So You Want to Publish That Novel

Blurb lets you create any sort of bookeven one with photosfor as little as $20

The writer A.J. Liebling famously observed that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Of course, blogs have made it possible for all to share their views in electronic form. Now advances in printing technology mean you can immortalize your thoughts in a bound book for as little as $20.

Web sites that assemble a collection of your pictures into photo books have been around for a while from Eastman Kodak (EK) and Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) Snapfish, and from What's new—from a startup called Blurb—is the opportunity to create just about any sort of book and even to sell the finished product online.

Blurb takes advantage of new printing technology, best exemplified by HP's Indigo press. Think of it as the love child of a laser printer and a conventional offset press. Although the actual printing is done with traditional liquid ink instead of toner, the process is laser-guided, eliminating the extremely expensive step of making lithograph plates. As a result, very small press runs and even single copies become practical.

I decided to create a book about a trip I took last summer to Haida Gwaii, the islands of the Queen Charlotte archipelago, just south of the British Columbia-Alaska border. My wife and I came back from the vacation with hundreds of photos. I wanted to combine pictures with text describing what we had seen and learned.

Easy, but a Few Glitches

Blurb's BookSmart software is a free download for both Windows (MSFT) PCs and Macs. I chose the Mac version, which integrates with iPhoto for picture management. The Windows version works with Google's (GOOG) Picasa. You create your book one page at a time, choosing a layout for pictures only, text only, or pictures and text. You then edit the photos with whatever program you like, and drop the results onto the page.

I used Adobe's (ADBE) Photoshop CS3 to edit my pictures, wrote the text in Apple's (AAPL) Pages word processor, and then pasted it into BookSmart.

The Blurb software is easy to use, letting the publisher (that's you) focus on the hard work of getting the text and pictures right. I'm afraid there's no way to truncate this creative part of the job. It took me at least an hour a page to write the text and select and edit the pictures.

I found some aspects of BookSmart frustrating. There are dozens of page layouts to choose from, but sometimes none of them seemed quite right. And I really wanted to be able to resize picture boxes, but there was no way to do that. Also, there is no provision for changing the typeface settings used by default for print, so unless you like Blurb's choices, you must manually change the type settings for each text element. Blurb promises improvements in future software updates.

Bound for Glory

I created my book by selecting the page layouts I wanted one at a time, but Blurb also offers a number of templates, including cookbooks, poetry, and wedding books. And it can "slurp" the contents of blogs in several popular formats into a book. As soon as you're happy with the way your book looks, you hit "submit," and a few days later it arrives in the mail.

I was delighted with how my little 28-page project, Northern Vision, turned out. It's a real book, complete with a glossy jacket and even a standard book number code. It's well printed on heavy stock, the photos are faithful to the originals, and it cost me just $29.95 for a single copy. (It's $10 less for softbound.) There are volume discounts for orders of more than 10, and you can set your own price for copies sold through Blurb's bookstore. That's useful mostly for organizations that want to offer, say, a cookbook as a fund-raiser.

Vanity publishing has been around for about as long as books, but it used to be an expensive indulgence. Technology has democratized publishing, as it has so many things, to the point that anyone who has secretly longed to be an author can go for it.

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