A PDF/Staples Experiment
On the one hand, the existence of electronic media allows for the creation of many things which would never otherwise be published. And, electronic media can offer advantages over regular printed media, such as the ability to print out individual pages from a book and mark them up (which is particularly notable when you have, say, an adventure module and you'd like to write on some of the maps and character records).
On the other hand, PDFs just don't have the utility of books. You have to read them on a computer, and reading on a computer just isn't as comfortable as sitting down in your favorite chair. Or, you have to print them out, often costing a comparable amount to buying a book, and resulting in looseleaf papers that end up everywhere.
Until real, ubiquitous POD comes along, or super-thin, almost throw-away computer tablets, or household printing and recycling facilities, these PDFs are going to be an awkward form with advantages and disadvantages hanging in balance.
I'm not even convinced that the super-computer tablet is the ultimate media extension, because sometimes you want to spread a few books out around you, and you just can't do that without printed books. So, until we have holograms or something, I think printed material continues to have a very useful form, even for folks who aren't us old farts.
Thus, in my view, what it takes to get over this awkward media hump is the existence of the very easy ability to turn PDFs into professional printed books (and thus be able to utilize the benefits of both mediums as appropriate).
So last week I saw that Staples was running ads for its Copy & Print Service. They advertised that you could load them up a PDF over the Internet, tell them how to put it together, and that they'd then print you a copy that you could pick up at a local store. So, I decided to give it a shot.
The subject of my experiment was The Bowman Arm, a Traveller PDF that I own a copy of which depicts part of The Spinward Marches, which is where our new Traveller campaign is set. I uploaded my PDF to print, then started going through their system.
It's pretty snazzy. You tell it options, then it shows you what the book will look like in a little widget. Unfortunately, it also turned out to not be ready for primetime.
My biggest problem was that I wanted a couple of internal pages color, which the program said it could do. However, when I choose a page to be printed in color, it then started randomly putting blank pages in the book without explaining why. (I think it was trying to keep color and black and white off the same page, but sometimes it was putting a space on the next page instead, which I suspect was a bug.)
I also choose a saddle-stitched binding, as I've got books with spiral and velo binds, and they all take up more space than I'd like and don't feel like a book. (I think the spiral binding looks particularly bad on my shelf.) That seemed all fine, but caused problems when Staples got the order, because they interpret choosing to saddle stitch an 8.5x11" book as meaning that you really want it 8.5x5.5". I also could never came up with a way to say that the back cover should be the same stock as the front cover (which was, of course, necessary with saddle-stitching).
Then when my order got to actual Staples employees, they needed to change pretty much the whole thing. They couldn't do individual color pages at all. They had to ask about how the book should really be saddle-stitched (and fortunately were able to do what I really wanted, which was to print a full-size book). Then the fact that the book wasn't an even signature caused them conniptions until I just told them to add some blank pages at the end. Mind you, none of this was a particularly big deal for me. I spent 5 or 6 minutes on two phone calls with a knowledgeable and helpful Staples employee. However, as far as I can tell, it took them two hours to get the book printed. That's not particularly cost effective for them.
The end result is that I got a saddle-stitched book with a full-color cover. The cost was $5, $1.98 for the full-color cover, $2.35 for the 28 interior pages, $.25 for saddle-stitching it, and some god-awful amount of sales tax (thanks, Gov!). The text is very crisp and the grays are very good (better than a lot of RPG books I get, to be honest, the pixelation is all but invisible).
First, even going for the relatively expensive cover, it's still clearly not a professional print. It was also tacky when I picked it up this morning (about 18 hours after it had been printed) and I smudged it a bit. I think it's probably better now though I expect it to still slowly smudge unless I put it in a protective folder, which defeats some of the point. But, there wasn't any option for coating or anything.
Second, the saddle-stitching leaves a bulge toward the spine, which is what I expected, as I have fanzines from the 1990s which were clearly printed at copy centers and do the same thing.
Was it worth the cost? I think so. I now have a book that I can actually read, not just reference. And, I can bring it with me to gaming when I need to.
I also have to say it was what I expected, perhaps better, but not what I'd hoped.
I'll be interested to see how PDF printing from the internet evolves. I think this is a pretty early stage that has a lot of room for upside.
If you have other thoughts for how to do this type of thing, I'd be happy to hear them, but I suspect Staples is out in front right now. It just needs to catch up with entirely-online companies like Lulu who are already doing this as a business. But, if they can, they offer a few great advantages: fast service and no shipping. Perhaps it'll even make Lulu moderate its ruinous shipping costs (which are largely what restrain me from shopping with them).