Let me start off by saying that this is one person's experiences, I can't speak for anyone else.
When I made my book for 365 Portraits I did some research on a few companies and ended up printing the book with Blurb. If you happened to buy a copy, I think you can agree that the pictures look pretty good, and I can atest to the fact that they're a reasonable facimile of the files on my screen.
They were so good, in fact, that I went and published a book of my photographs from Japan which I shot on film with a Hasselblad and then painstakingly scanned and processed. That second book was printed on their 'premium' paper, which is thicker and heavier and looks to be able to hold the ink a bit better. The images in this book, if anything, looked better than the ones in the 365 book. Dead on when compared to my images on screen.
Now a quick aside on my setup. I currently edit on an NEC 3090 30" LCD which has been calibrated and profiled using the NEC Spectravision II software and an Eye-One Display 2 colorimeter. Tests show that I end up with a delta-E, that is 'how far away the colors are on the screen from what they should be', of less than 1. Which means that it's about as accurate as you can get. I'd also like to point out that prints from these files done one my HP 9180 printer with stock paper type profiles look great. I'd also like to point out that for 10 years before I was a photographer I was an art director and graphic designer, I'm no newbie.
Ok, now that that's out of the way... I was so happy with my Blurb experiences up until now, that I decided to have them print my portfolio. The problem is that the Blurb BookSmart software which they give you and which I used for the first 2 books has a lot of limitations as far as typography, cover layout, and such. The good news is that they offer templates for all the major layout software, so you can roll-your-own and upload it as a PDF.
So I spend a whole day a couple weeks ago, resizing images, and laying out my book in InDesign CS4 using the Blurb supplied templates. I then exported the PDF files (using the Blurb supplied PDF export settings template) and uploaded it to them where everything passed the pre-flight checks. Oh and the PDF when opened locally looks just like it should.
Fast forward to last Saturday when I received my book in the mail and opened it up. All of the shadow detail in the images was pushed to black. This was not a problem I had on either of the first two books. In fact, some of the images in my new portfolio are 365 pictures, so I can stick the two right next to each other. This was unacceptable, and certainly not anything I could show an art buyer at a big ad firm. So I sent an email to Blurb explaining most of the stuff I just said here, along with the picture below and asked 'what happened'?
This is a photograph of the image on my screen (upper left), a print from my local HP printer (upper right) and then below is the picture in the latest Blurb book. I've highlighted in red circles a good example area. Getting the brightness of the screen at the same exposure as the flash on the prints is a little tricky, but know that the top two are very close. On my file and print, you can see the suit leg, on theirs it's just black.
After a couple days, this is part of the email I got back:
"It looks like some of your images may not print well with our print process. Many print houses automatically adjust your images. However, BookSmart does not automatically brighten images and it is up to the author to lighten them when necessary.
Please note that dark areas in your images will print even darker on our printed page. The printed photos won't have light shining through them unlike the photos when seen on your monitor. You will need to adjust your photos accordingly. Fine shadow details are especially likely to be lost, and you may need to adjust the brightness/contrast of your images; if you have the option you can lighten/brighten your shadows and/or midtones as well."
Basically, I take this as, "Well Timmy, computers are REALLY complicated and you've got a lot to learn about making pictures". I hate it when incompetent people accuse me of being incompetent. Many of the same image files have been printed millions of times in national magazines without complaint.
In their defense, they gave me a $75 credit towards another book, but without answering why it came out so bad, I'm not sure what to print. I guess I'll go back to using their limiting software and see if THAT works. I guess the moral of the story is that you should be careful about making Blurb books from PDF files. As I said in the first sentence, your milage may vary.