Dave Sim goes partially Print On Demand; industry to follow?

Three things in this post: An overview of my thoughts on digital printing/print-on-demand, a look at Dave Sim’s move to ComiXpress for some of his content (including at least one exclusive comic), and the idea of print-on-demand backlist for popular comics titles. Here we go…

A month or two back, reader Mike Kitchen wrote to get my thoughts on the following announcement by Print-on-demand outfit ComiXpress:


It is with great pride that I make this post. As a lifetime fan and reader of indie comics, Dave Sim’s Cerebus always had a special place for me. The depth of the story, the wry wit and social commentary, the brilliant art of the book … this was the reason I read comics. As an aspiring cartoonist, I admired Dave’s championing of Creator’s Rights and his groundbreaking work in Self-Publishing. This guy’s day didn’t end when he put down his pencil after knocking out a page; he effortlessly changed hats from creator to businessman, showing a generation of cartoonists how it could be done if you had the brains and the guts, and in many ways made the independent comic book explosion of the 80s possible.

That inspiration is a big part of what drove me to create a company in 2004 that changed the way indie comics were made. And I couldn’t be more excited that Dave Sim has brought his work to ComiXpress.

Starting today, with the premier of Cerebus Archive #4, you will always be able to order every back issue of Cerebus Archive, Dave’s black & white walk down memory lane (completely devoid of rose-colored-glasses). No back issues ever go out of stock at ComiXpress, and Comic Shop Retailers are a welcome addition to this new Direct Market with a book from one of the most respected names in comics who has proven time and again how seriously he treats deadlines and release dates.

So please, join me in welcoming Dave Sim, Aardvark-Vanaheim, and of course Cerebus himself to ComiXpress. And lets all look forward to a brighter future for indie comics together.

Logan DeAngelis

Reader Mike mentioned, correctly, that I’d been pretty critical of print on demand services like ComiXpress and Lulu in the past, as a vehicle for solicitation of commercial projects. I still hold that point of view, quite honestly, but my thinking on it has broadened a little.

First off, I’d like to note that for terminology’s sake, I use “print on demand”, “pod”, and “digital printing” pretty interchangeably. I’m generally referring to digital printing like high-end laserjets or inkjets, versus offset printing which generally involves physical contact between ‘plates’ (usually rubber) and the paper, and offset is a much higher quality of printing. There are terms like ‘digital offset’ out there, but so far as I can tell it’s still inkjet printers, albeit with slightly higher quality.

As a sweeping statement, I will say that the quality and price of offset (‘professional’) printing has not yet been matched (let alone beaten) by any digital print or print on demand services I’ve seen so far. A couple of recent projects that I’ve been made aware of have been the closest I’ve seen to offset printing from this sort of set-up, but held side-by-side with offset work the difference is very noticeable, with P.O.D. suffering considerably in comparison.  When it comes to POD the resolution in the printing isn’t as high, leading to pixelation, the blacks often have a sheen that comes from laser printer ink, the greyscales look patchy, dark, and amateurish,  and the plain-white-bond paper stock doesn’t feel as nice in the hand or seem like a “real” book. As an artist who probably worked really hard on a story, I don’t understand the impulse to sabotage that hard work just to get it “in print”, regardless of how it looks when it gets there… I understand that it’s vital for works of limited or niche appeal, for books where the message or story is more important than the repro quality, but in terms of art it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. So, yeah, strides have been made, but it isn’t there yet. I’m not convinced it ever will be.

Secondly, there’s the cost factor. I just finished working with a friend who moved their project from digital-printing to offset. POD offered them the ability to print books as needed, in small batches for smaller amounts of money. The-trade off was that their 64 page black and white book was costing them $5 a copy to print, and they’d printed over 300 copies that way. I priced out an offset print-run for them, and for the same book with better paper, a better cover, an actual spine (POD outfits hate printing on spines, it requires too much quality control), at 1000 copies the cost per book dropped to $1.50. At 2000 copies the cost per book dropped to $1.10. The difference is between $3 and $4 a book, but the money’s gotta be paid up front. But they’d already spent over $1200 printing 300 copies of their book! For $300 more they could’ve printed 3 times as many, AND made more on every book they sold. Selling a book for $10 that cost you $5 to make is ridiculous, but hey, it isn’t my money. But selling a book for $10 that cost you a buck  to print? I’d much rather be in that business.

