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Jun
15

Service Review: Ka-Blam Print on Demand

snooker

While Googling about, looking for advice and information about print on demand publishing services, I noticed that there weren’t a whole lot of lengthy posts about any of the major publishers.  Pissed off rants?  Sure!  Vague message board postings? Absolutely!  But, not much substantive.  So, I figured for the greater good of The Internets, I’d do a post about my experience with one of the leading comics print on demand publishers, Ka-Blam.

Background

I won’t go into a ton of detail about what “print on demand” is, since you can easily just Google it, (and I’ve even handily enclosed it in quotation marks for you!) but basically the idea is this: “regular” printers have to charge substantial setup costs because of how they work, and because of this it only really makes sense to print a book this way if you can reasonably expect to sell a lot (as in: a few thousand) of them and if you can afford to put up the money up front.  Print on demand printers, though, print books on what’re basically really, really high-end computer printers and, as such, don’t have those setup costs.  As a result, if you want a relatively small number of books printed, they are a more attractive option.  The downside, though, is that the per-book price is pretty high.

Prior to this episode, my books have fallen into two categories: either books that could be reasonably expected to sell a decent number of copies and would be published by SLG Publishing, or things that wouldn’t sell enough for a “real publisher” to get involved that I’d do as minicomics and just sell myself at conventions.  In this case, though, convention season was sneaking up and I really wanted something new to have available-and I didn’t have anything new, and I sure as heck didn’t have time to hand-assemble a minicomic.

I wrapped up Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean for Hyperion a while back, but the book itself won’t be released until the beginning of 2010.  In light of that, it occurred to me that I’ve got a lot of odds and ends that I’ve done for anthologies and minicomics–some of them in color, but never actually printed that way–that I could put together into a book.  I’ve always liked the “one man (or woman!) anthology” concept, Dan Clowes’s Eightball being the most notable exponent of that format, so I envisioned something of that nature (albeit obviously not anywhere near the level of someone like Clowes’s work).

I priced the three leading POD publishers–Lulu, Ka-Blam and Comixpress–and settled on Ka-Blam.  I’ve used Lulu before and their quality is top-notch, but you pay for it.  I was looking to do a 64 page full-color digest-sized (A.K.A. “manga-sized”) book and I wanted to be able to sell it for around ten dollars and make a little bit of change in the process, so Lulu was out.  Comixpress had such a universally bad reputation for response time and turnaround time that I didn’t want to mess with them with convention season so close.  Ka-blam seemed to fit the bill, though. They used thinner paper stock than Lulu and were therefore cheaper, and they seemed to have a decent rep from what I could tell.  I could get the books done for around $7.50 each, which would work.  I could order 25 copies,  sell the book for $10.00 and cover my costs by selling the first twenty of those.  Selling the remaining five would net me $50.00–enough to cover a decent night’s hotel bar tab at the upcoming Heroes Con!

Ordering

There’s plenty of information about printing specs on the Ka-Blam site… which is a good thing, since they seem to have made a point of being as inaccessible communication-wise as possible.  There’s not a scrap of contact info (other than a mailing address) on the site from what I can tell, and if you want to communicate with them at all, you have to register with them, set up an account, and contact them via their “message center” once you’ve logged back in.  If you are familiar with any realm of retail other than comics, you’ll probably find this baffling, but–trust me–this kind of thing is inexplicably par for the course with comics people for some reason.

At any rate, as mentioned you can find what you need on the FAQ page.  And, if you’ve worked in design–or even just set up your own books pre-press before–you’ll find this bit of info a pretty big obstacle (from the FAQ page):

Q: Can’t I just send you a PDF (…) file?

A: No. Let me say that again … NO!

Press-ready PDF is, of course, the industry standard way to submit files to printers and not being able to submit your book in this format is a huge pain in the ass. To make matters worse, the format they do want the files in is TIFF–the one file format that the industry standard layout program, InDesign (sorry, Quark–it’s not 1995 any more), will absolutely NOT export to.  They say that they don’t accept PDFs because they’re often set up wrong, (I’m guessing as far as trim and bleed stuff goes) but honestly, supplying a ready-to-go InDesign template would solve this I’d think.

Anyway, were there another POD printer that met my requirements that would accept a press-ready PDF, I’d have just given up on Ka-Blam–but as it was, I just figured I’d find a way around this.  What I wound up doing was prepping the file in InDesign, just as I’d do if I were setting up a book to send to SLG; exporting it as a print quality PDF, including bleed and trim settings from the document but without any printer’s marks; then, exporting each page as a TIFF from Acrobat Reader Professional.  I had to do this a few times to get the settings right, and even then I had to batch process the resulting TIFFs with Photoshop to make sure they were exactly the dimensions required, since they’d shifted a few pixels from all of these machinations.  This whole process was truly “going around your ass to get to your elbow,” as folks say in these parts, but by the end of it I was ready to go.

