POD Problem-Solving: Part 1

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May 2014
by Linda Carlson

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Linda Carlson writes for IBPA’s Independent magazine from Seattle, where she has just published Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results using print-on-demand, and where she is at work on Part 2 of “POD Problem-Solving.”


INTRODUCTION: When I emailed IBPA members to ask about experiences with print-on-demand and posted a similar query on selected LinkedIn sites, hundreds of you responded—with recommendations that make sense for all of us, whether we’re already using POD or new to it and to publishing in general. The “Key Terms” below provides basic information for those who have been traditionally published and now are self-publishing a new title or an out-of-print book, and for those who have no publishing or printing experience. This entire article focuses on managing the POD prepress stage. Its sequel focuses on managing POD customer service and distribution issues. CLICK HERE FOR THE SEQUEL.


Print-on-demand is marketed as an easy way to get into publishing. It uses digital printing technology to produce just one print-on-paper copy of a book, or a very small batch of copies to fill an order. Although the costs of editing, copyediting, and design don’t vanish, the upfront investment is otherwise minimal since there’s no inventory to warehouse, and fulfillment will be handled by the online retailers making the sale (or, in the case of the Espresso Book Machine, by the storefront retailers).

Established publishers have welcomed digital printing both because it provides a cost-effective way to keep important titles in print when sales are too low to justify offset press runs, and because it provides an inexpensive way to get proofs that can function as galleys for copyediting and/or for peer reviews and media coverage before a book’s large offset run.

Consultants and speakers also use short digital press runs for the books they provide in training sessions and presentations, since that makes copies less expensive than the binders full of photocopied pages that were once common, and it lets them update text easily.

The “Easy” Issue

But is POD easy? You may not think so if you’re accustomed to traditional prepress production, to the quality control provided by book manufacturers using offset presses, and to personal relationships with their knowledgeable sales reps and customer service staff.

Some publishing novices don’t find it easy either. Many commented on the inflexibility of automated submission procedures, issues with templates, and the qualitative difference between digital and paper proofs. Others mentioned the limited availability of color on text pages, hardcovers, and dust jackets.

Although most publishers knew that help was available from POD companies via email and 24-hour phone lines, some noted that processes are not always well explained, with the result that uploads were rejected without explanation—or for no valid reason. “My advice to POD providers: Simplify instructions so your mom can understand them,” quips Kevin Dubrosky, a Toronto self-publisher who has worked with both an author services company and a POD vendor.

Adds Clunett Press self-publisher Joseph Labaki in Edinburgh, Scotland: “Lightning Source’s online setup isn’t for the faint of heart, but once you figure it out, it’s easy enough.” Larry Edwards at Wigeon Press in San Diego agrees. “Lightning Source does not suffer amateurs.”

Both Dubrosky, who has done three POD titles, and Mark Givens of Pelekinesis in Claremont, CA, which did six titles with Lightning Source in 2013, provide perspective.

“My advice to aspiring POD authors is: Don’t give up! It’s annoying, but worth the effort,” says Dubrowsky. Givens adds, “We’ve learned to keep in mind that POD manufacturing is automated and nonlocal. This is not an offset print run from a local printer, and giving up control can be frustrating.”

Although Robin Surface, president of the Martinsville, IN, Fideli Publishing, would prefer to have more trim sizes, more paper options, and the option of embossing for POD, she works with Lightning Source because it provides distribution through Ingram. “I know not to bother asking for anything that isn’t listed in its online menu,” she says. “LSI just won’t do it. I realize they do this to streamline things. It’s still difficult to deal with.”

“The templates provided are not accurate for every print job,” says Linda Gnat-Mullin, author/publisher of Kisses Out of the Blue in Brooklyn. “My husband, an experienced editor and desktop typesetter, followed the template meticulously, only to discover that we had a very thin gutter in our book nevertheless.”

Warnings About Word

If you have no experience in page design or desktop publishing and have always had a publisher to handle production, working with POD vendors can be a shock. “Garbage in, garbage out,” several publishers warn. This advice applies to every manuscript and every PDF, but it’s of special importance for people new to publishing, particularly those who are used to having editors and designers process their material prior to submission for printing.

Richard Wooley, a partner at Bond/Wooley, Inc., in New York, started by formatting book text with a word processing program. “We had many graphics, so formatting was very important,” he says. But, he reports, “Word had too many unexpected results when the draft passed through PDF and the CreateSpace system.”

“Word is not ideal for formatting books,” agrees Marianne Sciucco of Bunky Press in Middletown, NY. “I had trouble with headers, footers, and page numbers and had to hire someone to help finish formatting.”

Victoria Colotta at VMC Art & Design in Allendale, NJ, is among those with a strong preference for desktop publishing programs. If you’re using Word, she advises:

1. Stick with basic fonts. Avoid unusual ornamental fonts that will not be embedded in the PDF.

2. Make sure images are high-resolution. “Sometimes when they’re brought into Word, they’re not really 300 dpi,” she says.

