Print on demand technology is very important to small press publishing, and will only continue to be as time goes on. This is true whether it is through a service like Lulu that processes orders, or whether a small print run is ordered directly from Lightning Source or some other similar service.
There is a growing perception that Lulu in particular is a bad service or that it provides shoddy products. The fact is that after hundreds of copies of Labyrinth Lord, I've only seen reports of two copies printed poorly. That's an error rate of well under 1% folks. When RPGnow goes live with their POD service, they will likely use the same printers as Lulu. The quality of the printing is pretty damn good, and this should not be confused with the sometimes maddening customer service with Lulu, who is actually just a middle man for the printers in the first place.
There are more and more people self publishing these days, and sometimes they make mistakes in creating their files for Lulu. This is largely from inexperience, but it's also sometimes because people get into a rush to have the product out there, for a number of reasons. When such a product has a shoddy appearance, some of these people blame Lulu, saying things like the printing doesn't turn out the proper color, is too dark, etc. Some people blame the website interface.
Attention Publishers: When you shrug the responsibility off on the printer, blaming them for things you could have prevented, you are unfairly blaming the source, and therefore creating the idea that POD is crap. When you do this, you are shooting yourself in the foot, because POD technology is becoming the lifeblood of this kind of small press publishing. Do not convince customers that POD is bad, especially because it's not, but also because when you do so you are destroying a market.
The bottom line is that a service like Lulu that is self service puts the entire burden on you, the publisher, to learn the interface and learn what needs to be done to set up your cover properly or your body text file properly. There is no one to inspect quality, which means you, the publisher, need to inspect quality.
That means you need to order a proof copy before you release it to the public.
Inconvenient, yes, but if you want to be responsible, it has to be done.
If properly done, you can get high quality products from POD. There is nothing odd about the way it works, nothing inherent that will produce dark covers, or off colors, or move your text around; none of these things will happen if you do the job right and understand how things work.
I want to provide a couple of useful tips, some of which I've learned the hard way. I get such a low error rate with Labyrinth Lord because I bit the bullet and ordered proof copies. I also took the time to learn how to properly construct print-ready files.
1) Read the directions very carefully regarding the dimensions of your cover. If doing a one piece cover, be sure you calculate spine width correctly.
2) When setting up your trim edges, be sure to extend whatever color is on the cover all the way through the trim edges. Why? Because there will be slight variation in where they cut the cover, and if you don't have color on the whole thing you may end up with a white line on one or more edges. This is true for case wrap hard covers as well. They may or may nor fold the cover over the board in exactly the place where you think they will.
3) Work with high resolution, high quality images. You need to have images that are at least 300 dpi. Scaling them up to 300 dpi will not work, it will only result in fuzzy images, unless you are working with vector art.
4) Use the gamut warning on whatever software you are using to design your covers. The Lulu FAQ says (or at least it did last time I checked) that your cover should be designed with RGB colors. This is not true. They tell people that because it is easier for most people to do RGB. The truth is that the printer prints with CMYK even if they can read RGB. Not all RGB colors translate into CMYK, meaning that when it is converted the color will shift. It could end up darker, or it could end up an "off" shade of color from what you intended. Always construct your cover in CMYK, or at least work with colors that are within the CMYK gamut.
4) Understand that computer screen resolution and brightness does not necessarily reflect what your cover will actually look like when printed. This is true no matter what print method you use. If your screen is set too light or too dark, that affects your perceptions. How many colors is your monitor set to display? It doesn't display only in CMYK, either.
The biggest tip here is to be sure you have created a print ready PDF with high quality software. If you use Adobe products you are in very good shape. Take the time to learn how to use it. If you use other software then I'm afraid it is hit or miss, and you'll have to do some investigating to find high quality freeware PDF creators. They are out there. However, PDFs created with other software may have problems with some printers, and not necessarily consistently. Remember that some PDF software is designed for onscreen viewing of documents, not for creating high resolution print ready documents for publishing.
The bottom line is that POD technology is an incredible resource for small press publishing. Even when you order a short run for distribution, it is POD technology, and then you better get it right or your whole run is wasted. Many of us small press publishers will have some titles in distribution, and some lower volume titles only available through POD. These are our tools, our life blood. Do not create the impression that POD printing sucks just to cover mistakes. Do not give POD technology a bad name when it doesn't deserve it.
This also turns to a trust issue. Customers get tired of buying a book only to have the next "fixed" version up two days later (or even two minutes later). This is such a big problem with some publishers that I confess I won't touch anything some of them put up for POD, knowing it is going to be shoddy or the product will go through revision after revision as a result of rushing it or not constructing the files correctly. It's one thing to update a PDF only product, because that is a simple matter of downloading the update, but when you're customers waste the money on a physical product this hurts them and it hurts the image of the delivery mechanism. We all have to do a good job of making sure that when a POD title becomes available, we have taken all steps necessary to ensure a quality product. Mistakes do occur, but typos are an entirely different subject than having gross printing errors on the cover. There should never be those kind of errors in a finished product.
Respect the tools, and use them correctly to do the job right and we can continue to build the POD market. Use the the tools haphazardly and you destroy a method of distribution that is extremely important.