The actual ordering process was pretty simple and straightforward.  It’s worth noting, though, that you have to supply somewhere to host your final zipped files for Ka-Blam to then retrieve.  Most printers I’ve dealt with will issue you FTP info or otherwise provide some sort of  “drop box” in which to leave your files, but in the case of Ka-Blam, you’ll have to upload your files to some of your own server space and then supply them with FTP info to download.  (More  on the Ka-Blam storefront, IndyPlanet.com, later but note that wherever you put your files, you’ll need to leave them there permanently if you want to have your book for sale at IndyPlanet, so you can’t just use something like YouSendIt.com.) Edit: apparently this is not actually the case.

The Wait

After I uploaded my files to my server space and filled out my order, I received an automated email telling me my order had been received.  After that, though… a whole lot of nothing.

On a lark, about a week after I sent in my order I logged into my account on the Ka-Blam site and my greeting page said I had five messages waiting to be read.  When I went to my message center, though there were none.   I soon discovered that this would be the case whether I had any messages or not.  Eventually I got the handle of their message system, but it’s pretty counter-intuitive since everything stays officially “new” no matter how many times you’ve logged in and read it.  You’ve got to manually mark stuff as read in order for it to decide that they’re no longer new.

messages

(You may always see this)

I wrote them a message, though, just trying to figure out what the heck was going on, and I received a polite and detailed response pretty quickly.  Apparently, they’re just not talkative types and the idea is that you’re supposed to check in every once in a while to make sure everything’s AOK.  In my case, there wasn’t any sort of problem with my files, but I can certainly imagine situations where this obfuscated communication chain could be a real problem–specifically, if there were a problem with a time-sensitive book and you remained unaware of some problem that was delaying the printing of your book  since, ya’ know, they don’t even email you about it.

In short, the whole message center/communication chain here needs some work.  I understand as someone who does work for clients myself that answering and sending email can eat up some considerable time, but that’s part of the job frankly.   It seems that you get email notifications from Ka-Blam for some events and not others–like, you get an email for a new message, but not when the status of your order changes.  This should really be fixed.  While they’re at it, they should look into this, which I’ve seen pretty steadily throughout the process at various points:

sql1

Maybe get one of these books:

the-manga-guide-to-databases

Comics! Is there anything it can’t solve?! (My wife is a database architect and I got her this book as a gift.  She loves it.)

The Books

Eventually my order status went through the various progress stages and I got an invoice.  I paid it and within a few days I’d moved from “printing” to “shipped.”  The books arrived pretty quickly via priority mail–although, it’s worth noting that both Ka-Blam and I are on the central East Coast, so it’d probably take longer than the two or three days it took me to get the books if you live somewhere else.  They arrived very well packed in a cardboard box, surrounded by shredded paper and wrapped in bubble wrap.  Here they are:

snooker01

How do they look?  Pretty much as expected.  The paper stock is a bit light, but it’s exactly as advertised, and that’s, I imagine, why they’re able to undercut folks like Lulu.com.  The covers do, as I’d seen mentioned online, have a tendency to curl outward a bit once opened, but that’s pretty minor.  The quality of the printing is pretty good. It’s obviously POD, not offset, but the color is crisp and generally fairly true considering a lot of the interior art was set up for offset in CMYK and then converted to RBG for this book.  There’s some shift toward the red because of this, but nothing major–and nothing I couldn’t have corrected for if I’d been more conscientious about it.  There were one or two books where some pages appear to have shifted/rotated slightly in the binding process, but–again–nothing major.  In short: they look and feel exactly like I expected them to.

The IndyPlanet.com Storefront

Associated with Ka-Blam is their storefront, IndyPlanet.com, which sells POD books printed through Ka-Blam directly to customers.  I found the process to get my book listed on the site surprisingly convoluted, and in fact haven’t yet had it listed–which really should be about 99% an automated process.  I think, though, that a lot of this is likely the result of some atypical technical glitches that are due to the fact that Ka-Blam is starting a distribution company and appears to be moving all the stock data from IndyPlanet to this new entity’s site, ComicsMonkey.com.  I’m guessing that once this is completed, this process will be much simpler.

