Musings on Photography

PDF and paper books

Posted in Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on March 25, 2009

5D-081025-6616.jpg

I see a lot of folks planning their participation for SoFoBoMo, and they’re all cranked up about Print On Demand (aka POD) books and POD publishers like Blurb, Lulu, and the rest.

And what confuses me, somewhat, is that the explicit goal of SoFoBoMo is not a paper book, but a PDF format file. Last year, we picked PDF as a way to do an end run around having participants struggle with the varied software, process, etc. of the multiple POD publishers, along with the turn around time for getting books printed and delivered. And it turned out that using the PDF format was a big bonus because it let participants share their SoFoBoMo books – something that would be hard to do if all we ended up with was physical paper books. As Gordon McGregor pointed out, last year we had 60 books finished. I looked at every single one. And if I’d had to buy 60 paper books, even if they were sold at the cost of production, I’d never have done that.

And thus it turns out that SoFoBoMo stumbled into the right solution, albeit for somewhat wrong reasons. We should have been unconcerned with the software worries (because generating a PDF requires some software, eh?) and we could have avoided turnaround issues by just saying that the time you lost to turnaround didn’t count. But instead we went the PDF route, and we reaped rewards unexpected in our common hours. Life is ever thus.

And so I urge the people who are busily learning Booksmart or other POD layout software to consider the benefits of PDF – sharable, it can be uploaded to the SoFoBoMo website (this feature is planned, anyway), free copying – all good things. It’s even true that it’s relatively painless to go from a PDF to a book with Blurb or other POD pubisher – export the pages as individual images, drop the pages into the POD software as full bleed pages, and order the book. In an important way, this keeps you from being tightly bound to a particular POD publisher. That’s exactly what I did to get a physical printed book – by aiming at the PDF as the primary output, I pretty much killed two birds with one stone.

Maybe it’s child’s play to generate a PDF from the various POD software tools each POD vendor provides. But if I were going that route, I’d want to verify that before I make that my plan, because it would be a bummer to miss out on all the advantages that PDF output provides.

And yes, I understand the significant emotional impact of holding in your hands an actual physical book, with real paper pages that have your photographs on them. But there are equally compelling experiences with that PDF file, too – and because the experiences occur in the mind of someone half a world away from you, there’s a tendency to discount them.

12 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on March 25, 2009 at 10:40 am

    “Maybe it’s child’s play to generate a PDF from the various POD software tools each POD vendor provides.”

    the reality (at least last year) was the opposite. Most of the POD software is designed to deliberately not be exportable in an easy way to PDF (I assume to stop you using it and then going easily to another POD publisher)

    Blurb for example puts a large watermark over any printed output (most PDF plugins work as printer drivers) that isn’t printed directly through them. Works well enough for draft copies, but not really ideal for a PDF to share.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on March 25, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Same with me, btw, I got to look at the 60 finished books last year. There is no way I’d have bought 60 POD published versions. Don’t have space, probably wouldn’t take the risk on variance in quality, etc.

    With the PDF versions, I got to see some great work, from all over the world, right here at my desk.

    In part that’s why this year I’m targeting PDF specifically for my book, rather than creating something that works equally well as a PDF or blurb book. Last year I did the layout for a physical book and happened to make a PDF from it.

    It was easy enough to target both – work the pages up as full bleed layouts, generate a jpg image per page, then use the simplest layout option in any POD software – just drop it in as a full page image. That way you can easily switch between POD providers and PDF creation.

    Go with POD provider’s layout software and you’ll be locked in as much as they can.

  3. jerry said, on March 25, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Which was the genius of your concept, global sharing in PDF format. I do plan to print, but as fine art prints in a portfolio.

  4. Sean said, on March 25, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I’m creating each page as a JPG and dropping it into Blurb’s booksmart, but also generating a PDF of the images. Should be easy to do both.

    And, BTW, it’s called SoFoBoMo, no SoFoPDFMo, so I feel honour bound to crank out a book. 😉

  5. Sean said, on March 25, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I just wanted to mention how much I adore the photo topping this post. We’re at -11C here today and it’s snowing. Everything is still dead and brown and I’m still in the photographic doldrums because I’ve kind of run the gamut of what I can emotionally deal with in terms of dead and brown looking photographic subjects.

    I hope that flower means that spring has sprung where you live.

  6. Paul Butzi said, on March 25, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Sadly, the photo is from October 25, 2008. I’m trying to work through a bit of a photo backlog from last year.

    They’re getting spring lower and more west of where I am. But here at my home, it’s cold, raining on the snow that fell last night, and my garden is pretty much dead and brown except for the daffodils pretending they’re going to open Real Soon Now.

  7. Juha Haataja said, on March 25, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I want to do both a PDF file and a printed book, and don’t want to do too much extra work to achieve this. If there would be a site which would accept the PDF version of the book as input and produce a printed book that would be great.

    Previously, I have done a printed photobook with Blurb, which was quite easy, but with PDFs and, e.g., the Blurb system, all kinds of incompatibilities might appear. I hope not, but as I haven’t done this I’m a bit wary of selecting the tools.

  8. Alexandre said, on March 25, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    @Juha: lulu.com allows you to upload a pdf directly, but I really do not recommend them, quality was awful when I tried.

  9. Sean said, on March 25, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    > Sadly, the photo is from October 25, 2008.

    Flowers bloom there in OCTOBER?!?

    Man, it sucks to live in Canada.

  10. Martin Doonan said, on March 25, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I, too, looked at every entrant last year and still have pdf copies of quite a few. I’m finding pdf targeted output, even for POD, far easier than going direct to the POD software. Only niggle is the slight differences in page between POD offerings.

    Once more, this year I’ll be aiming at pdf and might POD the nook but probably in a second edition after post-SoFoBoMo improvements. I treated SoFoBoMo as a sort of proof of concept process and actually tuned my secondary project into a physical book but not the primary.

    If I’m inclined to buy a physical book, I’m more likely to do so if I can proof it in pdf first. This year, if they turn into physical books that I can proof in pdf, I’m likely to buy 3 or 4. No pdf, no sale.

  11. Chris Klug said, on March 25, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Working on a Mac, it’s easy to turn almost anything into a PDF, just ‘print’ the thing and save it disk as a PDF. That part is easy. The difficult part of figuring out what to author the thing in. I used to train people in Quark (a lifetime ago) and any other minor-league page layout program (such as Word) always falls short for me, but since I don’t have a version of Quark lying around any longer, I’m in a quandary about how to get both a PDF and a book (I, too, want something I can hold in my hands at the end). Thoughts?

  12. Markus Spring said, on March 26, 2009 at 3:34 am

    I don’t see an antagonism in creating a book for pdf and print: For both you have to achieve a good, flawless page layout.

    POD software rules out itself because of those deliberate cripplings like huge watermarks, so a better word processor or layout software is necessary. scribus was used last year in quite some cases, is available for free for all major OS, but really needs some learning. But then you can even handle color profiled images and output with POD publishers that are willing to accept this, either through jpgs dropped in proprietary pages or direct submitting of pdfs (there is at least one photobook-printer here in germany offering to use the latter).

    So using any page layout software seems the way to go: Checking for the dimensions of the intended book-to-be-printed, doing the layout and exporting the pdf, and later on decide about physical printing.
    Just the other way will be difficult: Layout without taking printer’s/publisher’s demands into account will cause immense extra effort.


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