In April 2014 I set out to publish my first book – a collection of photographs with accompanying text as a kind of photo-memoirs of the 5 1/2 years I spent with my family working in Bangladesh. I had several aims:
- To get a book ‘out there’ as a product to launch my career as an author and not merely a freelance writer.
- To have an Ebook product to sell and use as a give-away for potential clients.
- To raise awareness and money for a young girl called Ria to come to the UK and live with my family while she studied a Business degree at a nearby university.
I began with a very different project – to produce an app for the photos – but for one reason or another that project ground to a halt. By that time I had created a very decent pdf version of the book which was to be called Sonali in the end. However, I had no easy way to sell and distribute this and so I looked for the appropriate websites to help me get the book out there.
I was dismayed to find there were very few sites designed to help you self-publish photographic books. This surprised me because there are dozens of sites you can use to publish prose! The few which did photographic ones were either too expensive (and I didn’t want to go down the vanity publishing route) or were clearly going to be too amateurish to be any use to me.
In the end I settled on Blurb for my project.
There were some definite pleasing results from the whole endeavour:
- I now have a very high quality Ebook which comes with its own ISBN number where I am officially listed as the author (unlike various other self-publishing sites which give you ISBN numbers for free but take over as ‘author’).
- An unexpected side-effect from using Blurb is that I have a print version of the book which is exceptional quality.
- The product helped raised awareness for Ria‘s cause and we succeeded in raising her first year’s fees though (because of visa issues caused by recent Britain’s troubled political climate regarding immigrants) we’re still waiting to get her into the county to begin her degree.
I’ve never known a company which produces such good material yet works in such an amateurish way.
All well and good then. However, there were many issues with using Blurb too:
- Despite the claims that you could upload an e-format (which I would have thought included pdfs like the one I created) to fast-track you book to the production stage, it became very clear that I had to start from scratch with the photos because you really have to use Blurb ‘s software to produce any book. This meant many wasted hours of work for me.
- Because Blurb is first and foremost a print producer and considers Ebooks an afterthought, I had to completely reformat the dpi of most of the pictures to make sure they were good enough quality. Blurb wouldn’t accept pictures which didn’t fit the right criteria. For about a third of my pictures I had to substantially reduce the size of the pictures to please the software package! For me, wanting an E-product as my main aim and thinking of a print product only as a pleasant ‘extra’, this was yet more hours wasted.
- Furthermore, when I came to copy and paste text into the program, I was told that, for copyright reasons, that font was not available and I had to use one of the site’s fonts which, frankly, wasn’t especially great. The software generally I found cumbersome and I wasn’t impressed that at the end stage I know had to highlight text page by page to change the font.
- The mark-up price for the books was extortionate! You have to buy a print version of every book you make before you’re allowed to sell your books in any format and Blurb charges so much for the production (even the E-version which doesn’t cost them a penny to produce!) that I make less in profit from each book than I would have done if I’d have gone to a traditional publishing house and published with a small 15% royalty on each sale.
- The quality of the print version might well be excellent but the Ebook version is too good. By this I mean that the book comes to 40mb which is far too big to send via the internet for many connections. I’ve often ended up sending my original home-made version which is only 6mb and just as good a quality on a computer screen.
- Several people attempted to leaving review comments at my book page on the Blurb site but the comments failed to publish. To this day there are still no reviews on my page even though I know many people left glowing comments! I gave up complaining to Blurb whose staff quite honestly gave me the run around.
- When I found there was a copyright issue with one picture and had to remove it from the book, I found that Blurb considered my change to be another new book and I had to buy a print version all over again.
It was this last point that, as an indie publisher, really got me annoyed. I can accept wasted hours – it was a new kind of project for me and there’s a learning curve for the first time you do anything new. But when I publish prose books I expect to be able to make revisions and amendments as I like and not have to pay anything at all. Blurb presents itself as the site of choice for the indie publisher and if you’re expecting to sell hundreds or thousands of print books it offers all sorts of incentives. But I wanted an E-product to give away eventually. Even if I wanted to sell the print version, the price set by Blurb is simply too high. Any professional photographer wanting to produce a print book would be much better off going to traditional publishing houses and pitching it until one accepts and offers a contract. I’ve never known a company which produces such good material yet works in such an amateurish way.
It is hard to recommend Blurb then but there’s precious little alternative on the web for small-time indie publishers and authors like myself. Personally, from here on, I am likely to stick to prose books which are much easier to produce without the need to head down what turns out to be vanity publishing through the back door. I hope to produce a new version of Sonali next year in both Bangla and English as there is a market for this, but my experience with Blurb has made me wary. The text is all written but, for reason I can’t divulge, the original pictures are lost on a computer I can’t access. I’m hoping the issue will resolve next year and, if it does, I’ll then buy yet another print version but then can produce the E-version I actually want.
I think Blurb does have its place but you need to be aware of the pitfalls before you go in. Don’t go in for anything less than a print version. Don’t expect to make a lot of money out of it. Don’t expect to have a useful E-version which is fast and easy to download. You can sell on Amazon (though I chose not to because Amazon sets the price and the mark-up with Blurb is so high I didn’t want to take the risk of either making nothing at all or pricing so high no one would buy the book) but don’t expect the larger audience to compensate for what may be an unwieldy product. However, if you don’t care about selling a product but you’re looking to produce a beautiful quality photo-book then Blurb is for you. I have two copies of Sonali on my desk and they are fabulous. I’m pleased with them – but through gritted teeth.
To check out Blurb just click on the highlighted Blurb words above to go to the .com site (Brits should be redirected to the .co.uk site when you begin your product). To have a look at my book, Sonali, click on the highlighted Sonali words above to be directed to my Blurb book page. Profits continue to go to Ria’s education.