The Bottom Line

You’re not going to mistake something from Ka-Blam for a genuine offset press-printed book, but for special applications like this one, they’re a good choice and seem to have the best price-to-quality ratio of the print on demand publishers out there at the moment.

The staff at Ka-Blam are very helpful and quick to respond and seem like genuinely nice folks.  The user experience in general, though, really suffers mainly because of the website, which looks decent but has some real practical usability issues.  Likewise, having to submit every single page as a TIFF, rather than the whole book as a PDF is something that you’ll likely find irritating if you’ve prepped books for offset printing before.  If, though, you’re someone who’s not worked in comics before and you’ve  just got some scanned comics you’ve drawn lying around and you want to make a book out of them, you’ll probably find it pretty easy to prepare your TIFFs in Photoshop or Gimp–and you won’t have to do the further step of setting the book up as a document and exporting it as a PDF with the proper margins, bleeds, etc.

The books themselves–and that’s really the important part–look quite good other than the few very minor items mentioned above–and being able to sell them at a reasonable price point of ten dollars is, I think, a real advantage.  The proof is, of course, in the pudding, and I’ll be reporting in post-Heroes Con about how things went–including sales.  Hopefully I’ll have, as mentioned, garnered myself an evening’s bar tab courtesy of Snooker–and Ka-Blam–and gotten some decent comics into folks hands to boot.

32 comments

1 ping

  1. Greg Carter says:

    Are you sure you have to keep the files available? I thought they kept a master to print from.

    Also, if you want small lot printing but don’t care about an online store, then SIPS is a good choice. If you order less than 100, there is a setup charge though. Much higher quality than Ka-Blam for the same price or a little less – http://wedocomics.com – much, much higher quality. This is a full professional printing company that also does comics. Each floppy comic comes in a detachable cover to keep it in perfect shape for shipping. I haven’t tried their perfect bound printing yet, but will soon.

    SIPS is in Vancouver so the shipping is more to the East Coast but they bill in Canadian $$ so it evened out for me.

    I’ve used Ka-Blam many times and now put the comics through both to get on IndyPlanet and use SIPS for copies to sell myself. It’s a good combo.

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for the info, Greg. I’ll definitely check out SIPS. As far as the file-hosting thing goes, I could certainly be mistaken. The directions on the IndyPlanet site are a bit confusing and don’t detail how one lists a book that’s already been physically printed by Ka-Blam. I’d assumed I’d be able to do this basically with one click, by the “list on IndyPlanet” button just took me back to my control panel page when I initially did it. As mentioned, though, I think the move to ComicsMonkey may be gumming up the works a bit.

  3. Greg Carter says:

    I found in the FAQ where it says you can use Sendspace or the like. http://ka-blam.com/printing/index.php?page=FAQ#17

    It’s definitely confusing at first, but once you figure out the logic of their streamlining the process the future books get easier.

    You should get a separate email from Ka-Blam with instructions on adding to IndyPlanet once they process the files.

  4. Ben says:

    Yeah, absolutely… Having gone through the process once, the next time ’round will be a breeze.

    Hope you can make it to Heroes–it’s always a great show!

  5. cat garza says:

    thanks for doing this writeup! i’m curious to see how this all pans out sales-wise for you.

  6. Shannon Smith says:

    Thanks for going over this Ben. I’ve actually been in the process of re-formatting pages for Ka-Blam’s tiff requirments but it is super tedious and soul crushing. (I want to do a 100 + page book.) I just looked at SIPS site and can’t figure out much about how to use it. Ugh.

  7. Ben says:

    No problem, Shannon. Whenever I wind up looking for some sort of information and not finding anything decent, I try when possible to get the ball rolling in my own little corner of Teh Internets.

    Hear me now and believe me later: automate that reformatting! There’s a way with Acrobat Professional to export each page as a TIFF, but you have to go over the settings pretty thoroughly to make sure you get good results.

    And, as mentioned, things wind up a pixel or two off in some cases, so you need to run a batch process on the results with Photoshop and have it resize every canvas to the exact ka-blam dimensions.

    It took me about 3 or 4 hours to get everything prepped this way, because of all the trial and error–but if I had to do it again, I could do it in about 30 minutes.

  8. Shannon Smith says:

    Hmmm… I don’t even know if I have Acrobat Professional. I just need to play with it. I guess by the time I get the 100 + pages formated I’ll have it figured out. My plan is to save every page I ever do again in multiple formats going forward. Or, I could just smash my computer and go live in a cave.

  9. Tony Piro says:

    Fantastic, detailed review of Ka-Blam!

