Graphic Creating a Real Book with Blurb's BooksmartBlurb.com

Blurb Booksmart
Manufacturer: Blurb

If you went to Macworld in January 2007 you may have noticed a particular booth with a lot of people around it. That's how I discovered the company named Blurb. In a nutshell, Blurb makes it possible for you to use your computer to make your own "bookstore-quality" books.

You start by creating a free account on Blurb's web site, which then allows you to download the BookSmart software (which is still in beta as of this writing.) Available for Mac or PC, the BookSmart software is a free, somewhat simple application that guides you through the process of creating your book. I jumped in right away to play with the features of the program, but if you are not comfortable doing that a "Getting Started" tour is available on Blurb's web site to help you.

The first thing you have to decide is the dimensions of your book. The sizes to choose from are 8x10 inches (either portrait or landscape), 7x7 inches and 13x11 inches. Correctly making this decision can be a critical step because the different book sizes do not all have the same built-in photo and text page layouts. So unless you plan to ignore the built-in page layouts entirely and exercise complete control over the appearance of every page of your book, the selection of book size dictates what page layouts you will use. For example, the book I wanted to create is mainly an index of family photos I had scanned in. With over 1300 photos I needed to put multiple photos on each page to limit the book length but did not want so many photos per page that they would be too small to appreciate. I selected the 8x10 inch portrait book size because I wanted to use the page layout that had 6 photos on a page with both a title and caption for each. No other book size had that same exact layout available. Once a book is started it is not possible to go back and change the dimensions, so it is important to investigate the different built-in page layouts that are available within each book size before you settle on one. If not, you may find yourself having to start your book over again to get the layouts you want.

Importing photos into BookSmart is fast and simple. BookSmart is aware of your iPhoto library, so if your photos are already organized there you'll have immediate access to them within the program. I didn't use iPhoto, but was able to simply point BookSmart to a folder containing my pictures and then had it import them into BookSmart's library. After inserting 217 blank photo pages (1300 photos, 6 per page,) I was able to tell BookSmart to auto-flow my pictures into these pages. This quickly inserted the 1300 photos, but I then had to spend many more hours making each photo have the correct cropping while also adding titles and captions. With so many photos this part of book creation was very rote and simply demanded many hours of tedium until it was complete.

If you don't like BookSmart's built-in page layouts it is possible instead to take total control over the appearance of your book. The method to do this is somewhat crude - you create the page in whatever application you like and then convert that page into a JPEG image. Then you can import that image into BookSmart and have it be the only thing appears on the page, effectively giving you complete control over the layout of that page. I did this for several pages of my book when I found I could not get exactly what I wanted using BookSmart's built-in text layouts. I created these pages in Microsoft Word, "printed" them as a PDF file, imported that into Photoshop (this turned the PDF file into an image) and then saved that as a JPEG image in the appropriate size for the each page. The process to do this was somewhat laborious, but it did result in those pages looking the way I wanted. I also used this method to create the front and back covers, although instead of MS Word I used Photoshop to create the content since the cover is primarily an image and not text. At this point all that was left to complete the book was to write an introduction and to proof read it all. Proofing your book is completely up to you. Although BookSmart guarantees the print quality of your book, the company will not pay to reprint it if the book is full of spelling errors. Fortunately you can print a proof version of your book to your own printer, making it easier to get people to help you perfect the content before you commit it to an actual book.

Before I took that final step to upload my book to Blurb I looked over their pricing table. The price of a book depends on the book size, whether it is soft or hard cover, and how many pages it contains. At this point my book had 235 pages in it. Since the price for a book my size was the same for 235 pages as it was for 240 pages, I added 5 additional pages to my book with extra "bonus" photos. Once finished I finally clicked on "Order Book" within BookSmart. I have to say I was a little worried about how BookSmart was going to handle my book, because with 1300+ photos the folder on my computer that stored my entire book was over 2 gigabytes! Fortunately BookSmart doesn't upload all of the piece parts of your book to their server but instead only sends the actual pages at the resolution necessary to print. My concerns over uploading ended up not being justified, because after walking away from BookSmart (thinking it might take days to upload) I discovered just two hours later that the upload was already complete. Later I determined it took about 1-1/2 hours to upload my book. This was over my Comcast broadband cable modem using a wireless MacBook Pro connected at 802.11g speed.

