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Self-Publishing "Secrets" Revealed, Part One: Print-on-Demand

When I first started work on my comic, ten years ago, my journey down the road to Self-Publishing received an enormous push-start from several professionals, including Mark "M'Oak" Oakley, Carla Speed McNeil and Jim Ottaviani. I realized what a huge gift of time and firsthand knowledge these creators were giving me, and I vowed that if I were ever in a position to do so, I would return the favor. In the intervening years, I've set up a Self-Publishing Resource page on my website -- it's neither as comprehensive nor as frequently updated as I'd like, but it's a start.

In the same spirit, I present this six-part series of columns on Self-Publishing, and since my own experience primarily revolves around traditional offset printing, I decided to enlist the help of my fellow Self-Publishers. The first five columns are interviews with individual creators, focusing on five major facets of Self-Publishing: Print-on-Demand (Layla Lawlor), Minicomics (Pam Bliss), Webcomics (Spike), Single Issues (me) and Direct to Graphic-Novel (Jim Ottaviani). The sixth and final column is a roundtable in which all five interviewees will answer the same questions, and hopefully provide a nice wide perspective of answers.

In this, the first column, we'll discuss Print-On-Demand -- a relatively new option for Self-Publishing -- with Icefall Press' Layla Lawlor.


THE PULSE: What are some of the companies that offer Print-On-Demand services? How did you find out about them, and what led you to choose the company you used?

There are quite a number of Print-On-Demand businesses (henceforth abbreviated POD), with more showing up all the time. Since most or all of them operate largely over the Internet, and they change frequently, perhaps the best way to find them is by doing a Google search for "print on demand" or "print on demand comics". And don't forget about printing businesses in your own hometown. Nearly any digital printer with bookbinding equipment will be capable of doing POD for small runs of books. Whether they will actually want to is a different story, but I've generally found that small printing places are happy to give me price quotes when I explain the project to them. Although the online printers that specialize in POD are usually cheaper, the cost of shipping can be substantial, and it is also easier to deal with a printer in your hometown if problems arise.

Whatever you decide, always shop around, getting price quotes from at least five or six different companies before you settle on one. Also look very carefully through their terms of use. A reputable POD publisher will not try to claim any rights in your work. Any rights that you grant to them must be temporary, non-exclusive, and only what they need to print your book. IT's especially useful if they have lists of books that they've printed, as that will allow you to do some behind-the-scenes checking and ask a few people if they were happy with the service they received.

Personally, I prefer POD websites that have a book cost calculator. This will allow you to enter your page count, book size and other information, and return a price quote without having to contact their sales department. This lets you try out different sizes and numbers of books to see how it affects your final cost. Some places, for example, have bulk discounts; others can be very cheap for some sizes of books but not for others.

Lulu is the company that I eventually chose. They are wonderful to deal with; I've generally gotten orders within about a week to a week-and-a-half of ordering, and everything is very professionally packed and printed. You can order books in any number, from one to several hundred. If you want to, you can also sell your books from Lulu's website without needing to deal with storing and shipping. They also have a lot of different options for sizes and kinds of bookbinding, even hardcovers. And they're a large enough business that I'm reasonably confident they won't go belly-up tomorrow, always a danger when dealing with small online companies.

Comixpress is well known, widely used and respected in the small-press comics business. The downside to this is that their turnaround time can be very long because they get booked up quickly.

Ka-Blam is a relatively new comic POD business that I have heard good things about. They are known in particular for doing affordable color printing.




THE PULSE: You've done both "traditional" offset printing and Print-On-Demand graphic novels. What led you to pick Print-On-Demand for your two (three?) most recent projects?


I went with POD for the second Raven's Children book because I didn't expect to sell very many of them. Living in Alaska, I'm not doing conventions right now, and I did not plan to solicit it through Diamond, since my orders for the first book were very low. Basically I was just going to be selling the book off my website and through a few local stores, so there was absolutely no benefit to me to pay for printing up 2000 copies, and then find a place to store them, when I probably wouldn't sell more than a couple hundred at most. This was the mistake I made with the first book: I vastly over-estimated the number of copies I could sell.




