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Going to the Printer: An Experience Essay by Ben Thompson

Hi, my name's Ben Thompson. I make the webcomic Townies and I recently printed my first collection, Townies - Book One. Much like when I began my webcomic, I knew some things before I actually got started, but I learned a lot in the process. I hope to share my story of seeing a book to print as well as make this a bit of a how-to for anyone considering making their own books. It's very gratifying seeing your work in dead tree format, but remember it takes a lot of work and dedication. Before I go into specifics, I should explain the different types of book printing out there right now.

Publishers, Vanity Presses, Print on Demand, and Do-It-Yourself (DIY)

When I started my webcomic in October of 2002, I almost jokingly told myself I'd collect each year in to a book. I say "jokingly" for two reasons - one being my own inability to stick to a project for any extended period, and the other being the way books were produced at the time. Most of us are probably familiar with the accepted standard of print publishing. This is where a publishing house agrees to print, promote, and distribute your work for a cut of the profits and exclusive rights to your material. The problem with this method is the difficulty in getting accepted by a publisher. Huge publishing firms make thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of books. Nobody wants to bother with that many books unless they're certain they can sell them.

The next step down from that is known as vanity printing. There are a number of companies offering these services, such as iUniverse and All-Ages Comic Book Printing. Vanity printing isn't the same as publishing because most vanity publishers merely print your work instead of promoting it and they usually charge a fee instead of taking a percentage of your sales. A number of these sites offer editing, cover creation, and full-blown press release kits for a price. The problem I ran in to with this method is the volume required for orders. Most will have a minimum order number of 500-1,000 copies, though some smaller printers might go as low as 50-100 per run. If you're on a slim budget or only making promotional materials, there's no reason to spend that much money just to warehouse copies of your book until you can sell them. Some printers feel it's only profitable to print books in large numbers otherwise the proceeds don't cover the cost. Luckily, technology is becoming available that drives the price of printing small numbers of books down.

Print on demand is the method of printing I have the most experience with. Printing books on an as-needed basis, print on demand (or POD, as some call it) offers a lot to people not expecting to sell many copies. As I was working on my book, POD services were becoming more commonplace on the Internet. The first company to announce their adoption of POD that really got me thinking seriously about printing was Cafepress. Though I never printed through them, their site offered users the ability to upload graphics and, at a price per printing, to put them on products. Other sites caught on to this idea. I eventually went with Lulu.com as my printer of choice.

POD is my preferred printing method because it sells the convenience of a professional printing on an affordable per-book system. However, some people prefer to go the Do-It-Yourself, or DIY, route. This can be as simple as folding and stapling several pages of original art together or can involve going to a local copy center, such as Kinko's, printing off numerous copies of the art, and stapling them together. Some copy centers offer binding options, but – if you have the time – these are largely more expensive than just assembling it yourself. Some people even go so far as to bind their own books. Sometimes this form of production is done for aesthetic reasons, sometimes it's economical. The indie punk music zine community has really championed this form over the decades for both of those reasons and, as punk moves more in to the mainstream of society, it's becoming more accepted.

Printing Your Book - A Cautionary Tale

The best advice I can give to anybody considering printing their own book is to seriously plan for it from the beginning. Not knowing much about digital art when I began, I didn't always think about resolution or formatting. Webcomics are a versatile medium because we can do things that regular print comics can't. But by the same token, all those little bells and whistles we enjoy online don't translate well to paper.

Your top concern when creating work that will eventually be printed is that everything stay legible and at a good resolution. Make sure your fonts can still be read after resizing. Web graphics are usually saved at a resolution of 72 dpi because that's all the resolution a monitor usually needs to display the image clearly. If you try printing a document that size it's going to be much smaller than it appears on screen. Stretching it out only increases the size of the limited number of pixels already in the document, blowing up blocks of color and producing artifacts from the compression. (Think of it as a mosaic. If you had a picture made of 20 square tiles and wanted an image of 1,000 tiles, the computer would merely enlarge the size of the tiles in the original image.) Most people professionally accepting files to print require a resolution of at least 300 dpi for a decent image. Some shops may even require 600 dpi depending on the quality. Remember, it's better to have big files and shrink them later than it is to have small files and worry about a way to enlarge them.

