One of the most common questions I've received since printing my book is how to choose a print on demand service. To help answer this question (and cut down on the number of long e-mails I have to answer), I thought it would be helpful to write a summary of my experience. But I want to emphasize, if you are really serious about your comic and CARE about the final product, you should take the initiative to do this research yourself. Also, keep in mind that my book is a 92 page, full color, trade paper back that is comic book sized (6.625 by 10.25 inches). I suspect if you're doing black and white, you may find MANY more options (or even different conclusions) than what I have here.
To make sure we're all on the same page, I should quickly summarize what "print on demand" (or POD) is. POD is high quality laser printing, which has the advantage that you can print in lower quantities (this is the where the name "print on demand" comes from, because you can basically print as many or as few as you need at any time). Traditional printing is offset printing. While offset printing is cheaper per unit and generally looks more professional, you have to print at least 1,000 or so (as a comparison, my collection would probably cost around $4-5 per book for offset printing). The general rule of thumb I've found when asking around for prices is that if you can sell around 250 books (and the best way to know if this is the case is through doing a pre-order), then you can probably at least break even by doing offset printing. For the rest of us, and that includes me, we have to consider POD.
Before I get into specific POD services, here is an intimidating list of POD services I found:
It's such a long list, that it's difficult to know where to start. But by quickly looking at each company's specs and comparing them to your needs, many of these companies can be quickly eliminated. Also, it's worth checking if one of these companies is located near you. If you can speak to someone face to face instead of having to do all your communication over the internet, then it will be much easier to get your books printed the way you want.
To start my research I contacted a bunch of PODs for quotes and samples. I'm now going to summarize each of POD services I considered doing business with. To skip to a specific review, use the following links:
Ka-Blam is a POD service that specifically caters to comics. They have two main book sizes, traditional comic book and manga. By printing with them you can easily sign up to use their store at IndyPlanet, which displays sample pages and has an easy to use buying interface. In principle, this has the nice advantage that you don't have to order a big stock of books, because you can send your customers directly to them instead (more on this in a minutes).
The first thing I should say is that I'm a big fan of their business model. It's great that someone is offering all these needed services to the comics community. In fact, they were one of the principal reasons I started formatting my comic strips traditional comic book size. I wanted to keep the option of printing with them open. Another advantage with Ka-Blam is that they have no setup fee. You just pay a flat fee per book, and their price was reasonable at $13.60 for a 92 page, full-color book. But once I dug deeper there were a couple issues that made me decide not to use them.
First, their paper quality is pretty low. They use 50# uncoated for the interior pages and 80# for the cover. Although I think the actual printing and color quality are amazing, the paper makes it look like cheap photocopies (IMHO).
I solicited a number of comic artists for their experiences with Ka-Blam. I found that people who did trade paper backs almost universally had some problem. Either the book was printed wrong, or cut wrong, or took forever to ship, or whatever. People who did floppies (traditional, stapled comics) were happier. Perhaps this is just due to Ka-Blam being a relatively new company and not being as used to doing trade paper backs yet, so it may be worth revisiting this issue in the future.
When considering Ka-Blam, I should also discuss IndyPlanet. As I mentioned above, having someone else take care of my orders sounded like a good idea in principle. But consider the following. A person comes to my site and wants to buy a book. I send them off to IndyPlanet. If IndyPlanet takes 3 months to ship a book (I'm not saying it always happens, but it could), then it doesn't make IndyPlanet look bad, it makes ME look bad. Especially to people who don't know the industry and don't have any prior experience with IndyPlanet, i.e., the fans I most want to keep happy. I would much rather do a pre-order, order 50-100 copies (which is what I did) and do all the fulfillment myself. Once I realized all this, IndyPlanet was no longer the advantage I thought it was.
As an aside, I want to emphasize that if you plan to get your orders fulfilled through another company (and what I man by this is that you plan to send your customers to another site for orders instead of having a stock at home), then take the time to try ordering through that company yourself. The reason is that your should know what kind of experience your readers will have when they buy a book from you. If you're putting your readers through a bad experience, it will reflect poorly on YOU. Buying one book from a POD you're seriously considering will only cost you $10-20, and will save you a lot of possible headaches in the future.
Lulu is probably the biggest and best known of all the companies I considered. They do a lot of business, with a lot of different types of products, from traditional books to calendars to CDs.
First Lulu's advantages. They use nice paper (80#, but still uncoated and 100# ultra gloss cover). They also offer an ISBN. This latter option is helpful because (at least in America) the minimum cost for ISBNs is $250 for 10 (and you have to buy at least 10). (Although I heard a rumor that the Canadian government subsidized these for it's citizens, stinkin communists!) What I don't know is if you take your book and have it printed somewhere else, do you get to keep the ISBN? I doubt it.
Lulu also offers sales on Amazon. The problem is that Amazon takes like 40-50%. You therefore have to price the book incredibly high (especially if you're doing full-color like me) to keep from LOSING MONEY on each sale (which, seriously, is a bad way to run a business).
I can't remember if Lulu has a setup fee. And they do offer discounts on large orders, but it's only like 2-7% (and won't apply on the Amazon orders because most people just buy one book at a time, but seriously, am I going to sell any books on Amazon?).
My main turnoff for Lulu was the price ($18.33 for a full-color book). It was just too expensive for what I wanted to do. I'd be making less than $1 profit for selling a $19 book! And that's not even taking into account shipping fees. The other thing I was wary about was that although Lulu offers a great user interface for uploading files and getting assistance online, they didn't offer the personal connection I was looking for.
But that said, everyone I asked about Lulu was happy with their experience, the quality of the product, and the speed of delivery.