3. Use the software’s style sheets to ensure that type styles are consistent throughout your document.

4. Use your vendor’s templates for Word so that margins are outlined for you.

Most important, says Colotta: Do not type in hyphens for line breaks. “If the text reflows for any reason, you will have hyphens where they shouldn’t be. And if you use this file for EPUB or MOBI, those hyphens will be in the layout and will look like an editing error.”

More Suitable Software

Wooley, like other novice publishers, found that the solution was a switch to desktop publishing, traditionally the preferred software for prepress, and the only one accepted for years by book manufacturers with offset presses. “We ended up using InDesign for the master document,” he reports. “That worked seamlessly. It looked the same on the ‘preview’ site as it did on our computer.”

Still, the printed proof Wooley ordered “revealed that the online version and printed version were not exactly the same.”

Online “previewers” are not always accurate, explains Colotta, who strongly recommends getting a physical proof in all cases. Sometimes the automated proofing systems used in-house by POD vendors also flag images as not being the appropriate resolution, or claim that artwork extends past a margin when it clearly does not, she says. (Coming next month: detailed guidance on getting rid of the glitches in Kindle books.)

If it’s been years since you used professional-level desktop publishing software, or if you’re a beginner, be prepared for a demanding program. C. M. Mayo of Dancing Chiva in Palo Alto, CA, has done several books as Kindles and decided last year that her long-ago experience with Adobe PageMaker had prepared her for Adobe’s current desktop publishing program, InDesign. The learning curve is significant, she discovered: “Once I opened the program, I found myself staring at what looked like the control panel for Apollo 13.” So she hired a desktop publishing specialist to format Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual, using her design.

Despite the training and practice required for InDesign and QuarkXpress, another industry-standard program, it is best to avoid desktop publishing “lite” software that appears to be less expensive or easier to use. William Robson in Issaquah, WA, whose novel Elevated Threat was published by Audio Ink Publishing, warns publishers to read the compatibility claims for software very carefully. “Do not use any program that your POD vendor expresses concern about,” he cautions.

And many people who commented advise: Proof, proof, proof—both your manuscript and your layouts. “You must give the POD folks exactly what is to be printed,” Labaki says. “You cannot expect them to fix little things.”

Guarding Against Glitches

“Not-so-little” things that commonly cause problems include fonts that are not embedded properly, says Edwards of Wigeon, and images that have embedded International Color Consortium profiles (see color.org/profile_embedding.xalter). Colors must be converted to CMYK, which many of us don’t do often. “We finally received guidance from a friend who teaches printing and our cover came out beautifully,” says Knat Mullin, who initially struggled with that process.

Layouts of covers and interiors that do not meet a vendor’s specs are even more problematic.

Amazon’s CreateSpace is more tolerant of variances than Ingram’s Lightning Source, Edwards observes, and I agree with him, based on my own experience with Ingram’s newest POD program, IngramSpark. CreateSpace specifies the size for your PDFs based on book trim size and spine width, and as long as the cover has those dimensions, it will be accepted. Ingram’s programs require that you submit your cover on the template it provides, with your ISBN and other data.

The first cover I submitted with a third-party bar code was rejected as low resolution, even though CreateSpace had accepted it. For the second submission, I moved the bar code that IngramSpark provided, which the documentation said was permitted, but that cover was also rejected and I was told via email that I must have distorted the image. The third and fourth attempts were both rejected on the grounds that the cover didn’t extend far enough over the template for a full bleed, an issue that didn’t show up on my monitor.

Kelley T. Jansson of Center Chimney Publishing in Sandy Hook, CT, had a similar problem with CreateSpace, which didn’t recognize that the photos in the book block were correct in terms of resolution in the electronic proof for Hatched in Newtown: The Family Story That Led to a Wild Generation X Childhood with World War II Parents.

Whatever vendor you use, Edwards recommends spending “the extra bucks to work with a professional for the cover and interior designs, layouts, and formatting. There will be fewer technical problems, and the end product will be professional looking, which is important to bookstores and consumers.”

Make sure your designer, whether independent or in-house, understands the peculiarities of the POD vendors you’ve selected, advises Colotta. Some are less tolerant than others about image resolution, for example. Spine width is another issue. It will vary from vendor to vendor, and within a vendor’s offerings depending on paper color, because each color represents a different weight and thus thickness. This means that you must send each vendor a slightly different PDF, and that you cannot switch between white and cream paper for a book without revising its spine width.

Some publishing newcomers bought design services from their POD vendors, with mixed results. “I paid for CreateSpace’s ‘complex’ layout, and essentially they just chose a font and type size and justified the text. I had hoped for additional creativity,” says Lori Kleiman of HR Topics in Glenview, IL.

