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.
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!
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.
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.
(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:
Maybe get one of these books:
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.)
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:
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.