You also should be aware of printer-safe colors. Monitors normally display graphics in RGB colors. These tend to be very saturated, very strong colors. Most printers use CMYK colors (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black AKA four-color printing), which are usually duller. The main reason for this is price. To get a broad mix of colors requires lots of different inks. It's a good idea to convert your files to CMYK before you send them to the printer so you're aware of how they'll look when they print out. Some colors can change drastically if you're not careful. To creators who have been making webcomics for a long time, much of this may seem like second nature. But if you're new to the whole experience, it's easy to make a mistake and curse yourself later.

If you have files of images you want to include in your work but don't have the originals anymore, (say you sold them or they were destroyed and you can't recreate them) there is some hope. You're best off working with images at the proper size and resolution to start with, but if you must work from poorer quality files, I do have some advice. Black and white images will usually survive resizing better than color ones will. Of color images, flat areas of color resample cleaner than blurs and gradients will. The level of compression will affect the result just as much as the method you use to resize the image. You can use any text and image editor depending on the file types your printer accepts. I recommend the .pdf format from Adobe, though some printers actually want hardcopy of your work before they print it.

If you're formatting in Microsoft Word, I suggest only using the resizing option to reduce images. Using it to enlarge causes a pixelization that you won't get in other programs. The monitor is your friend when making files, but remember it can only be trusted so far and that you should always check a proof from the printer before you decide to put your book on the market. A resized picture may look fine on screen, but remember that monitors need much less resolution than a printer to make a quality image. Colors can look perfectly normal on your monitor, but once printed out, they can change drastically. It’s not unusual for a heavily saturated color to shift to a more printer-friendly one. An intense red could turn to a brown or even a purple, for example. Artifacts and distortions from compression that you never saw when putting your book together suddenly become very apparent once you see it printed. This is why compression formats, such as .jpg, as considered “lossy” while others, such as .tiff, are considered “non-lossy.” You lose some quality in your image in exchange for file size. Also remember that monitors can darken with age and show untrue colors. It’s recommended you check your files on other screens for consistency before you even send them to the printer.

How-To with Lulu

When I started compiling my collection, I wanted to make it the best I could from the get-go. I wanted to make a perfect bound, full color collection of my first year, largely to see if I could do it. At the time, Cafepress only offered saddle stitched books with color covers and black and white interiors. This is closer to the format of comic books and magazines than it is a standard printed book. Lulu.com offered both perfect bound and color interior printing. They also started using another printer that reduced the price per page of their color works. Mind you, color is still an expensive option and that's something everyone should consider when formatting. A thick black and white book will cost you a fraction of the price of even a medium-sized color book. For legibility reasons, I decided to keep my first collection at 8.5"x11", something I doubt I'm going to be doing with later works. Artwork usually looks better when you shrink it down. Minor flaws disappear in the resizing and the image tightens up. Look at any reproduction of a painting in a book and then go see it in a museum. The differences can be amazing. You also have to consider margins and proper spacing. If your strips are in an irregular format, getting them to evenly space out over the pages becomes a problem. Finally, people don’t generally like big books, they appear daunting. They stick out of bookshelves when placed with smaller collections and aren’t as travel-ready. This is one reason the tiny manga format has become so popular. But don’t let all these things scare you away from compiling your work. Formatting a book to print is relatively easy once you have all your files ready.

If you decide to use Lulu.com, here's a quick rundown of what to do when you have your print-quality strips ready:

1. If you're using Microsoft Word, download a template for the Word file and the two cover files. (If you use the Photoshop file template, be sure to turn off the white border when exporting. That's one of the things I missed on my first proof.)

2. Once you insert all your images and text in the proper places, convert the Word file in to a .pdf so it can be opened on machines that don't have your images on them. This can be done with Adobe Acrobat or other converters. Most free converters look like a printer on your machine, only they allow you to save a file when you select them.

