Photo Books from Blurb: A High-Tech Gift Idea with Low-Tech Charm

Xconomy National — 

SPOILER ALERT: If your name is Paul or Patricia Roush and you live in Central Lake, MI, stop reading now or you’ll ruin one of the surprises under the Christmas tree this year. Really. You’ve been warned!

Every year I put “Amazon gift certificate” on my holiday and birthday wish lists so that I can buy more Kindle e-books. Alas, no one in my family ever comes through. And I can sort of understand why. A virtual voucher for a virtual book can feel like a bland and insubstantial gift.

Which is why I’m going to switch gears this week and talk about physical books. You know, the kind that come with dust covers and everything. In commercial publishing, the days of print hardcovers and softcovers are numbered—I’m betting novels, nonfiction, cookbooks, manuals, travel books, comics, and the like will go mostly digital by 2020. But paper is still the best medium for some types of content, especially photos, which means there will always be a demand for limited-edition art books. And today I want to tell you how you can make one of those books yourself, using some cool desktop software from a San Francisco company called Blurb.

For a surprisingly low sum, Blurb will take your digital photos and help you assemble them into a bookstore-quality photo book that will make a great present for someone you love. I just did it for about $100 for a 98-page book. And I didn’t even have to fight the madding crowd at the mall.

Photos of Wade's Italy book from Blurb

My Italy photo book from Blurb

I first looked into Blurb this fall after getting back from a two-week vacation with my parents in Italy. It was their first trip to Italy, and my first since the early 1990s. As is my wont, I came home with more than a thousand digital photos.

The problem was, I doubted whether anyone would ever bother to look at the pictures. We’re a fairly high-tech family, with Macs, PCs, and iPads all around. But the truth is that no one wants to click through hundreds of images on iPhoto or Picasa or Flickr, let alone order prints of that many pictures.

I figured that if I picked my best Italy pictures and made them into a photo book for my parents, they’d have an easy way to look back at favorite moments from the trip, as well as something nice to put on the coffee table for visitors. And I knew that Blurb was building a reputation as a creator of user-friendly book design tools. So I downloaded their free desktop program, BookSmart, and started thinking about what I wanted the book to look like.

That was a couple of weeks ago. The finished book, which arrived via UPS this week, is pretty stunning, if I do say so myself. The design part of the project took me just a day, and it was a ton of fun. So I highly recommend Blurb to anyone who has photos to share, a willingness to learn a little about page layout and typography, and a desire to give a unique gift.

Before you start playing around with BookSmart, it helps to watch a few of Blurb’s tutorial videos. My favorites were the recordings of two webinars by pro photographer and designer Mat Thorne: “How to Sequence and Design Your Next Book Like a Pro,” and “How To Lay Out and Design Your Book Like a Pro.” The danger with any free-form design tool is that untrained users will go crazy with it, producing cluttered and amateurish layouts. The main purpose of Thorne’s webinars is to demonstrate the main tools in BookSmart for laying out pages and adding text, but they’re even more useful because … Next Page »

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6 responses to “Photo Books from Blurb: A High-Tech Gift Idea with Low-Tech Charm”

  1. Kevin Hogan says:

    Great review Wade. One Mac-centric question: Is there any reason to use this program as a Mac user? I have had success using iPhoto to do basically the same thing at around the same price. Are there additional benefits?

    • Wade Roush says:

      Hey Kevin, thanks for the comment. I’ve never finished a whole book project using iPhoto. But from a quick comparison, I’d say Blurb’s BookSmart offers more templates and more flexibility, including the ability to make custom templates. Also, Blurb has an e-commerce layer where you can sell a book or an e-book through their online bookstore or iBooks. With iPhoto, Apple seems to be aiming squarely at average consumers, whereas Blurb is more for prosumers or creators — but is still simple enough for beginners to use.

  2. Thanks for the fun read, Wade. Now I really want to try this!

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    Is there a world outside of Central lake, MI?

  4. Jamie Roush says:

    Very nice. I’ll keep my mouth shut about what’s waiting under our tree for Mom and Dad if you give me one of those Amazon gift certificates.