Even though my experience is very basic, people often ask me to recommend printers. Here is a list of printers I have used, and some thoughts.
48 Hour Books is the first printer I ever used, aside from the local Copy Cat people. The story is that when PGP started, I thought I would just make staple-stitched chapbooks and I was working on a book called Six Off 66, a collection of six short stories by David Daniel. At 66 pages long, I decided the book wouldn’t work with staples, so I Googled and found 48Hrs. Over the last few years I have spent more than $11,000 with them. I have also recommended more than a handful of other people to them. I think I am directly responsible for a lot of revenue, so I asked them for more competitive pricing and their company president emailed me back directly. I read the email on my phone and thought he said no, but I just checked the email again and actually, he didn’t say that — he said yes, but I misread the email.
So, right away, an aside. Having a smart phone hasn’t always been the best thing for me. On several occasions I have read an email on my phone and then archived it or just had it scroll off my Gmail screen before taking action. Since I received that email in September of 2010, I could have saved $340, or nearly the amount it costs to print 125 books of poetry.
Here’s another aside, for people who are looking for advice on vendor management. For five years I worked as a technology buyer for a global business, until the meltdown cost me my job on January 1 this year. I worked with companies like Dell, where I was a small customer in spite of a $7M spend, and mom-and-pops where I was their bread and butter with a considerably smaller spend. But in every instance I received excellent service from every rep I had, because that’s the expectation for professional people. I have tried to take home the knowledge that just because Publishing Genius isn’t going to represent a significant quarterly profit, I’m still entitled to the same level of service I came to expect when I had a company with $1T AUM on my business card.
Anyway, CUSTOMER SERVICE: With 48 Hour Books, it was no problem when I had an issue with a mistake they made with the second printing of Justin Sirois’s MLKNG SCKLS, wherein they didn’t allow the title type to bleed off the cover. They recognized the problem (I had a PDF proof to backup my claim; I never spend the $40 for the hardcopy proof) and fixed it quickly and without issue, reprinting the entire run. I was very satisfied with the solution. QUALITY: I find that their construction is excellent, they can do custom sizes, and the books feel good. They only use glossy finishing, though, and that’s a drawback. PRICING: They are a little more expensive than other printers, but this is because their LEAD TIME is considerably shorter. I can place an order on Monday and have books in hand by Friday. The need to rush shouldn’t be an issue, but sometimes it just is.
Here’s another aside. To date, PGP print runs have been in the range of 500 copies, though I have done one of 1000 copies and a few others at 600. Sometimes I will do the entire run at once, but if my cash flow is low, I will order 100 or 200 from 48Hrs, because it often takes me several months to sell that many anyway. Then I can re-up at an amount that is not considerably higher than what it would have been if I ordered the entire run at once. What I’m saying is sometimes it makes sense to lose a couple hundred dollars on volume discount if there is going to be a few months before reordering. Over 1.5 years I made 700 copies of A Jello Horse, for example, which resulted in spending probably $200 more than I would have if I’d printed them all at once. That means I paid $11 a month in order to have about $1500 cash flow up front.
The best printer I have used is McNaughton & Gunn (watch the slideshow on the homepage, btw, for a look at the process). STORY: The best presses use M&G, it seems, unless they print their books in Canada. A very nice M&G rep bought me some drinks when I was working with a few colleagues to put together a “buying group,” which was nice. He explained a lot about the printing process to me. For instance, they use a 5-color offset process, which means that they put CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) into four pots and mix them together to spray through a plate onto the book. The fifth pot can be used for a varnish, say, or other printing techniques. Also, I think they can do pantone colors. They’ll print several pages on one sheet, 8 reader-pages to a signature, and then trim all the pages off the sheet at once, and then these pages are collated together with the other signatures and bound. Then the cover is attached. I could have this wrong and I welcome corrections in the comments. But I learned that it is cheaper to make a 104-page book than a 100-page book, because 104 is an even signature count. And to add a “5th color” like a spot varnish or gold leaf isn’t considerably more expensive, as in less than $100 depending on the project. Their CUSTOMER SERVICE is good. I feel like I can rely on them and they’ll take their time to communicate with me. On the other hand, they recently messed up my address on a proof shipment (proofs from them come standard, with overnight shipping), delaying the project by a week and offered only their apology (I think I’ve collected a favor in this regard).
