Self-Publishing Survival Tips: On-Demand Book Printing at Lulu.com

[ Illustration of Gears ] For on-demand printing of books, calendars, and other desktop-published items, lulu.com is a popular choice. The on-demand service provides customers with online administration interface that provides automated tools for uploading, publishing, and managing their projects. Once published, books may be printed, purchased, downloaded, and/or distributed. Of course, the entire process of using lulu.com to publish and print projects is fairly complex, with many details contingent on your specific needs. As a recent customer of lulu.com, I thought I would share a bit of DIY wisdom for anyone considering using their on-demand printing service.

Tip #1: Read the FAQs before planning your project

[ Magnified Text ] If you are planning on using lulu.com to print your next book, begin by reading through all of the relevant FAQs available at their site. Not all of them will apply to your specific project, but you should read through the entire process, even if you have yet to plan for the details. Depending on your project, you will find important information regarding just about every step of the self-publishing process. I suggest taking notes or bookmarking key pages as you read through the documents. This is important because there is a significant amount of topical redundancy throughout the lulu.com documentation, with conflicting information provided in different locations. With these discrepancies noted or bookmarked, you will be better equipped to extract information from the “Live Help” support staff.

Tip #2: Test the “Live Help” support before choosing lulu

[ Hear No Customer ] Unfortunately, the lulu.com “Live Help” support feature is nowhere near as useful as it sounds. Even more unfortunately, lulu.com does not provide any telephone support for their customers. All communication happens through email or the Live Help chat screen. And, as far as I can tell, email contact is reserved for automated messages and conflict resolution. This leaves Live Help as the only channel of communication for questions and concerns. Thus, I highly recommend taking the Live Help service for a “trial run” with a few “sample” questions not covered in the FAQs. As a rule of thumb, the more general and obvious the question, the more likely it is that the Live Help staff will be able to provide some sort of a response. But beware! On a couple of occasions, lulu.com support staff provided conflicting answers to my technical questions (tip: save a copy of every chat session). Unfortunately, for very specific or technical questions, there is a high probability that you will be left to resolve the issue or answer the question on your own.

Tip #3: Create a trial account before beginning your project

[ Computer Keyboard ] A great way of gaining insight into the lulu.com publication process is to go ahead and create an account. Creating an account is free and requires no obligation (only a name, email, etc.). The information and options provided via your lulu.com account interface will help you understand the steps involved in publishing your book. In fact, you can even walk through all of the steps involved in the publication process. Just follow the on-screen instructions and choose your options along the way. Stepping through with a trial run will create a “project” that may be deleted at any time. You may even want to prepare a “dummy” PDF to upload during the procedure. The information acquired during your trial run will serve you well. I highly recommend registering for an account and exploring the process from within the admin area. Of course, keep in mind that during the final steps of the publication process, you may be asked to purchase a copy of your project — this part is not free.

Tip #4: Understand book pricing and page numbering

[ Dollar Bill ] Once you’ve made it that far, and are still determined to have your project published and/or printed through lulu.com, there are a few more important things you should know. First, make sure you are aware of the full cost of printing your project. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. For example, when using the lulu.com “Book Cost Calculator,” keep in mind that the page count for your book is probably twice the number you are thinking. For lulu.com’s price-calculation purposes, a “page” is equivalent to one side of a book page. Each page in your book has two sides and is therefore counted as two pages when determining the cost of your book. This may be obvious to some, yet it was one of the questions that lulu.com’s Live Help staff failed to answer correctly. The first support person informed me that each book page (both sides of a sheet) counted as a single page for cost-calculation purposes. Surprised at my good fortune (this would have reduced my book cost by half), I decided to double-check the response with a different support person, who eventually informed me of the correct information.

Continuing with page numbering for a moment, if you are planning on creating your own wrap-around book cover, you will need to know the total number of pages in the book in order to account for the width of the spine. Unlike before, when it comes to calculating spine width (404 link removed 2014/04/18) (update: lulu.com is notorious for changing their site layout, so locating useful tools is almost impossible; currently the spine width calculator is not found) for your book, a “page” is equivalent to both sides of a single sheet of paper. This makes sense because the width of the spine is equal to the sum of individual page widths. For example, let’s say that your book consists of 100 sheets of paper, with each sheet printed on both sides. In this case you would use a value of “100” for the spine-width calculator and a value of “200” for the book-cost calculator. Getting this information straight helps immensely in preparing your book for print. Update: (May 17th, 2009) Lulu seems to have changed how the spine-width calculator works. It now operates according to the same principle as the book-price calculator: input the number of pages, not sheets. Thanks to Josh for this updated information.

