Here are some notes on the BookSmart software (version 2.0.2 in Aug 2009) used by Blurb, a do-it-yourself book publishing company. This posting can be seen as a lightweight review and contains a few tips and pointers. Note: on October 1st 2009, BookSmart 2.5 was released.
The software is reasonably stable, but it is aptly called a “beta” version.
Unlike Google betas, you may and probably will experience an occasional crash – especially if your book contains significant amounts of text. This not too problematic as you will not normally lose any work: the software automatically saves all modifications frequently. After the crash, you are asked to provide an optional E-mail address and one-liner about what you were doing. I have not gotten any reaction from Blurb whenever I did fill this in.
Most stability problems appear to be related to editing large amounts of text. For example when you have a text that spans multiple pages, any change needs to propagate to other pages as well. For larger chunks of text, it is safer and faster to do the text editing outside of BookSmart and then copy and past it in.
Don’t enter right-to-left languages
In Aug 2009, I had one very serious problem: I tried to copy in a few words of Arabic (for a book on southern Spain – once part of the Arab world). It turns out that BookSmart doesn’t like Arab (or Hebrew for that matter) because that is written right-to-left. Unfortunately, the crash-and-restart solution didn’t work this time. BookSmart had written the Arabic words to the .book file and even to the .backup file, and thus crashed immediately on any restart attempt. As usual, I had a backup, but it meant loosing a full day or two of work.
Incidentally, the right-to-left language issue suggests that BookSmart had made an attempt to support such languages (interesting market) and had left buggy prototype code for this in the normal distribution: I obviously hadn’t told BookSmart in any way that this was right-to-left text and would have been perfectly happy if these UniCode characters had been handled as left-to-right text.
Blurb customer support
I followed two parallel paths to get the above problem solved: fixing the problem myself (by modifying the XML-based .book file) and via Blurb customer support. The do-it-yourself solution was a bit faster in my case (mainly involved discovering which lines to delete in an ASCII editor). The customer support route initially didn’t read my mails well. They scan (maybe automated??) incoming mails and trigger to words like Arabic and send clippings from their FAQ and customer support material. But somebody or something had concluded from “file no longer opens” or so that I lost the location of my .book files – and sent appropriate instructions. On the second or third mail I started sounding technical enough that I got put through to a more technical person. I am pretty sure that Blurb would have gotten my problem fixed in one or more exchanges (they were requesting me to send the .book=.xml file). But I didn’t do the experiment because I had solved the problem myself in the meantime. It earned me a complement (“good sleuthing”) from the technical person.
The software in written in Java and saves the text and formatting of your book as an XML (structured ASCII) data file with extension “.book”. The use of Java makes editing of text within BookSmart slow. Selecting text with a mouse is particularly painful.
Images are stored as individual files in a “library”, but with machine-generated file names (hashing). I am not quite sure why image file name hashing was use. It could be there for privacy reasons: file names could accidentally reveal information. File name hashing does allow you to use multiple files with the same file name without using subdirectories. Unfortunately, it is also easy to accidentally have two copies of the same file.
A minor problem with Bookexport
The book can be exported and imported using a format called “.bookexport”. This turns out to be a zip file containing the .book file and the image files. Distributing a draft book via a web site upload/download turned out to be tricky as somehow Windows may treat the file as a .zip file and unzip it (MIME type?). A workaround is to upload a zipped version of the .bookexport file. This doesn’t further reduce the file’s size, but prevents users from accidentally unzipping the .bookexport file.
So the steps I used to put my draft book online for friends are:
- export to a .bookexport file
- zip the .bookexport file to create a .zip file
- upload the .zip file
For the receiving party, the steps are:
- download the .zip file using an http:// or ftp:// link
- unzip the .zip file
- import the resulting .bookexport file
The fact that the .bookexport file can be unzipped using winzip or by Windows if you rename the extension is then an irrelevant technical footnote because it no longer happens automatically.
The software warns if image resolution drops below 150 dots/inch. The maximum recommended image resolution is 300 dot/inch. 300 dot/inch doesn’t sound like much, but implies 7,2 Megapixels if you fill an entire page of an 8×10 inch book. and 13 Megapixels for an 11×13 inch book. This is surprisingly high – given that you can create excellent A4 or A3 prints with high quality 4-6 Megapixel images.
Freely position text and photos
Before BookSmart 2.0.0 you had to choose one of the templates provided by Blurb. You couldn’t freely add images or text anywhere you liked or re-size the images or text containers defined by Blurb.
Since BookSmart 2.0.0 you can edit the template used by a page, and optionally save it as a user-defined template (but that’s not necessary to modify a page). The heavily template-oriented heritage still shows as you normally design a page by selecting one of the available templates. This isn’t bad because it makes the process simpler and allows you to rapidly preview a page containing say 2 pictures using alternative templates. It also saves time as few people have the skills and discipline to deal with all the flexibility which you get with a blank page: for me it helps to first start off with a page that follows a template, and then to fix anything I really don’t like about it.
PDF to bypass BookSmart
For ultimate flexibility, some more professional users actually created their book using specialized professional software such as Adobe CS4 InDesign. The route was then to create the entire book that way, and to export all pages as image (e.g. .JPG) files and use these to create the pages in BookSmart.
Since June 2008, BookSmart provides support for InDesign and potentially other software by allowing the user to submit their book as PDF. Obviously some constraints apply: Blurb cannot adapt the size and shape of the book to whatever you happen to have in mind. This seems to be solved by a combination of templates (for InDesign) and expecting advanced users to know what they are doing.
I have no experience with the use of InDesign, but know that some demanding users took this route even before Blurb made it easier to use.