"Books, including Blurb books, were always kind of after the fact,” said Eileen Gittins, CEO of Blurb, the fast-growing POD self-publishing platform. “You created the content, then after the fact you made the book. We’re bringing bookmaking into the mobile world. While you’re at the concert, on the subway home, from your phone, you can bring your photos into Blurb, hit print and you’ll get your book in about a week. Real-time.” Sitting in her San Francisco office, Gittins laughed easily and seemed perpetually amused by her own success. Relaxed, funny, and animated, Gittins talked with PW about the online platform that lets anyone create, print, and deliver a well-designed, high-quality, illustrated POD book in about a week.
PW visited to profile Gittins, but was also invited to be part of BlurbU, a one-day presentation to the assembled Blurb staff that featured a number of talented book-related presenters, held to highlight both the transformation of the book market and the creative use of the Blurb platform by its users.
Blurb (Blurb.com) is aimed at disrupting the world of print publishing, essentially moving the analog world of paper and print titles into the digital world of real-time, full-color, print-on-demand publishing with a focus on photographs, or, as Gittins described it, “illustrated books for the rest of us.” Launched in 2004 after Gittins quit her paying job (her husband gave her a year to make Blurb work and she made the deadline) and raised $2 million in investment money to launch the company, Blurb got off to a fast start, generating $1 million in revenue in the last six months of 2006. Blurb now has about 115 employees and substantial growth in revenue, though Gittins declined to give a precise figure. Blurb produced nearly two million print books in 2013 in seven languages and shipped them to 75 countries on five continents. In addition, the company produced 250,000 e-books, a service Blurb has offered for only a little over a year.
When Gittins says real-time, she means it. Earlier this year Blurb inked an exclusive deal that put Blurb software on the Galaxy S4, Samsung’s hot new smartphone, that lets the user create a Blurb photo book right from the phone (and the pictures taken with it). (Blurb expects to offer the service on other platforms when the deal is up.) The company is also ramping up its enterprise efforts to attract more attention from companies and institutions (among them Nike, Pixar, and the Nature Conservancy) that, Gittins discovered, were using Blurb to quickly create good-looking books for a variety of internal uses, including annual reports, and marketing and promotional uses. The company is even looking to the traditional book market and considering broader distribution for some of its titles.
Gittins describes the Blurb platform as “lean publishing”—the ability to “personalize and create a book of one, electronic or print; we’re flexible, buy one of each!” she said. Gittins is out to “connect the old with the new,” keeping print books relevant by offering consumers an easy-to-use set of online tools that lets everyone—be they experienced book designers or newbies with vacation photos— upload pictures and produce a well-designed, crafted print books or e-books. Consumers can open free Blurb accounts, download Blurb’s free BookSmart software or the InDesign or Lightroom plug-ins (Blurb is embedded in Adobe’s design and photo management software via a partnership with the software developer), and follow the instructions for creating a book.
Veteran designers can create whatever layouts they need in InDesign; for newbies its all drag and drop with the help of interactive templates (with various sizes and layouts for images and text) and instructional videos. Once the layout is completed and the book ordered, the printed book, hardcover or paperback—Blurb has deals with a network of six POD printers based in the U.S. and overseas—can be delivered in a week to 10 days. Quality is paramount to Blurb—Gittins claims the color is so good in Blurb books that book designers are making them to send to Chinese printers instead of page proofs.
The Blurb process for making a book is entirely free to use until a book is ordered, and a book can be produced for as little as $3.99. Blurb creators can also sell their books via the Blurb bookstore and receive 100% of the price.
A “serial entrepreneur,” Blurb is Gittins’s fourth startup. In addition to working as an executive for Kodak, she directed a variety of software-focused tech startups before the Internet bubble collapse of 2000, after which she went back to her first creative love, photography, and began thinking about a new kind of print publishing model. “I decided I wanted to make a book,” she said, thinking, “how hard could that be?” It turned out to be very hard—in 2002 there was nothing like Blurb.
She went back to her former tech startup colleagues with the notion that “there needs to be a way for anyone to create a book that looks just as professional as what you can buy in a bookstore, except you only have to print one copy.” The combination of her long experience as a tech entrepreneur, the disruptive potential of Blurb on publishing, a business plan that emphasized revenue—unusual in the early days of aggregating eyeballs—and a business model in which, as she said, “we can make money only producing one book,” attracted investors.
Gittins said Blurb users are divided into personal publishing (40%, books not intended for sale); author publishing (30%, books intended for sale beyond friends and family); and enterprise publishing (30%, books produced by companies for internal needs), and she said the latter two categories are on the rise. She’s looking to add more prose “author” titles—“wordies,” as they’re called around Blurb—especially illustrated prose, including travel, cookbooks, and children’s books, as well as more poetry, memoirs, and fiction. Indeed, she said the economics of printing books on Blurb is attracting the attention of conventional publishers who are looking into partnerships. International growth is important—about 50% of Blurb revenues are from outside the U.S. “Korea is huge for English-language books,” she said.
Screen technology—with full color, graphics, photos, and design—along with the economics of printing are redefining what a book can be, Gittins said, while maintaining everything else about them that we love. New technology, she explained, often highlights the best aspects of the old tech. “When engines came along, sailboats didn’t go away, but it was nice having motors if you needed to get somewhere fast.” A physical book, she said, “is like the gift of time, holding a book, turning the page at your own pace, that isn’t going away any time soon.”