THE PULSE: How did the print quality and turnaround time differ between the two finished products? Did readers respond differently to the Print-On-Demand version than they did to the offset version?

The POD version actually looked a lot better! This is mostly because it was printed on heavier, whiter paper, with a glossy finish on the cover. For the first book, I went with the cheapest options, and it really did show; after seeing how nice the POD book looked, I will definitely be willing to pay a little extra for better paper if I do another offset press run. And I've gotten compliments on how nice the book looks.

The turnaround time from Lulu.com was incredibly quick. This was, in fact, one of the reasons why I chose them; when I ordered from them, they were actually even faster than the 3-5 business days that their website gives as their approximate processing time. When I had my first book done, it took about a month from the time I sent the files until I received the final shipment of books. Did you find any limitations to Print-On-Demand that you didn't have when offset printing?

Honestly, I much preferred the POD process from a customer standpoint. Of course, I also know quite a bit about setting up files for reproduction, since I do newspaper prepress for a living. Everything was automated; I set up the files at home, preparing them according to the detailed specifications on the website, uploaded them and was ready to go! The only thing that most POD places don't offer, compared to traditional printers, is a proof copy of your book to check for mistakes -- a particular concern is files that are corrupted in the upload process, which takes awhile even over broadband as you're dealing with huge files. I worked around this by ordering a single copy of the book just to look at it and make sure everything was okay before making a larger order.

Since I'm ordering the books in small batches, if I need to change anything before I order the next batch, I can do it! Small text corrections, for example. It was pointed out to me that the bar code on the back is not in the newer 13-digit format, so I'll be fixing that the next time I order a batch of books.




THE PULSE: About how much does it cost to set up a black-and-white Print-On-Demand book, and how much can you expect to pay per volume? How does that pricing structure affect your ability to sell your books through bookstores and distributors?


The price depends on page count, as well as on other factors such as shipping, whether your POD printer charges a setup fee, and other factors like what kind of binding you want to use. My second Raven's Children book was 200 pages, and including shipping (which, since I'm in Alaska, is killer expensive), I ended up paying about $8.80 per book. The first Raven's Children book, printed in bulk quantities with an offset printer, cost me only about $1.70 per book! You can clearly see that I'm not going to be making a comfortable living off POD even if I sell a ton of books. However, I only had 100 copies of the second book printed, so it still cost me much less (total) than the 3000 copies of the first book. You can do the math here: for less than $1,000 I got all the copies of the second book that I've so far been able to sell, whereas I spent about $5,000 to print far, far more copies of the first book than I could sell.

It's hard to turn a profit on POD books, however, when you sell them through stores. The usual rule of thumb is that distributors pay about 40% of the cover price of the book, which means that I would have to set my cover price for Raven's Children #2 at $22.00 just to break even! Clearly I'm not going to be able to ask that much for a 200-page standard-sized paperback graphic novel. So the book is really only economical for me to sell off my website. I sell a handful of books through a few local stores and a small in-state distributor, but due to the steep wholesale discount, I'm actually losing money on those books -- the books are basically advertising for me, because I'm certainly not making a profit on them. Usually, you can only make money on POD when you sell the books yourself, so that you can keep the entire amount of the cover price and make a profit without pricinig yourself right out of the market. But this means that your market will be limited strictly to the people you can reach from your website or from conventions.




Layla Lawlor was born and raised in Alaska, and she presently lives north of Fairbanks, AK in a log cabin -- with Internet access, of course! She has published two volumes of the Arctic fantasy Raven's Children and produces Freebird, a weekly humor strip on Alaska life for Fairbanks' local entertainment guide. Her first foray into science fiction is Kismet: Hunter's Moon, a completed webcomic that will be available as a graphic novel in summer 2007. She posts updates on all her projects at http://community.livejournal.com/icefallpress.



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