    I actually did a review of a number of POD services for comics, which might interest you as well:

    http://www.calamitiesofnature.com/extras/podreview.php

  10. Greg Carter says:

    Shannon,
    For SIPS, just email them the details of what you need and they’ll get back with you. The site isn’t interactive the way Ka-Blam’s is.

  11. Ben says:

    Thanks, Tony – I actually saw and read your reviews before ordering with Ka-Blam. Nice post…

  12. Jordan Giarratano says:

    I had the pleasure to sit next to the owner of Ka-Blam at SPX 06 but I’ve been curious about the user experience ever since (I haven’t had any projects it would make sense to do POD).

    Thanks for this informative post. It helped me in writing a new business plan for some upcoming comics.

  13. Jenni Gergory says:

    Thanks for taking the time to review Ka-blam.
    Sorry to hear that you feel we have “made a point of being as inaccessible communication-wise as possible”

    We have our Message Center available 24 hours a day and help answer any all questions relating to Ka-blam, IndyPlanet and ComicsMonkey. We have found the message center to be a great way to help creators and we try respond to message pretty promptly–usually within a few minutes to a day or so.

    The reason we use the message center rather then other forms — we need EVERYTHING in writing especially for tricky orders or expedited orders.

    When an order is placed every message or question is attached to that order or person so everyone knows what is going on–us as the printer and you as the creator.

    Regarding paperstock:
    We have quite a variety or paper options available.
    Covers printed on 70# glossy paper
    or 80# glossy card stock
    Interiors printed on 50# high bright paper
    and/or Interiors printed on 70# glossy paper
    So you do have a choice.

    Also, we do keep all files stored on site–we need them available for any orders placed for books that are on IndyPlanet.

    Thanks,
    Jenni Gregory
    ww.ka-blam.com

  14. Ben says:

    Hi, Jenny – I tried to give as fair a writeup as possible–and as mentioned, I’m really happy with the books, and (as far as communication goes) I also noted that responses from Ka-Blam staff were prompt and thorough.

    I do think, though, that not having an email address or phone number on the site is a problem. A potential customer shouldn’t have to go through the whole rigmarole of registering for a Ka-Blam account just to make an inquiry. I know I personally put my email address front and center on my freelance site because I want it to be as easy as possible to contact me–even though that means I have to deal with fielding a lot of emails that don’t pan out into paying work.

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that there weren’t other paper stocks available. As mentioned in my post, to get the price point I wanted I went with a relatively light stock. If I were doing something that I was looking to sell fewer copies of at a higher price point, I absolutely would have gone with maybe the 70# interior.

    -B.

  15. Angael says:

    Do they have a Contract Policy, or Terms and Services, or something that outlines their policy on Copyright and all that stuff. I want to use their services,but I want to make sure my work is safe and still mine, completely. They dont’hold any rights over any of your comics, etc, when you send them to them do you? Or would it be a good idea to get everything officially copyrighted first?

  16. Jenni Gergory says:

    I hope Ben doesn’t mind if I take this one : O )
    Of course we don’t have any claim on your copyright. We simply print your book and if you desire, distribute it. You hold all rights. That goes for both Ka-blam, IndyPlanet and ComicsMonkey.

  17. Ben says:

    Yeah, Ka-Blam–and other POD services–are printers, not publishers in the usual sense of the word. No reputable printer, POD or otherwise, will ask for part of your copyright.

    Also, just FYI: in the U.S., copyright is established at the moment of creation of a work. So, under ordinary circumstances, you don’t need to do anything beyond that to establish copyright. (It is always a good idea, though, to put “Copyright so-and-so, 2008″ or whatever when you have something printed.

  18. Geoff Sebesta says:

    Thanks for the detailed walkthrough. I think I’ll be using them soon.

  19. cat says:

    uh oh. SPAMBOT POST! KILL IT! KEEEEEL EEEEET!!

  20. cat says:

    you should use the “wp spamfree” plugin. it usually catchs stuff like this for me. ;)

  21. Ben says:

    @Cat – Spam removed… I use Askimet, which usually does a pretty good job. It sure fell down on the job here, though.

  22. Anii says:

    How long did it take them to respond to a question in the msg. center? And how long before they approved your comic to ship? I was trying to get a hold of them, but no such luck yet. and it keeps saying i have 15 messages, but then there are none in my box at all. : (

  23. Ben says:

    Anii – It’s been a while, but for sure I remember there being something awry about that message center/number of new messages. See in my post above in the section called “The Wait.”

    I always got a quick reply from them, though, when I messaged THEM.

