very expensive binding equipment optimized to produce large quantities of bound books. As with SRDP, offset printing plants incorporate proofs for the customer to review and approve, quality control points for every run, and customer service availability to help make sure things go smoothly.
Until about 1996, which is when Bookmobile started its SRDP printing services, virtually all books were printed at offset book printers in run lengths of 1,000 or more. Some of these companies wouldn’t even quote pricing on quantities less than 2,500. The upper limit is Harry Potter territory: millions of copies. We should all be so lucky.
Offset book printers will expect you to provide print files produced in Indesign or Quark, and, like SRDP, will groan inwardly if you designed your book in Word or an amateur-oriented layout program.
Flexibility and Options
Most offset book printers can offer a tremendous range of options for printing and binding your books.
Offset printers, like SRDP printers, vary somewhat in their customer service approach, but most if not all provide phone and email customer service.
Offset printing is almost always the way to go for quantities of 1,500 or above. Between 750 to 1,500 copies, the specifications of a particular book will determine whether SRDP or offset is less expensive. Below 750 copies is generally SRDP territory.
Delivery times for 4-color paperbacks will run 5-6 weeks. Add a couple of weeks for hardcovers. Printing in the far east can take up to 4 months.
Sales and Distribution
If you use an offset printer you will likely have to sell the books yourself and/or arrange for selling through a book distributor. While the big book distributors typically will not take on one- or two-book publishers, there are indy distributors such as Itasca Books, Bookmobile’s sister company, which are happy to take on individual projects and provide an online bookstore like the POD printers as well as selling to Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other sales outlets.
Beware: All Offset Printers Are Not Book Printers
An offset book printer is not the same thing as an offset commercial printer: don’t expect to go to your local offset printer who does brochures and catalogs and expect to get the best price, or, for that matter, expect them to actually know how to produce a book. Successful offset book printers have been focused by extreme competition to be experts at their craft. That is not to say they are all equal, just that they are much more likely to give you good quality at a good price than a commercial offset printer is.
Offset Book Printing Brokers
There are printing brokers that act as professional buyers for publishers and individuals buying offset book printing. Their services are paid for by taking a percentage of the total printing cost, either paid by the printer or as a markup on what the printer charges. These companies, if they are reputable and have been around awhile, can offer real benefits—both to you, by providing expertise that enables avoiding expensive pitfalls, and possibly better pricing than you could get for yourself because of volume purchasing, and to the printer, by making the sales and production process efficient. Bookmobile has provided this service since 1986 for both publishers and individuals. In fact, we provided offset book printing buying services for ten years before we started our own SRDP company. Brokers in general don’t handle SRDP because the dollar amounts are too low to build in their fees.
Many art and photography book publishers print overseas because of big cost advantages for longer runs at the expense of longer production time. Overseas printing is typically managed through a North American agent or broker: the publisher talks to the agent, the agent manages all communications with the overseas printer.
What This Means for Fine Art and Documentary Photographers
From the point of view of making a fine arts photo book—as opposed to, say, a family snapshot photo book—all this means that your best choice depends on quantity, quality, and and your artistic vision for the book as embodied in the choice of materials, binding, and other printing options. If you only need a few copies of your photo book, and the page sizes and printing options of a POD printer are a good fit, go for it. If you need anything from 50 copies on up, or want tighter control of quality or more printing options, choose SRDP up to 750 copies. If you’re in the SRDP/offset overlap zone between 750 and 1,500 copies, get price quotes for both SRDP and offset. Over 1,500 copies, offset is almost always going to be your best bet.
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Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982. He set up his first darkroom in a basement bathroom in fifth grade and has worked as a professional photographer. He continues to satisfy his love of photography through appreciation of great images, an interest in photographic technology, and trying to improve his own photography.