Like Ka-Blam, ComiXpress also caters specifically to comics. They also offer an online store, but without the page previews (which I think is a bad oversight). I didn't consider them too seriously. The standard feedback I got on them was that they take two months to get your book to you. Never any less. Also, I saw some of their trade paper back books in a local shop and wasn't too impressed. The paper was thin and the cover was over-glossy.
Another aside, one thing to watch out for with POD trade paper backs is that the glossy covers often warp outward. What I mean is that the corners kinda flare out from the body of the book and it just looks unprofessional to me. If I'm charging my readers $17.95 for a book, I don't want to be sending them something I'm less than 100% happy with. If you're worried about this, in some cases it might actually be better to NOT pay the extra charge of getting lamination when doing POD.
To be fair, ComiXpress's prices were the cheapest at $10.64 per book. They have a setup fee of around $30, but I didn't find that to be too big of a deal as long as you print enough books.
Print House Express
Brian Brown of Bellen! suggested these guys (hopefully he doesn't mind me telling you this). I liked how his book #4 looked, so I checked it out.
Basically this is the kind of place to go if you want to just set up the order online, send them the files online, and get the book fairly quickly. It's all meant to be done online and in that sense they're good. But at least online, they offer only two sizes. I tried to contact them about pricing for other sizes, and they weren't very good at getting back to me.
If I were quickly printing up a mini-comic I would probably consider them, but they just weren't right for my more involved project.
Update June 30, 2009: Apparently Print House Express has decided to downsize due to the current economic situation. They are now printing out of a smaller operation called Short Run Printing, Ltd. I have not done business with them, but they appear to have most (if not more) of the same printing options that were available with Print House Express. The prices look pretty similar as well. If you try them out, feel free to send me an email telling me what you thought of them.
Like Ka-Blam and ComiXpress, SIPs Comics caters to the comics community. At first glance their website was a little scary, but I checked them out, and they didn't seem as bad as you might think. I even got to talk to some of them over the phone. In almost every respect they were right in the middle in terms of price, shipping time, and paper quality, so I decided against them. But I thought you should know that they exist because it seems like a lot of people haven't heard of them.
360 Digital Books
In the end I chose 360 Digital Books. Now since I DID pick them, I obviously feel they are far and beyond the best of any of the options I considered here. But I'm going to try my best to give a (reasonably) unbiased review.
The first thing I liked about 360 Digital Books was the personal service. They have regional service representatives that I can talk to over the phone. Over the last few months I have gotten to know my representative VERY well (she's probably sick of me), which was great when I needed to ask a quick question or change something on my order (which will happen, believe me).
They offer a WIDE variety of paper choices for both interior and cover and well as different cover finishes (plain, matte or gloss, with professional materials that don't warp). This way you can find the perfect price range as well as a paper stock that best compliments your artwork. They also offer order fulfillment like Ka-Blam, Lulu, and ComiXpress, but I didn't look into it much.
They sent me all sorts of samples free of charge. This included a book of paper and printing samples. Sample pamphlets in both color and black and white in different paper stocks. And multiple sample books, including a copy of Jumpstart by Robb Armstrong (you know, the syndicated strip). I'm embarrassed to say it, but between the two day shipping and all the samples it was like $50 worth of material. I'm not sure I'm a big enough operation to merit such attention! In comparison Ka-Blam makes you pay for a sample (albeit they credit it on your next order), which is only a 12 page floppy.
360 Digital Books' price was $10.92 per book, which was cheaper than anyone but ComiXpress. And this was for the highest quality paper available, 80# glossy paper, with the thickest softbound cover possible, 12 pt, with a nice modern matte finish. If I would have gone with a paper quality similar to ComiXpress or Ka-Blam, 360 Digital Books would have been far and away the cheapest. But I felt my readers would appreciate the added quality--at the cost of my profits. In the end I was EXTREMELY happy with the quality. If you have ever seen the Girl Genius books, the paper is very similar (too bad the art isn't as well). One thing to watch out for is that if you use nice paper like this it will DEFINITELY make shipping cost more (which is something I didn't properly account for).
What drawbacks are there with 360 Digital Books? You must order at least 25 books, but that was not a problem for me. They also have a $30 minimum setup fee for the first order. For an additional price, they offer printed proofs, which is a nice service that many POD services don't offer. I wanted to be 100% sure that my readers would be happy with the books, so I did the proofs, but in the end it was so costly, that I'm not sure it was worth it. This was especially bad because there was a slight miscommunication about the shipping costs for the proofs, so that I ended up paying more than I expected (which was my fault).
Another drawback I found with 360 Digital Books was when inquiring about traditional stapled comics. Unlike Ka-Blam, who's set up for comic books, 360 Digital doesn't usually do pamphlets with different interior and exterior stocks. So there's extra costs if you require this. That said, you can get a comic in fully 80# glossy paper (which is much nice than what Ka-Blam offers) at a similar price.
I should mention that there were a couple of hiccups along the way. The first set of proofs they sent me had the magenta misaligned from the other colors. They sent me another set of proofs free of charge, so all it cost me was an extra week. It wasn't that big of a deal, but I want to make sure I'm giving an accurate summary of my experience with them.
Overall, I was very happy with my choice of 360 Digital books, and I highly recommend that you at least consider them for your own comic projects. If any of you decide on 360 Digital Books, please mention my name (Tony Piro)! I've been telling them the comic market is missing a quick, reliable, and cheap POD option, and you referencing me would help to make my case.
So if you made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back. I barely have the patience to read all this text I wrote. If you have any suggestions for additions or changes you would like to see to this review, please e-mail me. I wrote this up to try to help out my fellow comic creators, and your input is important for making sure this review is truly helpful.