Tip #5: Beware of imprecise and inaccurate printing

[ Worn Equipment ] At lulu.com, the formatting options for your book are considerable. There are a variety of different book sizes and binding styles (for example, perfect-bound paperbacks, saddle-stitched comic books, coil-bound hardcovers, and so on) as well as the option to print in black-&-white or full color. As seen in the FAQs, each different book type requires a specific formatting configuration. For the content of your book, there are several things to keep in mind. First of all, the recommended dimensions for margins, gutters, and cropping are unrealistic for highly specific page layouts.

lulu.com is great for simple print jobs with WIDE margins of error, but for high-precision, detail-oriented printing, they just don’t cut it.

My project, for example, implemented lulu’s margin specifications exactly as prescribed — triple-checked and verified accurate on every page. My uploaded content-PDF was utterly impeccable: measurements for cropping (full-bleeds), margins, and gutters all 100% according to lulu’s own specifications. Unfortunately, all of that meticulous planning was virtually pointless. In the first proof copy of my book, every page was shifted drastically up and to the left, rendering the accuracy of the margins completely useless. The top margin was missing entirely and thus the bottom margin was grossly over-sized.

How to proceed in this situation? I mean, you can’t really assume that subsequent copies of the book will be printed with the same offset, right? If it were that predictable, the shifting could be accounted for by re-adjusting the margins accordingly. Unfortunately, the problem involves the printing process itself and is not predictable by any means. In fact, with an unaltered layout, my second proof copy was even worse than the first. The shifting was so bad that page content was actually cut off at the top margin; the bottom margin was huge, and the book was cut incorrectly, leaving the side margins too narrow as well. In fact, the overall size of the book was about an 1/8th of an inch too narrow.

I could go on and on about how horrible that second proof copy turned out, but instead I will simply advise you to take lulu.com’s layout specifications with a grain of salt. Unless you want to play the futile “shifting pages” game, i would add plenty of extra space for all four sides of the page to account for unpredictable printing and cropping errors.

The bottom line here is that lulu.com’s on-demand book-printing service is probably adequate for your average paperback or scrapbook, but for serious, highly specific layouts and professional graphic productions, lulu.com is insufficient for consistent, quality printing. They simply do not provide enough control over the printing process, let alone the help and flexibility needed to resolve botched printing jobs.

Tip #6: Examine a proof copy after every modification

[ Train Wreck at Montparnasse ] If you are planning on making your book available to others, you will definitely want to order a “proof” copy to verify the printing quality, layout, colors, and so on. The process of obtaining a printed proof copy generally takes about two weeks or more, depending on your shipping method. In my experience placing a number of different orders, it usually takes around a week for lulu to print your book(s), and then around another week for UPS/FedEx to ship the package (depending on shipping method). During the process, lulu sends an email to confirm the order and then a second email to announce when the package has shipped. In my opinion, the shipping prices are way too high; however, lulu.com seems very consistent in packaging your books securely for shipping.

When your proof copy arrives, investigate every detail as thoroughly as possible. If anything is incorrect, report the problem to lulu, resolve the issue yourself, or perhaps do both. If the problem involves physical defects, you have no choice but to deal with the issue via lulu.com’s Live Help chat system. Unfortunately, resolving such issues can be a very frustrating experience. The Live Help support staff is frequently inefficient, unresponsive, and even inept 1 when it comes to resolving customer concerns. Hopefully, your proof will arrive in acceptable condition, enabling you to make any necessary modifications to content, layout, and so on.

After you have made the necessary changes to your book, create a fresh PDF and upload it to your account. You can either create a new revision to your existing project, or else simply create a new project and start over. Either method involves virtually the same number of steps, including specifying cover files, creating a description, and so on. One important difference between creating a revision and creating a new project is that the project’s URL will remain the same for revisions, but will change for new projects. Further, if they are actively involved in distributing the project, lulu.com charges a $50 fee for each revision. If the book is only for purchase through lulu.com (i.e., available to online customers only), you may make as many revisions as necessary without any fees whatsoever.

Summary

Before we close, let’s review our lulu.com survival tips, which may be summarized quite nicely:

  1. Read the FAQs before planning your project
  2. Test the “Live Help” support before choosing lulu.com
  3. Create a trial account before beginning your project
  4. Understand book pricing and page numbering
  5. Beware of imprecise and inaccurate printing
  6. Examine a proof copy after every modification

Do you have any other tips for those considering lulu.com? Share your experience with us!

Footnotes

  • 1 In my experience ;)