The Perils of Print-on-Demand

9 Aug

I’ve always loved reading, be it comics or novels and from a young age I could often be found lying in the corner of the lounge, head in the pages of a book. My mum was an English teacher, so Enid Blyton was strictly verboten – as in her work was not allowed in the house.  Everything on the home bookshelf was game, including my dad’s many volumes of very rude Rugby Songs, some of which my brother and I learned and then recited in public, causing much parental embarrassment. My early leaning was always towards science fiction, thanks mainly to Gerry Anderson; as a teen, I moved into fantasy, powered by the discovery of Michael Moorcock, Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. Sometime in the mid 70s, I bought the Lord of the Rings as a three volume set, having begun reading it around a friend’s house. It was the first printed book I’d ever held in my hand that totally blew me away. If you search Google for ‘LOTR book cover’ there are hundreds of images to choose from, covering many reprints in many languages. The set that I had was similar to the illustration here – simple, understated, yet profound in its symbology. When I held the book in my hand, moving my finger around the one ring and the Dark Lord’s incantation, it felt as though the novel was possessed by an arcane power.

The second novel I encountered that had a presence was Terry Pratchett’s ‘The Colour of Magic‘ and shortly afterwards ‘The Light Fantastic‘. In both cases, it was Josh Kirby’s artwork that initially hooked me. Pratchett’s writing was fresh and funny, it blew away the cobwebs of traditional fantasy, which had become trapped within its own framework of stale plots and staid characters. As I read both books, I felt as though I was holding a complete package that oozed magical charm. [As an aside, Harry Potter has never done it for me, but I have a couple of friends who had a similar experience with some of the hardback editions to the point where they couldn’t put the books down!]

When I set out to present The Ferret Files, I did so as an independent author with full control over the internal artwork, the contents and the cover. I was intent on creating something that spoke to the reader before the pages were ever turned. Why then, as a massive consumer of paperback and hardback books for most of my life, with a vision to create something truly awesome, did I opt to publish Ferret as an e-book only? That’s a question that’s not only haunted me for the early part of 2017, but it was also the most asked question by my readers. One of the primary drivers for going digital was a fear that the original artwork wouldn’t scale down for print. Richard’s full page drawings are A3, and they’re very detailed. Astonishing, in fact. Hence I shied away from producing a physical print version because I didn’t want to create an inferior product. What I didn’t know when I set out on my journey is that one of the limitations of digital is that images cannot be embedded in with the text. As a result, the e-book didn’t fully realise my dream.

Print-on-Demand

Having worked in IT for most of my life, keeping up with trends as they emerge, I decided it was time to dip my toe in the water and remedy the situation with a Print-on-Demand (PoD) version of Ferret. I mean, how difficult could it possibly be? The question was posed on a Friday afternoon three weeks ago. I now have the answer…

PoD is exactly what the title suggests. An electronic copy of your work is uploaded to a central location and when a customer presses the button to buy, a copy is printed off within the country of purchase and despatched within a few days. I figured this was likely to be expensive, but as it happens I was wrong. As a printing methodology PoD is cost effective up to around 50 copies of a book. After that, traditional print wins the day. I had a quick look around Amazon to see what other authors are doing, and two options became immediately obvious. There’s Amazon’s own offering called CreateSpace and there’s Ingram Spark. As an Amazon subsidiary, I decided that CreateSpace must be pretty good so they made the cut. Ingram Spark, as an independent author platform also ticked all my boxes – the downside being that it costs $$$ to create a title (unless you happen to be a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors, which I am). I came across a third option, a site called Lulu, which I also wanted to explore. A comparison of the three options suggests that Lulu is the more expensive of the trio in terms of the cost to print a book, with CreateSpace and Ingram Spark costing roughly the same. On the plus side, the Lulu site has a lot of help to offer, as well as some very useful and active forums. Most importantly of all, I found and downloaded a free A5 template with instructions (go here: http://www.lulu.com/create/books and click ‘Download Template’). Once you have this piece of the jigsaw puzzle, everything else becomes so much easier. I wish I’d found this link at the beginning, rather than two weeks in.

Lulu allows you to format the book and cover, do some basic checks and then you’re off to the races. It’s very much down to you, with no human checks performed. Ingram Spark inserts a human check at each of the major stages of production, so is a little bit slower. CreateSpace follows the same format. Both of these services aid in preventing mistakes around the formatting of the interior and the cover, which believe me are easy to make.

I’m not going to go into massive detail about everything PoD related, but here are the basics.