    And I’m afraid I really can’t remember how long it was between each stage. I think it was very, very last minute, but ultimately on-time. In other words, don’t freak out if you haven’t heard from them and it’s getting close to when they’re supposedly going to have it done by.

  24. Jenni Gregory says:

    Anii,
    I went to your site and got your name but I don’t show any order or registration for you and I don’t have a message from anyone by that name. Anything different let me know.
    Jen

  25. Anii says:

    @ ben – thanks so much! :) you’re a real peach to respond to me, it def. made me feel a lot better. I read the Wait section & that;s what made me curious about how long it took, but I’m glad to know it worked out in the end.

    @jenni – ah that’s because it’s for Honey & the Whirlwind and the account is under my boyo Tim Ferrara’s name (who is paying the bill as it’s his comic) I’m the one who is being all tech savvy and helping him through his first print process :D

    He did get a msg. back later today explaining that his order is being checked, and that it might take a week, but an invoice will be sent when everything is a-ok. I’m guessing if they checked the files today & so far no problem has been found, then maybe tomorrow or the next day we’ll hear back…

    About the msg. center- it’s weird- when I log in, it say “15 new mesages”, but when Tim logs in, it says “2 new messages”. It’s probably a data-base issues as you noted, Ben. ^_^;

    Anywhoo– thank you both!!! :D *cheers*

  26. yuppicide says:

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been looking at paperback printing for awhile and they have some great prices. My problem is my book has some special requirements which I’ve asked them about.

  27. Brian says:

    Since this posting is a bit old, but does show up in a google search for Ka-Blam reviews, I just wanted to point out that Ka-Blam does indeed accept PDF file format now.

    I haven’t used them yet, so I can’t update anybody on how they are doing these days. Up to this point I have been using Lulu for books, I am just starting to do comics.

  28. Ben says:

    @Brian – Thanks for the info! I had kinda forgotten about this old post, but I’m glad to know they’re accepting PDFs these days. That makes things a whole lot easier, I’d bet, since that’s the default output of document layout programs like InDesign.

  29. Brian Moore says:

    Thanks for this useful write-up Ben.

  30. Ben says:

    @Brian – Glad to be of help! Although, it’s probably worth noting that this write-up is pretty old and the info is probably out of date. I’ve used CreateSpace for a few things and been really really happy with the quality and price. Email me or DM me on Twitter and I can show you a few examples.

  31. Collins says:

    Nah, you’re info is not out of date. They are still awful, in the customer service department. Every problem you mentioned, is still exactly the same. They still have now way to contact them other than that awful message center, which constantly says that you have any number of new messages, when there are zero. It just goes to show you that they are a cheap company, because they don’t wish to pay anyone to fix these simple problems, and they don’t want to pay staff to answer calls. It’s completely impersonal and insane, when you’re paying someone a lot of money to print your books.

    I’m a little frustrated with hem, at the moment, if you can tell. I’ll tell you why. I live in Orlando, which is where their offices are located. Their website says that I can request to pick up at their offices, but when inquire about doing this, in their message center, I get an automated response telling me that they do not allow in store pickups. Which is insane. Can you think of any other company that wouldn’t gladly let people pick up orders at their where-house? Why not give that advantage to the locals near your location? Why should I pay shipping costs, for something that is literally less than 2 miles away? And their shipping costs are blanketed and inflated. It’s the same cost, no matter where you order from. This is also an unwise business tactic. Because local customers will now simply look to other companies, because there is no longer any advantage to ordering from Kablam, aside from shipping time. I know this issue doesn’t affect everyone, but it does illustrate how this company likes to operate.

  32. Collins says:

    Well Kablam got back to me and informed me that the contact page that I visited was a old link and they’ve since changed their policy on in store pick ups. They explained to me that it just didn’t work out well before, when they allowed it. I wont say that I don’t believe that a company should be able to work it out,, but they have decided not to, and i can respect that choice. The point is, the source of my frustration was based on old information from an old link. I found the link through google, when trying to find out where they were located.

    I should also mention that my prints came out great, the first time that I used them, considering the cost and convenience. However, it would still be nice to be able to interact with an employee on a more personal level, but I can see that they must be dealing with an insane volume of large and small orders and that may be unmanageable for them at this point.

    All that being said, I think they’re a great service for people like me. They’re also a very convenient service and their whole process is as idiot proof as possible.

    I haven’t used any other service to make comparisons with though. I live in Orlando, so it’s just plain easier to deal with a local company.

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » June 16, 2009: History in the making says:

    […] Ben Towle weighs the pros and cons of print-on-demand service Ka-Blam. […]

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