Tag Archives: print-on-demand

Blurb’s BookSmart Software

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.

Instability

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.

Internals

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:

  1. export to a .bookexport file
  2. zip the .bookexport file to create a .zip file
  3. upload the .zip file

For the receiving party, the steps are:

  1. download the .zip file using an http:// or ftp:// link
  2. unzip the .zip file
  3. 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.

Image resolution

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.

Printing your own photo books

Although I am in the process of creating a photo book (on a trip to Spain) using Blurb.com, I haven’t seen the results yet.

Market

The market is rather diverse: at the bottom end, Print-on-Demand can be seen as a replacement of photo albums: the album is printed instead of printing photos and pasting them into a blank album. At the high-end, the end result may be viewed more as a book self-publishing  route and the output can be an artistic end product in its own right. The high-end can range from wedding photos taken by a professional photographer  to an artsy book with pictures of someone’s recent trip or creative project.

I tried to classify the quality requirements for print-on-demand photography books as follows (highest to lowest):

  1. Traditional professional photo books.
    If you earn a living partly by selling good-looking “coffee table books” with photos from Antarctica or of antique locomotives, you will need large series. The on-demand printing techniques are financially less attractive for larger series: these call for a normal printing equipment. An example of a photographer who does this is Karel Tomei – who does areal photography in Holland or elsewhere. Karel said he sometimes even takes the trouble of traveling to the printer’s site (in his case the Czech Republic) and personally checking image quality whenever they start printing a next sheet (in his case every 4 hours).
  2. Professional wedding albums. If you spend 1000+ dollars/euros on a wedding photographer, you will want print quality that approaches “National Geographic print quality”. Or quality that is close to that of traditional photographic prints. Such albums sometimes have high quality bindings, and avoid showing any logo of the printing company. Series size aspirations: 1 to 10?
  3. Aspiring photographers who want to display their portfolio. They may have high ambitions, but likely limited budgets. Series size aspirations: dozens? Some wedding albums also fall under this category, and can even be for sale for friends or even to the general public.
  4. Books that happen to have images as well. Here is an example of a children’s book. Image quality can be important (because these are clearly creativity-driven products), but the maker is less image-oriented than a photographer or graphical artist. Series size aspirations: dozens, hundreds?
  5. Family photo albums. The idea is to have  you vacation photos printed so that they end up in a physical form. And, above all, to have fun designing it. The fun factor, and ease of use are more important than image quality (after all, this is the market where some pictures may not al be great in the first place). Series size aspirations: 1 to 3.

A few suppliers

  • Blurb (http://www.blurb.com/) – categories 3 and 4?
    Blurb has an international network of about 80 “presses” (print shops with HP DigitalIndigo ws5000 printers) in “over 60 countries”. Interestingly, Blurb allows you to regard your end-result as regular books: friends and (if you want even strangers) can order a copy via burb.com.
    Color management: Blurb assumes images are in the sRGB color space, but can (for those who care) provide an ICC profile for their printing equipment.
  • Albert Heijn (http://www.ah.nl/fotoservice/fotocadeaus_album.jsp) – category 5?
    This is handled by the largest supermarket chain in The Netherlands. You submit your photos and layout online, but pickup the book at the local store. AH obviously doesn’t have its own print shops; many print distribution channels options are likely to end up at the same specialized printing companies.
    This service is seen as a variation of traditional photo printing services: www.ah.nl probably does not save a copy of what you ordered for any significant period of time. Blurb, in contrast, keeps the digital source file for years.
  • Albelli (http://www.albelli.nl/) – category 5?
    Albelli operates in Europe and the US. They use HP Digital Indigo printers. They used to be known under the name AlbumPrinters. A large local photo store links to their site.
    Despite winning a competitive review in a test by a Dutch consumer review organization, reviews by users range from very happy to very unhappy. The trouble is that one doesn’t know, for example, whether ah.nl uses Albelli or someone else.

An overview with user ratings of suppliers in The Netherlands (many operate internationally) can be found at http://www.onlinefotoservices.nl/faexp_ia.php. Note that different printing sites probably give different results. And that maybe some operators had trouble (e.g. new equipment, new staff) which has since been resolved.

Pricing

The graph illustrates the pricing for hardcover books printed in the Netherlands. The www.blurb.com pricing includes 5.90 Euro shipping costs (less if you buy multiple copies). The site www.ah.nl charges 99 cents (which I didn’t add) for “handling”. Note that the dimensions, cover type and paper type are not standardized.

Hardcover pricing depending on the page count

Hardcover pricing depending on the page count

The biggest differences between both pricing models is the price markup as you add more pages. AH charges 5 Euro extra for each additional 8 pages (on average, 0.63 Euro per extra page). For the largest size, this becomes 0.90 Euro per extra page.

Albelli has similar prices to AH, but charges per page rather than per eight pages. The initial price at Albelli is  bit higher, but this is largely due to the included shipping costs (about 4 Euro depending on the size). The shipping cost goes down if you order 2 or more books at the same time.

Blurb.com, in contrast, asks only 4 Euro extra for 40 additional pages (on average, 0.10 Euro/page extra). For the largest size, that becomes 0.20 Euro per extra page. This makes Blurb.com much more attractive once you exceed the first 40 pages. And this implies that with Blurb you may feel free to add a lot more “artsy” empty space without having to worry about costs. With Blurb, you can upgrade to a thicker “premium” paper and suppress the small Blurb logo at the front of the book by paying extra.

Software

The print-on-demand industry is very reliant on special software: you download a free, dedicated software package from the service provider. That allows you to select a book format, add pages, add text and photos to pages, and above all customize the layout. It allows you to design the book, preview it, print a draft to a home printer and generate a file for uploading to the service provider.

It is likely that there are only a few types of available software for the dozens or hundreds of POD services operating per country. But for now you just need to go with the software supplied by your service provider (there are no clear standards, or dominant software packages).

One notable exception to this rule seems to be Apple’s Aperture (and Apple’s iPhoto). Aperture is Apple’s counterpart to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: it allows you to manage, modify and print your photos. It contains built-in support for creating a photo book via a service provided by Apple. It is possible (but not easy or intended) to export book designs from Aperture to the software provided by another POD supplier (e.g. via PDF or JPEG page images). Interestingly Adobe’s Lightroom 2 doesn’t have an option to create a book yet – despite Adobe’s strong commitment for PDF. Maybe this will get sorted out once there is a dominant input standard for getting photo books printed.