Once your book is uploaded, BookSmart automatically starts your browser and brings up the Blurb web site showing that your book is ready to be purchased. Initially your book is "private" and only available to be purchased by you, but you can change that to make your book public, meaning that other people will be able to visit Blurb's web site and discover and buy your book. Note that Blurb requires that you purchase at least one copy of your book before you make it public, recommending you use this copy as a final proof to ensure the book is really what you intended. When making your book public you can set the price, from a low of the base cost charged by Blurb up to whatever price you want. If you set the price higher than Blurb's cost then that is your profit. In my case I created my book purely for personal reasons and will not be making it public, but I can imagine this would be a great way for someone to get started with making a first book for profit.

I did encounter some annoying problems using the BookSmart program. Although Blurb says it is still in beta, without a non-beta version of the program to use it is impossible to ignore the bugs that it has. Most of my problems happened during text formatting. Setting the font type or size did not always apply only to the highlighted text. A similar problem also happened when setting the justification on a paragraph where centering a paragraph often affected paragraphs before or after that paragraph (sometimes affecting ALL paragraphs that followed in that section!) Using a two-column-per-page text format was almost my downfall when I kept encountering other text formatting problems. This is why I used Word to create certain pages; it was laborious to use Word and then import the resulting text into BookSmart as a JPEG photo, but it gave me results I could trust. Another NCMUG member who also happens to be working on a book using BookSmart told me she has to be careful when pasting text into her book because a contracted word will sometimes break across a line (for example the word "don't" might have "don'" on one line followed by the "t" on the next line.) Catching and correcting these problems can cause many hours of extra work and simply should not happen.

Another problem with BookSmart is that it is slow. When I tried running it on my G4 iMac I was reminded how glad I was to have my much faster MacBook Pro to run it on. I very much hope that when BookSmart is out of the "beta" phase Blurb will have managed to fix the bugs and perhaps improved the performance. I also hope they will add more user control over page layouts, like the ability to create your own layouts. This would provide much more flexibility without requiring the user to take over complete control in order to make unique layouts.

Once ordered, the book arrived much faster than Blurb promised it. Six days after I uploaded and ordered my book I had it in my hands (and this included a weekend.) Blurb states the book should take 5 to 6 business days to print. How long shipping takes depends on whether you choose UPS 2nd day or ground service. I opted for 2nd day delivery because the price difference was only a few dollars (okay, I also admit I am very impatient and just wanted my book as quickly as possible!)

Having the book in my hands was initially exhilarating. The quality of the photo reproduction was good, but I did notice a problem with the first and last pages of the book. Those pages were well connected to the outside cover but not so well connected to the rest of the book. I could clearly see the inside edge of those pages where they contacted the binding. I was also disappointed to find that a tracking number had been printed on the back cover, obliterating part of my back cover artwork and text. Before finalizing my book I had been very careful to read all of Blurb's precautions about how close you could place content to the edges of a page without risking the loss of it during the trimming process, but nothing warned of this tracking number. I decided to contact Blurb about the problems and found that they seem to be a victim of their own success. The only way to contact them is through their web page interface. There is no way to call them on the phone, nor is there a support email address to be found on their web site. Instead you must fill out a web form and then wait to get a response (via email) that they promise will arrive within two business days. I did this and they didn't get back to me for several days past that two business day promise. Once contact was established, and after a back-and-forth conversation that took a week (due to multi-day delays on Blurb's part to reply to my messages) Blurb finally offered to reprint my book with my modified back page (redesigned to make space for the ugly tracking number.)

The reprinted book was not very different from the first one. It had the improved back cover because I redesigned it to avoid the tracking number, but the first and last page still seemed to have the problem where those pages were better connected to the outside cover than the pages next to them, causing a somewhat unpleasant gap. Also one of the pictures was not printed as I had cropped it. Fortunately Blurb was quick to respond to me about the cropping issue and said they found and fixed a bug with picture cropping - they're reprinting my book again. This is the part of Blurb that is clearly still in beta, but they do seem to be trying to improve.

I should mention there are other ways to get your own book created with "bookstore-quality" results. Let's not forget that you can create books with Apple's own iPhoto or Aperture. The problem with those is that the layouts are limited and the books themselves are very limited compared to Blurb. The longest Apple book can only be 100 pages in length (50 double-sided pages). Blurb offers their books with up to 440 pages (220 double-sided pages). Services other than Blurb and Apple exist as well, but that's another review.

Even with the problems I experienced with Blurb my overall impression with them is still good. In the end I got a good quality book with my own content that was put together by me. The BookSmart software needs work, but the designers are going in the right direction, simplifying the book creation process while hiding some of the more nasty real-world issues of book production from the author. If Blurb can produce a bugfree BookSmart application, and also find a way to handle customer service in a reasonable way, they will be well worth your while to use.


Review by NCMUG member John Monteschio