(Way) Beyond iPhoto: Making Books with Blurb

Posted Monday, November 13, 2006

How would you like to be able to produce a beautiful hard-bound book on your Mac? Imagine being able to choose a design template, drag photos into position, add text, tweak formatting, then click a button and have your design transferred over the Internet and your book delivered to your doorstep a short time later.

With Blurb.com and its free BookSmart layout software, you can do exactly that.

"But Jim," you protest, "you of all people know that iPhoto has allowed you to do the same things since shortly after the turn of the century."

Indeed it has. But there are differences with Blurb. For starters, the company's BookSmart software (available for Windows and Mac OS X) has far more powerful text-handling features. Pour in lengthy passages of text, and BookSmart automatically flows it across multiple columns and multiple pages. Specify chapter titles, and BookSmart gives you headers at the top of each page. BookSmart will even generate a table of contents for you. A future version—the current release is still in beta form—will even generate an index for you. Oh, and a Blurb book can have up to 440 pages.

If iPhoto and Adobe InDesign met at a library and fell in love, BookSmart might be their offspring.

And Amazon.com might be their godparent. Blurb.com not only lets you design and order books, it lets you sell them, too. When you create a book using Blurb.com, you get an online storefront that lets you sell the book.

Intrigued yet? Listen up. Last Wednesday night on Point & Click Radio, the biweekly radio show that I cohost with my friend Bob Laughton, we interviewed a Blurbarian—that's Blurb lingo for "customer."

We talked to Nicholas Wilson, a photographer who is using BookSmart and Blurb.com to produce a book called Mendocino in the Seventies: People, Places and Events of California's Mendocino Coast.

We also talked to Eileen Gittins, CEO of Blurb.com, about her company's origins and future. The San Francisco-based startup has been making news lately, and it's easy to see why.

The interview portion of our show is available for your MP3 downloading pleasure. Grab it now (12MB MP3 file).

A Few More Words About BookSmart
If you've made a book in iPhoto, many aspects of Blurb.com's free BookSmart software will feel familiar to you. But you'll immediately notice some differences, starting with fewer book size options: currently, Blurb.com provides only an 8 by 10 inch (landscape or portrait orientation) size.

But on the plus side, Blurb.com's hardbound books include a laminated paper dust jacket, complete with flaps where you place photos and text. Each design template provides far more formatting options than iPhoto's templates. And while I've noticed numerous rough edges in now the beta version of BookSmart handles text, it's still easier to work with than it is in iPhoto.

There's one more serious limitation: you can't directly access your iPhoto library. To add photos to a book, you must first add them to BookSmart. A future version of BookSmart will provide direct iPhoto library access, according to Blurb.com.

From Blogs to Books
Blurb.com is tapping into the Web 2.0 scene in a couple of intriguing ways. Currently in testing are two features aimed at bloggers and Flickr addicts. With Blog Books, Blurb.com will turn a blog into a book: the company's Blog Slurper will extract text and photos from popular blogging services such as TypePad, and insert them directly into book templates.

A similar service is in development for Flickr: Blurb.com will extract high-resolution versions of your Flickr photos, and optionally include your captions as well as comments left by Flickr members. As a rabid Flickr addict, I can't wait to try this one.

How Do They Look?
And how do the printed books look? Blurb.com's printing contractors use the same Hewlett-Packard Indigo presses that are used to print Apple's iPhoto books, so generally, they look about the same.

I've seen only a couple of samples, however, so I'm not prepared to issue an authoritative opinion on print quality. See for yourself: for US$14.95, you can order How To Make a Book, a 39-page book produced by Blurb.com using BookSmart. It's a helpful guide and a great example of what you can do with BookSmart. And it includes a US$10 coupon that you can apply to your next book.

One to Watch
Listen to our radio interviews, download BookSmart, try it out, and poke around on Blurb.com's friendly and engaging Web site. Browse the book store to see what other Blurbarians have already created.

There's a lot to like here, and I look forward to seeing how the software and the company evolve in the months to come.