The Interior

  • The cost of a printed book is determined by the number of pages it contains and the weight of the paper used. If it’s in colour, then it costs more than black and white. The addition of b/w images takes up page space but doesn’t affect the overall cost.
  • A page must have margins top & bottom and left & right. There’s also a gutter margin, which is where the spine is located. The Lulu template shows pages side by side, with mirror margin set. This is very useful when determining what a book will look like. The minimum margins all around are 0.25″ (6.33mm), but it’s usual to use 0.5″ (12.66mm). This is what I settled on. The size of the gutter margin is determined by the total number of pages in the book – the more pages, the thicker the spine overall, the larger the gutter.
  • It appears that different countries have different standards for retail book sizes, so your template will be determined by where you live in the world. CreateSpace likes a 6″ by 9″ template, which is standard for the USA but also applies to the UK and Europe. Ingram Spark and Lulu also operate in these countries but want me to print using an A5 template (5.9″ by 8.51″). Fortunately, the Lulu template allows the page size to be changed with ease, and the book insides adjust accordingly.
  • As a tip, always use a page break to break between pages, and not hard returns – otherwise changing the page size may catch you out. Page Break Odd / Page Break Even proved very useful with the large illustrations.
  • The choice of font is down to you. Times New Roman is a favourite, but anything that’s San Serif will do (Lulu lists the standard options). Ideally, the text should be set to 11 or 12 point. The smaller the text, the less pages you’ll have and the cheaper your book will be to produce. However, going down to 10 point will make the finished article very difficult for seniors to read. As an example, A5 format Ferret with 12 point Times New Roman clocks in at 420 pages. Cutting the text size down to 11 point results in a novel that’s 356 pages. The difference in Lulu production costs between the two is £1, or £6.79 vs £7.80 to me. CreateSpace uses a 6″ by 9″ template, which is slightly larger than A5. Here, 12 point Times New Roman produces a book with 356 pages.
  • Images can be added onto a page and embedded in the text, but they must be 300dpi. For Ferret I embedded the 9 x vignettes in with the text and then set each of the 4 x large illustration on a page on their own, with a blank side on the rear. The large illustrations have the margins set to 0.25″, which allowed me to scale them as large as possible. A massive tip if you’re using Word: size your images in the drawing package of your choice at 300dpi then import the image without adjusting its size. Any size alterations made within Word will reduce the image quality down to 72dpi.
  • All three services require the interior to be in PDF format. Lulu and CreateSpace accept Microsoft Word and will happily do the conversion for you. Ingram Spark requires a PDF. However, as I soon discovered, not all PDF convertors are created equal. I messed about for a couple of days experimenting with Lulu and finally concluded that the optimum results with embedded images are obtained by using the Word ‘Save As’ function, and selecting PDF. The fonts must be embedded in the document, which is an ISO save option. Allowing Lulu to do the conversion results in the large single page illustrations being rendered unviewable.
  • Finally, as part of the distribution data you’ll need an ISBN number. You can obtain one yourself which costs $$$, or allow Lulu / CreateSpace to allocate one for you. The disadvantage of a free ISBN is that it is not transferable between services, so I’d recommend purchasing your own. If you’re also going to create an ebook, you’ll need a separate ISBN, as the number is media specific. In the UK, it’s cheaper to buy a pack of 10 ISBNs than to purchase just 2. Whichever option you choose, the ISBN must appear on the inside cover, on the copyright page.

The Cover

  • All three services have the capability to create covers for you. As I already have some rather nifty artwork for the front cover, I opted to upload it. I messed about for a couple of days trying various settings – initially I tried to upload just the front cover and use Lulu’s inbuilt templates for the back cover and spine, but matching the colours proved to be impossible. In the end I had to download an evaluation copy of Adobe PhotoShop and edit together a full wraparound cover. The end result is very pleasing, but if maths makes your brain hurt I suggest you either: a) get someone else to do it for you; or b) use the auto-build templates as provided. The CreateSpace and Ingram Spark editors looks very snazzy, but I didn’t go there on the grounds that I’d already taken the decision to make a full A5 jacket.
  • If you’re using your own artwork for the cover, it needs to be slightly larger than the printed page by 3.3mm per side (this is called the bleed and will be cut off in the manufacturing process). The full wraparound cover for Lulu’s A5 (148mm wide by 210mm high) version of Ferret is (151.3mm + spine + 151.3mm) by 216.6mm. The width of the spine is based on the number of pages the completed work contains, so cannot be accurately calculated until the page count is known. For Ferret this works out at 20.4mm. The size for Ingram Spark is identical.
  • The spine is intended to bend where the covers meet, so has an area each side of the fold that should not be printed on. A gap of 0.0625″ (0.15875mm) either side of the spine must be left blank. This caught me out with CreateSpace, who flagged up the Ferret logo as being too large. As I was unaware of this potential issue until it was brought up, I’m pretty sure that the proof copy I ordered from Lulu is going to be wrong (update – it’s arrived and it’s out by about 0.5mm, which I can live with – yippee!).
  • If you intend your work to be available to resellers, then it requires a barcode on the back cover, which contains the ISBN number. CreateSpace and Ingram Spark will helpfully add this for you when you upload the artwork or use their cover creator. With Lulu and a full wraparound cover, you have to follow the links to create a barcode which must then be cut & pasted onto the back cover.

Once the uploads are completed, all that remains is to order a proof copy of your work and wait for it to arrive. Mine turned up yesterday and there are a couple of small amendments that need to be made (my name is ever-so-slightly wonky on the spine and I discovered a missing ‘‘ in one of the later chapters), but otherwise we’re good to go. All in all, my experience of PoD has been really good if somewhat drawn out, but then I enjoy learning new things so it’s not a hardship. Plus I have a genuine enthusiasm for creating printed works, so the roadblocks thrown up in front of me were only ever going to be driven over. I’m really pleased with the results and unless an earthquake strikes Ferret will be out as a POD novel by the end of August.

If you have a project that’s underway and you need any encouragement I’m happy to hear from you…

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