Last year, I inherited the yearbook program at our high school. Like most schools, we worked with a traditional yearbook publisher. They helped us design the book, and in exchange we ordered a minimum number of books. We were stuck with either selling all of those books or sitting on a bunch of worthless stock that lost its value as soon as graduation was over.
If you can guarantee a lot of sales, then this is a sustainable business model. If you’re struggling to sell the entire minimum order, and you continue to struggle for years, it’s just not going to work. You can only fundraise so much to offset the cost of the books that you can’t sell.
So, I set out to find an alternative model… and I found just what I was looking for: print on demand.
A New Business Model: Print On Demand
Traditionally, a printer would only print books in bulk orders. It took time to set up machines, and it didn’t pay to do all that work to print one book. But with digital printers, a print-on-demand printer can do just that: print one book whenever it is ordered.
Now, the end of the year goes like this. I finish the layout for the book and submit it to the printer in early May. Within a week or two, I receive a proof copy. If necessary, I make any changes, otherwise the book is ready to sell.
If I’m so inclined, I can take pre-orders from students and make an initial bulk order. But I don’t have to. Each student that wants a yearbook can order one. The printer prints one book at a time and (if you want) ships it directly to the student!
This eliminates all the guess work out of ordering. If I have 500 seniors in the graduating class, how many of them will want a yearbook? What about staff and underclassmen? How many of them will change their mind and want a book only after they’ve seen one?
In the past, this has always been a tight-rope walk between ordering too many books (and losing money) and ordering too few books (and having unhappy students). With print on demand, you don’t have to worry about either. Every student that wants a book can order one – even if they don’t decide they want a book until the summer!
How Do I Set This Up?
There are a bunch of print on demand printers out there, but not all of them will live up to your needs. A lot of printers make photo-books, but these have a limited number of pages (~100) and can get very expensive as you get near the maximum number of pages.
I found two printers in particular that met my specifications: Lulu and Blurb. After printing the same book with each printer, I determined that Blurb had much better picture quality and paper quality for my tastes, so from here on out I’ll assume that you opt to go with Blurb.
One downside to working print on demand is that you’ll have to do a lot more of the work yourself. You won’t have a graphic designer from the yearbook company there to hold your hand and set up the layout – you and your students need to work it out for yourselves. You’ll need software to layout your book and your images, and you’ll need a bit of know-how.
I prefer to use Adobe InDesign. This is professional publishing software at its best, and it can do anything you’d ever want in laying out a book. It can also be somewhat expensive, so luckily for me we have a desktop publishing academy at school that already requires a bunch of licenses for the software. If you’re going the cheap route, you can take a look at Scribus – an open source alternative. It’s somewhat less user-friendly, but I tested it out and it is capable of getting the job done.
Blurb will give you specifications, based on the size book you want, your page size and your cover. Once you’re done with the layout, export it as a pdf file, upload it to the server, and you’re ready to order a proof copy.
How Much Does This Cost?
I was thrilled to find out that the books we made with Blurb were much cheaper than those we made with our old yearbook publisher. Depending on what kind of deal you’re getting with your current printer, your mileage may vary.
We were printing a small book (approximately 8.5 x 11) with about 136 pages and it cost us roughly $100 per book. Through Blurb, I set up a similar size (8 x 10), chose the premium paper (which is thicker and makes for better color images), and up to 160 pages costs just over $60. That leaves us as the yearbook club some room to mark the book up as a fund raiser while still giving our students a great value.
If you’re willing to fork over some extra cash, you can go with larger books. Blurb offers a 13″ x 11″ book that tops out around $110 and a 12″ x 12″ book that tops out around $120. I imagine these would be nice, and they’d afford you a lot more real estate in laying out your book, but those are more expensive than I want our books to be.
Bottom Line – The Quality?
Assuming you like the idea of print-on-demand, you’re probably thinking, “What’s the catch? What’s the quality like?”
I was a bit worried at first, but I was really happy with the book that Blurb printed. So, too, were all the students, parents, and teachers that saw our initial print-on-demand book. The only problems I noticed were with pictures that were too dark – with black and underexposed backgrounds. The black looked washed out, and not as dark as it should have been.
So, expose your pictures properly, make sure to work them through some post processing in Photoshop, Lightroom, or GIMP, and you’ll be in good shape. The book is a good quality, and it will hold up well. The picture quality is great. You’re not getting a wedding album, but then again you’re not paying for one. The full color books from Blurb are on par with a lot of the yearbooks I’ve looked at recently.