Granted, not everyone has $2000 to spend. Not everyone is going to hand-sell their book. Not everyone wants to ship out copies of their work, which many online P.O.D. services will do (for an added fee). Not everyone wants to solicit through a distributor (like Diamond or whomever), which P.O.D. pricing either makes impossible or foolish. Some projects are deliberately short-run, copyright-skirting endeavours that need to stay under certain radars. Not everyone should print 2000 copies of their work. Or 1000. Hell, some projects shouldn’t be printed at all and advising someone to go-offset or go-home would just be mean. There are a bunch of other caveats there, but long-story-short, offset isn’t right for every project but if you intend to make a serious commitment to the continued commercial viability of your project, the choice, IMO, is clear. Sort of.

Back to the Cerebus Archive announcement.

A quick check of the ComiXpress website shows that they’ve subsequently added Dave Sim’s other recent offering Glamourpuss to their offerings. I actually found their original post/announcement incredibly confusing, as it strongly implies that ComiXpress will be printing/offering Sim’s work from now on. Their Glamourpuss announcement uses a very important phrase not present in the Archive announcement: back issues. ComiXpress is making back issues of Glamourpuss available, seemingly once they’ve gone out of print from their initial offset printing. A quick check at Diamond shows that Glamourpuss #1-7 are listed as out of print, but 8, 9, and 10 are still in stock. A quick check of ComiXpress shows that they’re offering #1-7 but not #8-10, so yeah, looks like once the first print is gone, it’ll be kept in print ‘forever’ in digital POD form… I’m pretty curious to see whether or not ComiXpress’s print job is up to the task of reprinting Glamourpuss, as, let’s face it, the book is an excuse for Dave Sim to draw fantastically detailed portraits of attractive women in varying ink styles, an incredibly art-focussed book.  I kinda want to order a copy just to do a side-by-side comparison and see how it holds up…!

Meanwhile, Cerebus Archive doesn’t match up quite the same (publication-wise), and with a very interesting difference. ComiXpress is distributing Cerebus Archive #4, a book that Diamond hasn’t distributed at all, and doesn’t seem to intend to… meaning Cerebus Archive #4 is exclusively available as a digital POD item, something that not-very-much fuss has been made about. It looks like that book has moved POD only, which strikes me as probably a smart move considering it’s a collection of ephemera and early, rougher early work by Sim. Issue #4’s contents describe it as reprinting a wedding invitation, so, you know. But it seems very likely indeed that Cerebus Archive #4 failed to meet Diamond’s order thresholds, wasn’t (offset) printed, and is digital-only. That’s a bit of a sea-change for a book from Sim. Cerebus Archive #4 has been available at Comixpress since early September, and no future issues have been added since, so I’d rightfully cast some doubt on the future of the project… Maybe someone who does this sort of thing regularly can ping the ComiXpress guys for info? Maybe they’ll show up in the comments, who knows.

But all of that aside, the important thing to take away from this is that POD is now being used for comics as a way to keep backlist available, without having to print thousands and thousands of comics at a time that may take years to sell through. That’s about the best use of POD I can think of, actually, following up a high-quality print run with digital copies for latecomers. Anyone particularly concerned with quality or ‘real book feel’ can track down one of the original prints, and anyone else can place a convenient order on a website… bypassing comics retailers entirely. Actually, that part doesn’t bother me either, because (at least in the case of Glamourpuss) we had our kick-at-the-can, ordered our copies, and sold them too. While a project from Dave Sim is something that we’d be likely to keep in stock indefinitely in whatever form it takes, that certainly isn’t true of every project and knowing that there are creators out there that can have that work available for the long haul? Not too shabby.

So… yeah. I’m still not sold on digital printing, and you’ve only gotta flip open a digitally printed book to a page with a toned/greyscale image on it to see why, but I’m glad the technology has started to be applied in really useful, important ways. Here’s hoping that the trend continues and someday we’ll be able to order individual reproduction issues of all KINDS of comics to fill out our collections.

– Christopher

25 Replies to “Dave Sim goes partially Print On Demand; industry to follow?”

  1. “Anyone particularly concerned with quality or ‘real book feel’ can track down one of the original prints”

    Only if they know there’s even a difference. Are the Glamourpuss back issues being labeled as first and second prints, depending on source?

