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 they expose you to his minimalist design sensibility. The sample books Thorne shows usually have one image per page, surrounded by lots of white space. All kinds of variation are possible—you can make the images smaller or larger, use big margins or none at all, or throw several images on one page—but Thorne’s point is that less is more.

Another crucial step before you fire up BookSmart is to pick the images you want to include in your photo book, and decide on a sequence. Thorne recommends printing the photos and laying them out on a table. In my case, I went to Flickr, where I had already uploaded all of my Italy pictures, and moved about 100 of my favorites into a new set called “Italy Project.” The images fell into a natural chronology—Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, etc.—so I didn’t have to agonize much over the final order.

Once you start building a book in BookSmart, the first big decision is about the size and orientation of the book you want to order, from a small 5×8-inch pocket book all the way up to a large landscape-orientation book (13×11 inches; that’s the size I chose). You also decide at this point whether your books should have a dust cover, or whether you want images printed directly on the outside cover.

Facing pages from Wade's Italy book from Blurb

Facing pages from my Italy book

Then you choose a default layout as a starting point. Blurb offers many categories of layouts, from cookbooks to wedding books to poetry books; I started with the photo book format.

Next you “slurp” or import the images you’ll be using. The software can grab photos directly from iPhoto on your Mac or from a folder on your PC, or it can connect to Flickr, Photobucket, Picasa Web Albums, or SmugMug. In my case, I told BookSmart to slurp all the images in my Italy Project set.

Then it’s layout time. BookSmart starts you off by helping you choose a cover image, a back image, and a typeface for your title and author information. If you’ve ever played around with fonts in Microsoft Word, none of this will be too difficult. As Thorne explains in one of the videos, it’s important to choose a strong cover image that expresses the theme of the book. In my case I used a shot of my parents and me enjoying a drink in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. (A kindly fellow tourist snapped the shot. I hope my photo of his family turned out as nicely.)

Colloseum panorama spread

Colloseum panorama spread

To help arrange your photos on the inside pages, BookSmart provides dozens of pre-built templates, but if you can’t find one you like, you can always edit the existing ones and save them as custom templates. I kept things simple on most of my pages, dropping a single photo in the center of the page. But with other pages, I went a bit wild. In a few cases, I used up the entire page, letting the photo bleed right off the edge. For a panoramic image of the Colosseum in Rome, I chose a black background and made a spread, with the image continuing right across the gutter.

BookSmart even helps you with details like the title and copyright pages, chapter headings, page numbers, and photo captions. To see how the project is shaping up, you can switch to preview mode and flip through the whole book. When you’re happy with it, you click the “Order” button and the whole project gets uploaded to Blurb’s servers for printing and binding. Back at the Blurb website, you specify how many copies you want and enter your credit card and shipping details, and you’re done.

My book showed up in about nine days. I’m seriously impressed by the quality and workmanship of the final product. And the book looks exactly like BookSmart said it would, which is no small thing. I think my parents are going to like it. (You’re not still reading, are you, Mom?)

To bring the story full circle: it turns out Blurb isn’t just about physical books. As a cool bonus, you can order an e-book version that replicates your book in PDF form or in Apple’s iBooks format, viewable on iPads and iPhones. I did that for my Italy book, and you can download it to your iPad for free here.

In fact, Blurb has a whole online bookstore where you can sell both print and digital copies of your books. For print books, Blurb sets a base price and lets you set the markup, which is yours to keep; for e-books, Blurb keeps a flat 20 percent. The company can also help you submit your e-book to Apple’s iBookstore (but beware—Apple keeps 50 percent of each sale).

Cover image from Wade's Italy book from Blurb

Cover image

All in all, Blurb provides an interesting taste of publishing’s possible future. It’s one where small, custom jobs for specialized audiences reign; where design and production tools have been opened up to non-professionals; where there’s a lot more fluidity between print and digital formats; and where the whole thing is wrapped up in a friendly e-commerce infrastructure.

If you’ve got a digital camera, or even just a smartphone, chances are you have some pictures you haven’t yet shared with friends or family. Why not choose some of the best ones, arrange them into a story, and make someone a Blurb book? It’s something they’ll still appreciate years from now, long after they’ve used up the Chanel No. 5 or gotten bored with Call of Duty Black Ops II. And you’ll have more fun giving it.

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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.