Anyway, my take on their QUALITY is that it’s second to none. I just did two print jobs at once, Chris Toll’s The Disinformation Phase, from OPM (whom I’ll get to) and Sean Lovelace’s Fog Gorgeous Stag, from M&G, and in terms of construction and materials, Sean’s book is unbeatable. It looks and feels the way a book looks and feels when you say, “I want to hold it.” Typically, M&G’s PRICING is higher than most of the quotes that I get, but it’s commensurate with the quality, and the pricing they gave me for Sean’s book was actually very competitive, even cheaper than some of the other printers from whom I’ve come to expect lowest pricing. Their LEAD TIMES are within the average, about 17 business days.
I just used OPM for the first time. The STORY on that is Mike Young used them for Jason Bredle’s excellent Smiles of the Unstoppable and I thought that the book was beautifully made, and Mike said he got great pricing, so I included them on Chris Toll’s RFQ (er, Request For Quote). Indeed, their pricing came in lower than everyone else’s. Interestingly, while I had just received an excellent quote from M&G on Sean’s book, Chris’s quote was proportionally higher by a considerable amount. I didn’t chase the issue though, because I was eager to try OPM on the basis of Smiles. Unfortunately, the colors and paper choices I made for Chris’s book differed so much from Smiles that they can’t really be compared. Along the way I learned from Amy, my rep at OPM, that some colors reproduce better than others. This wasn’t a big problem for me and Chris, though, because the cover image — an intricate collage that Chris handmade — came out with amazing clarity and depth. That’s the main thing. And Chris preferred the white stock (whereas I usually default to cream) anyway, so I feel like it’s hard to judge the QUALITY. But OPM made an error on over half of the print run, cutting off the page numbers on the recto (which is the front of the page, or [kinda] the page on the right-hand), an issue that we are working to resolve. That will be a big factor in my assessment of their CUSTOMER SERVICE, so I’ll comment with the resolution this week, I hope. I found Amy to be easy to work with, and she provided a second proof without issue after I wasn’t thrilled with the quality of the first. It’s also hard to evaluate their LEAD TIME because there was a lot of back and forth before proof approval.
Another aside: proofs are good for proofing your own work, but you can’t use them as a guide for what the final book will look like in terms of construction. Both OPM and M&G don’t bind the covers on their proofs, and they don’t print the cover on the same stock that will be used on the final product.
A company that did bind the covers on the proof is Mira. The STORY with them is they are who I used for Mairéad Byrne’s The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven and Stephanie Barber’s book/DVD combo, these here separated. Oh, they also printed the first version of Easter Rabbit, by Joseph Young, and I thought they did a great job with his jacket. The painting on the cover has a lot of depth. Then I was disappointed with their production of Mairéad’s book, so when they gave me excellent pricing on Stephanie’s book — a project that required fitting a plastic sleeve into the book and including a DVD, which they handled duplication of as well as insertion — I gave them the job but I took my time all along the way to make sure we got everything right. And the project manager, Patrick, was exceptionally patient and responsive. We spoke on the phone several times, which is something I almost never do. I go to great lengths to not talk on the phone. But after several emails and conversations — and I even FedEx’d him a copy of Joe Hall’s Pigafetta book from Black Ocean as an example of a good book — and after several proofs, we made one of the best-looking books from PGP yet. After that experience, I couldn’t be more happy with their CUSTOMER SERVICE. But their PRICING hasn’t happened to be as good since, so I haven’t used them again. Their LEAD TIMES are fine, about the same 17-day standard.
Here’s a tip. According to my contract with the authors I publish, they can buy books at 50% of the cover price (though I rarely actually charge them that much). Another strategy I sometimes use is to offer the author the opportunity to purchase copies up front for even less, and help defray my initial cost. That said, it would be a complete misunderstanding to suggest that I want to make money off of the people I publish — I have no interest in running a business that way — but I also don’t want to set it up where the writer has to manage my inventory, and fax me sales reports after their readings, then pay me a percentage. I intentionally work with writers that understand the small press economy, and the way an author-publisher relationship works. I also think that the easiest way to sell a book is at a reading (this is anecdotally proven by sales of my own book at readings compared to PGP sales through every other channel), so if an author buys her book for $5 and sells it for $10, boom, good deal. I am pretty sure that writers I’ve published make more money off of their books than I do.
I’ve used a few other printers, too, like Green Button who were very nice, and who were by far the cheapest, but who can’t compare in terms of quality. So finally, after 16 books, I think I’ve learned that it is worth the money to get the best product. I’ve shopped around and learned that there is no luck involved. The process doesn’t end when you deliver the files to the printer, but some companies consistently return better results. It’s just a matter of having the money to spend, and that requires a business model that isn’t exactly PGP’s business model. But after going-on five years, I’ve learned that this is the model to move toward.