    Great post! Lots of things to think about. I’d be curious to hear you talk about how this strategy works with/against the idea that the collection is the preferred long-term reprint method. Is POD just a temporary gap-filler until there are enough back issues to make a book?

  2. $1200?! Jesus, at like 7-800 it seems it’d make more sense to buy an cheapish color laser printer, yeah? It’s more of a compromise quality wise, but for a printer you can source cheap consumables for, the avg. ppp should be lower. Even after that you can still resell/keep using your nice new(ish) printer.

    Putting books together mini-comic style is a pain, but for the low print runs you’re talking, I’d hope the time stapling books would be trivial compared to the creation of the work itself.

  3. FWIW, I suspect that the technology for quality digital printing is “there,” though it isn’t being used consistently yet.

    I remember commercial printers that I worked with more than five years ago offering “digital offset” printing that came pretty close to their regular offset color printing; this wasn’t superpremium, Fortune 500 annual report level quality in either case, but still very reasonable. And while my design work in recent years has drifted away from the offset printing realm, I feel safe guessing that digital print quality has advanced further still.

    As for print-on-demand, I did buy my first POD book recently, from Lulu, and I was generally impressed by the quality. Admittedly it was black and white, and the scanned art was rough due to a 300 dpi resolution limit… but since the type was perfectly crisp and sharp, I assume that the printing process itself is capable of better art quality and that there’s some other factor involved, which hopefully they sort out in the relatively near future.

  4. Not all POD is created equally. I’ve used Amazon’s Createspace POD service and was very pleasantly surprised by the results. The book I had printed was full-color, vector artwork, printed on professional quality uncoated paper with coated paper for the cover. It was comparable in quality to a softcover children’s picture book printed offset. None of the waxy shininess that you’re describing (and that most people are familiar with when they think of POD).

    I don’t work for Amazon and don’t own any stock in the company. I just had a good experience with their POD and got a much, much better than expected product from their service. POD done right can be quite good.

  5. I think the writer must first consider the type of his audience before he decides on the kind of print. For example, if you’re target readers are teens, a vectorized and glossy print will likely catch their attention.

  6. From what I have seen of some POD’s is pretty good stuff. Firstly, there is not (ie probably not) anyone out there doing true small press comics that can afford to print offset. I went to school for graphic design and animation so I know about the difference in printing quality. It also has A LOT to do with the paper being used, as well as the machinery.
    POD is a perfect way for the little guy to even come close to competing with the big four. It’s not simply a matter or skirting copyrights or not making enough pre-orders for Diamond. There are those of us (myself especially) who never want to be in Diamond’s Previews. I don’t ever wish to contribute to their monopoly and abuse of the comic book art form. Some of us are also only interested in printing enough for our friends and family. We only need enough copies to submit to retailers, or to try and pitch ideas to movie studios. To go off set for a dozen copies is both ridiculous financially and environmentally.
    There is a lot more at stake than just money and what some people term as “quality.” Digital printing, when done by a knowledgeable printer is both effective and timely. Most off set printers run overnight when they run smaller jobs for self publishers, understanding quality control on an off set printer is really tough and a novice can easily be taken advantage of by the printer and printing company. Conversely quality control with a digital printer is a lot easier, as colors can easily be adjusted and levels can be changed without having to do a whole new run.
    The argument is not as simple or as black and white as a lot of people would have some believe. There’s a lot of politics involved as well.

  7. For me, the decision to avoid offset for my initial print run was due to lack of storage space. I’ve still got dozens of boxes of issues and books in my basement from my self-publishing adventures in the ’90s. Where would I put another 1000 copies? From my own experience with POD (from Lightning Source) I will agree that the quality of the printing was hit or miss, but the unit cost for my b/w book was actually quite reasonable compared to offset costs. In 1998, my 168 page b/w book cost me close to $5/unit to print offset (I did pay extra for a nice embossed foil title on the cover). In 2009, my 144 page b/w book cost around $3/unit to print POD.

