It's been 20 days since I placed my order, and the premium, B3 color-managed version of At The Fill arrived today. A premium quality product it is not. On the right is the vanilla version. On the left, that magenta-stained cover, that's the expensive one.
The thicker paper in the premium version is a nice touch. There is no bleed through on double sided pages. It is shipped in bubble wrap in a larger box (so there's the 50% increase in shipping explained), so I don't get the dinged corners I sometimes get with Blurb books. The paper color is brighter and whiter, which pumps up some of the higher key images. But the color management introduces more problems than it solves.
This image is illustrative. In the vanilla output, the shadows have good blacks and pleasing contrast. In the B3 version, the shadows are muddy and weak, and overall the look is flat. It's simply worse. A good third of the images in the color managed version are worse than without it.
I don't think it's my fault. My monitors are calibrated and I know how to soft proof (and I also know that Photoshop soft-proofing has only a weak correlation to final output). In the general public Blurb edition, they're obviously putting in their own controls to “improve” the look. But they appear to work.
I understand that the covers don't go through the color managed workflow at Blurb, but it's alarming how different they look. The cover image, with it's subtle tonal shift, is badly banded in both versions—and it looks worse in the premium one. I have that same shot inside the book. That image is so ruined in this printing process that I will have to replace it.
PS. I dug deeper in the Blurb B3 tutorials and I might have an explanation on why it went so wrong. Blurb recommends in Soft Proof to leave "Simulate Paper Color" unchecked, which I did. But then it adds that you can use "Simulate" if your monitor brightness is reduced to a "print-friendly" 90-120 cd/m2. I keep mine at 100 cd/m2. Even with this setting, the screen images are contrastier, though they do start to approach the muddy look of the printed image.