3. Remember to embed your fonts so they show up on other machines. (This can be done by going to the "advanced" section of your Printer Properties under TrueType Font: Download as Softfont)

4. Then it's only a matter of uploading your files to your printer. Most should have a formatting wizard, allowing you to setup price and layout other variables before ordering your first proof copy.

5. It's amazing how, after spending a lot of time formatting and working with files, you'll still find things to change and correct when you get the actual book in front of you, so it's always best to check the proofs before you put your work up for sale to the public.

Shortly before my comic reaches its third year online I have the first year’s book collection done. As I work on this article, I’m finishing up material for the second. The things I learned while compiling my first book are going to serve me well when putting together the next one. It’s going to come much more easily than the first one did. Everything is going to be sleeker, sexier, and closer to how I see it in my head. But this first volume is the stepping stone to these greater things. Like many of the webcomic creators out there who are just now discovering how to see their material in print, I’m proud of the work I’ve done and the potential of the time I live in. A mere five years ago this would have been little more than a pipe dream. I consider my first book a learning experience. Like the archives it contains, it shows my development and how I found my voice.

Ben Thompson is a 22 year old webcartoonist from Ohio who graduated college in May with a degree in commercial art. You can keep up to date on all of his projects at Towniescomics.com.

Re: Going to the Printer: An Experience Essay by Ben Thompson

Townie's picture

You should be starting at 300 dpi, then reduce them to 72 for the web. The point of starting with a large file is that it will always have the resolution needed for a good quality print and you can always have it to shrink down for the web or to crop from. You should always try to work from 300 down instead of 72 up. Images at low resolution don't usually look right after resizing and you stand to lose quality when you try to print them.

If you can, I strongly suggest finding a way to get them in to your machine at 300 dpi to start with. If you can't do that, you might try using a vector program like Illustrator to enlarge them. Again, you stand to lose image quality when you resize them, so keep that in mind. Ideally, what you should be doing is saving a master file at 300 dpi. Then you reduce it for the web. If you use Lulu, you can use their MS Word template and use the "insert picture from file" option to drop your 300 dpi file into it. Once you do that for all your comics and save a master Word file, you use a converter to export a .pdf file. Since your files aren't at 300, you need to decide if it's worth it to try to enlarge them or to rescan them entirely. Just remember, regardless of how nice those files look on your monitor right now at 72, they will show some effects of resizing when you go to print them. If you try to enlarge them, you can try using something like Illustrator or Flash to export a 300 dpi image file for each strip, as that will probably give you the least distortion after resizing.

- Ben

Re: Going to the Printer: An Experience Essay by Ben Thompson

Gianna's picture

Bless you, you wrote this article just as I'm trying to understand the ins and outs of POD printing F.A.Q.s! It's been really helpful

There'one thing that I don't understand. Lulu.com say that they want the image files to be in 300dpi quality, and you say the same here. Now, how does it work?

My comic strips, for example, are usually around 600 pixels per side in their final jpg format, and a bit more than double that size in their original photoshop format, say 1400 pixels per size. Both formats are saved at 72dpi.

What I don't understand is, when do I convert the file to 300dpi, and once I've done that how do I fit it in the pdf page, I'd have to resize it - and since I resize it where's the point in having 300dpi in the first place? AAAHH my brain! I know that I'm probably asking something that is obvious to everyone except me, but I can't get my head round it!

So, can you please explain to me this (I checked the lulu forums and f.a.q. by the way and I'm still in the dark): how do you get from a 1400x1400 photoshop image at 72dpi, to the 300dpi requested by Lulu, then to the pdf page that is 8.5''x11'? What are the steps? Sorry for the dumb question, but I'm really lost with this stuff!

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Gianna Masetti
thenoobcomic.com

Re: Going to the Printer: An Experience Essay by Ben Thompson

Gianna's picture

Thanks a lot, Townie!
Unfortunately I don't work on paper but directly in Photoshop, I'll see what I can do with my images. I wish I had known this before!

Gianna
http://www.thenoobcomic.com

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Gianna Masetti
thenoobcomic.com