    Having said that, though, I’ll be moving to offset for my next printing. I want that higher quality, and I’ll just have to find room in my basement somehow. But I’m still very glad I chose to do a small POD order for my first print run. After having seen how quickly I moved 250 copies, I feel much more confident that I can sell 1000 copies now. Also, this was our first experience sending digital files to a printer, and we inevitably made a few small mistakes. Now we have a chance to fix ’em! 🙂

  8. I’ve never looked down on POD, or thought less of artists and publishers who use them. But my opposition is quite like yours… the gap between quality and price is just too wide. However, we all know overcoming these hurdles is an inevitability. In fact, many quality-related issues that persist in current POD comics are actually man-made, not the result of hardware limitations; inexperienced printers that ask for hi-res bitmap pages to be down-sampled to 300 grayscale, or artists who don’t level their grayscale images properly to compensate for ink spread, for example. These problems occasionally manifest themselves in offset products as well.

    DriveThru Comics is preparing a POD service of its own, and what has really excited me about it, enough for me to take part in their trial (and it’s completely to satisfy my curiosity about output quality and optimizing images for POD; it has nothing to do with us ending our print magazine) is that they are partnering with Lightning Source for production, and LS actually seems to know how to handle hi-res graphics. Once I have a test print, expect a very close inspection…

    1. Fascinating comment Simon, but I don’t know if I agree with this: “But my opposition is quite like yours… the gap between quality and price is just too wide. However, we all know overcoming these hurdles is an inevitability.” I don’t think it’s an inevitability at all. I do think standards are relaxing a bit when it comes to what constitutes a ‘professional’ quality print job, and like I said, I’ve seen some surprisingly good POD out there, but inevitable? Not with so many competing technologies and a move away from print, in general…

  9. “For $300 more they could’ve printed 3 times as many, AND made more on every book they sold.”

    They only make more if they sell more copies. If they sell exactly as many of the offset book as they have of the POD book, then they would’ve made $300 less going this offset route (not counting any costs to ship and store those thousands of extra books.)

    This is not an insignificant difference in viewpoint. Many a new publisher (my self included, back in the day) sees the low marginal printing costs of offset printing, and sets a print run of their first publication way too high.

    Print On Demand is, at best, a poor way of making money. But it can be an excellent way of avoiding losing money… with that difference becoming more pronounced when we start talking about color printing.

    1. I agree with you, but part of good business sense is judging the audience–and potential audience–for a project. If you’ve bought 3 digital print runs totalling 900 copies in 2 months, you ought to have printed offset off the bat. Further, you should strongly consider going offset on your next run. It depends on, as I mentioned in the post, whether this is a commercial endeavour or more about ‘getting your work out there’ and not losing too much money doing it. If it’s the latter, I’d heartily recommend the internet instead of sinking any money into printing.

  10. The quality of the local POD service I used for a rush on the first issue of Hard Drive was pretty decent, but definitely expensive enough not to be worth repeating.

    The big POD vs. offset decision is really determined by scale of operations, as Chris said. Commitment to an indy project that is hand-distributed is a massive undertaking that usually doesn’t break even.

    Think about it: If Sim can’t (or won’t) reissue Cerebus through a major offset printer, odds are it has to do with lack of demand.

    So POD may not be superior quality, but for the small fish or for “vanity” projects, it may be the best bet.

  11. Great post and well worth looking into for any webcomics and small press creator. Agreed on the profitability. Our first book Bakuba was supposed to be POD but got got such a good response that we’ll be doing 1000 copies offset. It makes sense.
    However, let me give you a viewpoint from the other side of the Atlantic. The new digital printing machines they have here in Switzerland (mostly the newer Oces and the Indigos)are so awesome that one can simply not tell the difference. There is a magazine here called Publisher (I know it’s in German but well worth looking at:http://www.publisher.ch) that focuses on the innovations in the digital printing market. Each issue has a cover that has been produced digitally (despite its 9000 print run) to showcase what wild and crazy stunts digital printers are capable of these days. From seven color printing on foils and metallic surfaces to rippled textures. It’s pretty amazing. We’ll be doing some test copies of Bakuba with a digital printer next month and we were reassured that it will be indistinguishable from an offset run. I’m confident that they’ll pull it off, considering a major literary publisher uses them too and sells the books in stores.

  12. >I don’t think it’s an inevitability at all.

    Lightning Source works from 600-dpi bitmaps, and outputs grayscale at 106 lpi. On paper, that’s not far at all from web offset.