Noting that a manuscript must be carefully edited before it’s submitted for design, Kleiman declares: “It has to be close to perfect.” When she had three colleagues read the CreateSpace proofs of Fire HR Now! they found so many errors in spelling and grammar that she had to spend $175 on author alterations.

Along with others, Kleiman found that it’s easier to spot errors in a PDF, digital proof, and printed proof than in the desktop publishing document or manuscript. Robson says that the significant glitches in production of his thriller would have been reduced if he had compared every one of the formatted pages to the final manuscript. “Some were errors not caught in editing. Others were created by software during the process from word-processed manuscript to PDF,” he discovered.

It’s also important to check every page for variations to your layout, text symbols, images, and custom margins, Robson adds. “I had biohazard and blood-drip images down the margins on alternating pages. When the first books were printed, these images appeared only on every fourth page.”

Colotta focuses on preventing problems with press runs. “Look at the interior layout when you’re proofing, and check that the headers and footers are far enough inside the trim lines to appear if there is a shift on the press.”

This can be an issue if you, like most publishers, are using more than one vendor. Compare different vendors’ proofs (and eventually, their printed books) side by side. “Despite both my vendors getting the same final files, the margins were different. One printer had the text too close to the spine,” says Robson.

Sellbox founder and principal David Wogahn expands on Robson’s advice: “Buy several books early on for quality checks.” The Carlsbad, CA, publisher explains that CreateSpace may use several different vendors even for orders as small as 20 copies, resulting in variations in the cover colors. This can happen because one press runs “hot” (more magenta or red) and another “cold” (more cyan or blue) compared to what your color swatches indicate, Colotta says. When you select colors for your cover, recognize that colors may print slightly differently from one order to the next, even with the same vendor.


Key Terms

If you’re new to both writing and publishing, or if you’re an author becoming a publisher for one or more of your titles, definitions of terms used in book manufacturing, distribution, and sales can come in handy. Here are 10 you’re likely to encounter.

Author services companies. Book editing, design, pre-press production, and outsourced book manufacturing are among the services author services companies may offer at a price. Some also arrange for certain kinds of distribution and for content and design of websites, press releases and brochures and other marketing communications. Such firms cater to people new to publishing. IngramSpark and CreateSpace are among the POD vendors offering author services on a fee basis. Many of the retailers with Espresso Book Machines bundle author services with POD for a fee.

Book manufacturer. Often used as a synonym for printer, a book manufacturer traditionally specialized in high-capacity offset sheet-fed printing, but most book manufacturers today also offer digital printing. Usually, they have in-house bindery services for such specialties as perfect and lay-flat binding, embossing, debossing and die-cutting. Some handle case binding (hard covers) and library binding in-house; others outsource such binding. Book manufacturers are not publishers, although some are affiliated with publishers or offer design and distribution services.

Digital printing. The laser printing technology of digital presses is a sophisticated version of the technology used in office copiers and printers. Digital printing is more economical for many short runs than offset printing.

Distributors. Companies that work with publishers to get books stocked by wholesalers, retailers and specialty catalogs. Distributors typically require an exclusive for at least one market; for example, an American publisher might use a distributor for sales in Canada but handle distribution by itself for sales in the U.S. Distributors may sell only to wholesale and retail booksellers, or they may also sell direct, to consumers and such end users as schools. Most have sales staff or commissioned sales reps.

Offset printing. The most common kind of commercial printing since the 1950s, this photographic technique transfers images from metal plates to paper. It can produce high-quality printing at high volume, but is not cost-effective for small runs.

POD companies. IngramSpark, LightningSource, and CreateSpace are among the best-known companies that provide POD services with digital printing.

Printer. A vendor that prints material on paper using sheet-fed or web presses. A print shop may use offset or digital presses and one or several colors of ink. Although many printers today offer book printing as well as other typical business printing, most experienced publishers use book manufacturers. Printers are not publishers.

Print on demand. Although the term is often used as a synonym for digital printing, it can entail just what it says – printing one copy or a small number of copies to fulfill demand in the form of an order.

Retailers, online. Amazon.com is, of course, the best-known online book retailer. Books produced through its CreateSpace subsidiary are readily available on Amazon.com. Online retailers including Amazon obtain books, printed digitally and by offset, through wholesalers and distributors and directly from publishers. Amazon’s CreateSpace unit does not wholesale books to other online retailers or storefront retailers.

Retailers, storefront. The category includes bookstore chains, big-box stores, specialty retailers and independent bookstores, which order much of their inventory through wholesalers and distributors and sometimes place special orders with publishers, either on consignment or on the industry’s traditional terms.

Wholesalers. Unlike distributors, wholesalers have few sales personnel. Their specialty is fulfilling orders from retailers. They buy direct from selected publishers that handle distribution on their own, and from distributors that represent publishers. They seldom or never sell direct to consumers.

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