Zazzle is certainly not a newcomer to the print-on-demand universe; they’ve been around for several years, and they have an attractive selection of products for designers to customize. But it’s always been hard to take them seriously as a profitable partner, and that was for two reasons.
1. Their terms of service (whether through design or error) seemed to state that once you’d uploaded an image to their servers for use on products, that design would remain available there (non-exclusively) forever, even if you deleted both the products and the image. It was possible to contact them directly to have the design removed – eventually – but this was a ridiculous necessity.
2. They didn’t allow you to set the markup on items you sold through their site. If you wanted to sell there, you were limited to whatever profit Zazzle had decided you should make on the products.
These two points have always left Zazzle as a non-starter. Even if they were simply bumbling their way through the first point, the second one was a tremendous barrier to anyone who wanted to actually earn a living through the sale of their work. Zazzle’s markups were not attractive, and you were stuck with them.
But as of this week, these two issues have gone away. (In fact the “we’ll keep your images forever” problem seemed to have been cleared up earlier this year, though their web site had conflicting information about the change.) As of this week designers who sell at Zazzle are able to set their own markups on their merchandise. This is a very interesting development and it comes late in a year when their largest competitor (CafePress) has seemed to do everything in its power to alienate and infuriate the shopkeepers who design the products whose sales line CafePress’ cubicles with gold.
The Zazzle site is in the middle of a revision and it’s a bit wonky at the moment – for example, a lot of important content is popping up in small, non-scrolling windows – but it’s well worth checking out.
While the roost is still ruled by Cafepress, print-on-demand designers have lately benefited from quality-oriented competition at Printfection, a much smaller (apparel only) rival*. These changes at Zazzle mean that CafePress is about to have a big competitor that has almost everything CP offers – with a slightly smaller and different selection of products, but essentially the same.
The last big feature that CafePress has exclusively is their volume bonus, with which designers get an additional tiered bonus based on their amount of sales. The volume bonus is so important to some successful CP shopkeepers that it’s the only real thing holding them there, lately. If Zazzle were to adopt a similar volume bonus, we would see a completely level playing field between them. And that would be a very good thing.
Like any monopoly or near-monopoly CafePress treats its designer/shopkeepers as though they have nowhere else to go. That hasn’t been completely true for some time now, but at this point even they must see it. This can only be a good thing for those who use these services. It’s called competition, and it means that you have to do a good job and offer good service.
Or not, of course. But as of this week, “Or Not” has really big teeth.
*Printfection rocks, actually. But in this context, they’re a smaller player whose products are limited to shirts, coasters, and cutting boards.
If you read my earlier blog entry you’ll have seen how my Saga Shirts site transmogrified over time from a site where I sold silk screened shirts to a print-on-demand based site – once I found a company that could do very good quality digital printing directly onto black and dark colored shirts. They’re Printfection, and they rock.
And as soon as I’d wrapped up the new Saga Shirts site, I wanted to use them with another kind of design that’s near and dear to me – my “Future That Never Was” of Retropolis, a land of personal rocket ships and Faithful Robot Companions – the sort of future that once seemed inevitable to us because we were reading too many Buck Rogers comics and pulp magazines, reinforced by the fact that industrial designers were now streamlining everything – from locomotives and airplanes, where it makes sense, to clocks and refrigerators, where, just possibly, it doesn’t. I love that stuff. Especially when it doesn’t make sense.
The Espresso Book Machine prints complete paperback books at rates up to one every sixty seconds – complete interior pages in black and white with full color, perfect bound covers. You can even see it in action.
At a million dollars apiece I doubt that you or I will be setting one up in the basement. The machines are intended for use by libraries and retailers, who can offer inexpensive but commercial quality books to you, on demand. Because there are already large collections of public domain digital books – more all the time – it’s possible that in the future no book will ever need to be unavailable. “Out of print” may become a meaningless phrase.
Machines are already in place at the library of Alexandria in Egypt (nice touch!) and in Washington DC, at the World Bank InfoShop. Another has just been installed at the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library. More are headed to libraries in New Orleans, San Francisco, and other cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Libraries – like bookstores – have limited shelf space. And although it goes against my own idea of what a library should be, they commonly discard books that aren’t popular. A system like this one can ensure that books can be made available even if they’re not kept on the shelves.
On the commercial side, a bookstore could use these machines to produce public domain books on demand and even copyrighted books, under license, so that any book could potentially be available at any time. It’s a pretty exciting thing.
This reminds me of an idea I had about fifteen years ago – although that thought was about clothes, not books. If a retailer had a large selection of patterns available and a 3D scanner you could walk into a shop, have your body scanned, and pick the clothing style and material you wanted. Tailor-fit clothes could be then made for you at a nearby – or distant – workshop. No kind of clothing would ever have to be unavailable, and anything you bought would fit you perfectly. You could get a pair of custom fit khakis and a nineteenth century frock coat at the same place, at the same time. I’m still waiting for that one.
But when it comes to the books, anyway, I think this is a terrific development. The only snag I can foresee is that in the decades to come, any book that’s been published in electronic form with DRM may not be easily reproduced even after it falls into the public domain – because DRM, unlike copyright, is forever.
I’ve always loved books, and I do mean always; I learned to read at such an early age that I can’t remember doing it, or a time when I couldn’t read. That’s very different from the way I learned to talk, but trust me – that’s another story.
In fact when I was young I always believed that I was going to be a writer. It just didn’t work out that way.
I started using traditional Celtic knotwork designs in my drawings and paintings back in 1980. During the 80s I continued that and eventually began to invent new patterns of my own. Then at some point in the early 90’s, I stopped. I think it was because I was getting so typecast as “the Celtic Art Guy” that it was annoying, and I figured I ought to show my chops in some other kind of art. But also, I probably wanted to explore something a bit different just to suit myself.
I must have started thinking about Saga Shirts in early 2005, though it might have been a bit earlier. There were two things that combined to make it happen.
First, I’d been very happy with my print-on-demand web sites like “Celtic Art & Retro-Futuristic Design” and “The Retrovert“. But one problem with print-on-demand (at least then) was that there was no way to get good quality printing on black or dark colored shirts. I was asked for black shirts more often than anything else, I think. There just wasn’t any way to offer them that I felt good about selling, through a print on demand service; you still really needed to go with traditional silk screen printing.