    In Japan, a lot of digitally produced manga is being toned and output at 600 dpi. This may seem way too low, but the screens used in programs like Comic Studio are optimized for that resolution; they don’t create moire patterns, and look great in print. (Ironically, since our books are not standard ISO size and we have to modify the pages, we upscale such files to 1200~2400 dpi with diffusion dither as not to affect quality.) If a comic were produced from the outset with consideration for POD specs, we wouldn’t see as much pixelation/moire problems, if any.

    But when we talk about POD, it isn’t really just the quality of the product, but the whole distribution process, isn’t it? Even here, scale matters, just as it does in offset. A lot of doujinshi in Japan are produced on digital presses, look comparable to offset, and they have an economy where low-run books can be reasonably priced. So the POD model isn’t impossible, we just have hurdles that are exclusive to our situation. They are numerous, but not insurmountable. I will agree with you that POD will likely never replace offset for publishers, but it’s viability as a publishing platform for individuals has been steadily improving. I don’t think POD is running out of time. Rather, it may be publishers and distributors.

    >Not with so many competing technologies and a move away from print, in general…

    I think it’s important to make a distinction between books as a medium, and printing as a technology. The fate of books is very much up in the air, but there will still be a need for printing for a long time to come, so the technology will continue to improve.

  13. A comparison of offset printing to POD is like a comparison of a nice deck chair on the Titanic versus a dry spot on a life raft, respectively. Furthermore, the Diamond playing field–the major reason to go to print on comics–is so closed, to the detriment of the art form, that all creators should embrace any model except that one. POD is the non-Diamond choice. The iReader by Apple–it almost exists, and is due to exist by March–will hopefully improve opportunities for all creators, establish or new. And let us hope that the profit sharing model seen in iPhone application programming is extended to their iReader. Then we will see 70% go the publisher instead of the distributor.

    It’s time for creators everywhere to celebrate. Very soon, we can see an end to the era that even Stan Lee cited as sorely lacking in newcomers to challenge the established giants, as he himself did with Kirby and Lee forty-five years earlier. The sooner that creators move to the ‘non-Diamond’ choice–POD or iReader–the sooner they can be unshackled from the oppressive chains of the Diamond Monopoly.

    Robert Gavila

  14. Great post, Chris. I wish print on demand looked better than it does, because it WOULD make life easier for self-publishers. But I think that if you’re going to bother to print something on paper, it needs to look as good as possible – not just good enough – and the quality of print on demand, while better than it used to be, just isn’t there yet. The blacks and the line work aren’t as crisp, and color is a) too expensive and b) just too bright and shiny. POD color books all to often remind me of those baxter paper comics from the early 80s, the colors just look wrong more often than not. Which is too bad, because as a self-publisher I do wind up printing more copies than I can use in the short term.

    POD does seem like a good option for keeping things in print. SHIRTLIFTER #1 has been out of print for about a year, and I’ve thought about doing the same thing that Dave Sim has with Glamorpuss. But when retailers and fans don’t have the first one as an option to purchase, they’re less likely to order #2 or #3. So print is still important in terms of maintaining a backlist, which is why I’m going to do a second printing of SHIRLIFTER #1 in the new year.

  15. This is Dave Sim – the man who has refused to print the Cerebus phonebooks on better paper for a long time now. I was re-reading my copies of High Society – which are at least 15 years old now and probably older, and they are crumbling – it’s cheap, cheap paper. Say what one will about where Sim has ended up, but I want a nice copy of the Cerebus story on nice paper – doesn’t have to be hardcover, but one that I can read for years.

  16. Here Here Dave!I plan on staying POD and web press-free until it’s really time. I have a small following and I also am lucky to have a printer who really knows what he is doing. Like I said before to a lot of the web press pro-ponnents; sitting on 800-1,000 copies of your book for years is really bad business. You gotta take in shipping, condition of the books, color bleed, fading, the crumble factor of the paper and then there’s the inventory taxes you have to pay. Assuming you pay them. But I am so small press, I am really under the radar, and I can’t afford to shell out a grand or more for guaranteed #’s for years to come. I take 15-30 copies of each issue to each con, and hope for the best. And I keep in print what I need to sell at local shops here in town. And I have never heard a complaint about the quality of the books. I’ve heard the art is improving, but nothing negative about the print job itself.
    And I intend to stay print on demand for the graphic novel release of Fuzzyface later this year when it debuts at Phoenix Cactus ComiCon.
    Dave you should show up. issue one of Youth in Asia (also a book I do) has a familiar face in it.

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