Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

© Jeremy Ferguson

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DIY publishing

You don't need to be a pro to print your own gorgeous coffee-table book

A few years ago, I wrote a story on the digital upgrade of the family photo album for Doctor’s Review. It was about how Internet companies were employing user-friendly software to transform a traditional ugly duckling to pictorial swan. (For more, go to

Inevitably, the clever software has broadened and deepened. Good grief, it’s possible now for any one of us to produce a coffee table book. Welcome to the latest chapter in Everyman’s Art. This could be the biggest step in the democratization of creativity since George Eastman handed the box camera to regular folk.

Browse the bookstore at Blurb, the San Francisco-based titan of do-it-yourself publishing. Scan the thousands of books illustrated and written by people like you and me. It's instantly clear that their astonishing variety, originality and bold execution turn the notion of “vanity” publishing on its ear.

“Our customers are people who are taking the time, the energy and the creative juices to create a book — of some kind,” Blurb CEO Eileen Gittens told the online news site Mashable. “It can just be a book of their photos, it could be something really special to them: a cookbook, their blog, whatever. But they’re pouring their soul, their heart, the brand of them into this book. And it’s a privilege every day, and an inspiration every day to see the range of creative expression in the books that people make from all over the world.”

Major market

Courtesy of Blurb and its imitators, the amateur photographer gets to play the role of auteur, designing, laying out, illustrating, writing, editing and even marketing his or her brainchild. Blurb was the first to tap into the deeply human and massively underrated wellspring of suppressed creativity. Founded in 2006, its revenues soared from $1 million to $30 million in its first two years and to $45 million in 2009. In 2010 alone, it published 1.4 million books and shipped them to 74 countries on five continents.

The company also sponsors Photography Book Now, a photobook competition with a $25,000 grand prize. The 2010 winner was Italian photographer Valerio Spada's Gomorrah Girl, about the death of a 14-year-old girl caught up in a Mafioso shootout in Naples.

Blurb's competition is racing to catch up. I used one of them, Picaboo, to make a 2012 calendar based on 30 years of shooting pictures in China. It stands up to the highest standards of commercial calendars. The software had given me considerable creative control, including the ability to underscore special dates such as birthdays and anniversaries with mini-images.

Drag-and-drop publishing

But when I decided on a coffee-table book — the Champagne of photography books — it was Blurb’s award-winning, easily downloadable SmartBook technology that gave me hope by the container load. It seemed that even a technical wash-out like me might just get away with it.

It really is easy. You download the software and create your masterwork on your home computer. Blurb prints it and sends you the book.

My subject was Southeast Asia, from a trove of images shot over seven visits. I chose my best from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Bali — countries and cultures that might seem much the same from a satellite orbiting the Earth, but which are, on the ground as different as France, Italy and Germany.

Then came the choices: Blurb’s book formats vary in size from 7 x 7-inch small square to 11 x 13-inch large landscape. They vary from 20 to 440 pages in length. I chose large the landscape format because travel shots call for scale. I limited my book to 160 pages, the maximum for the glossier, heavier paper stock I wanted.

I chose a conventional dust jacket for the cover. The alternative was the slightly more expensive Image Wrap, in which images and text are printed directly on front and back hardcovers in a matte finish.

From a long slate of typefaces, I decided on Papyrus, which was sort-of exotic, yet attractive to the eye and easy to read.

Line them up

Importing my images to the SmartBook software was easy. After that, it was about dragging and dropping them into the templates I’d established for each page. If the image itself called for a change of template, I was able to oblige.

Templates ranged from single-image pages and single-image, double-page spreads to multi-image pages and a 30-shot grid that looked as if it might be more at home in a boardroom. But an edit-layout function allowed me to override and reshape everything to suit the needs of the images. It was a gratifying feeling, being in charge.

With the exception of a few layouts such as a six-image page of Angkor’s stone faces, I opted for simplicity, with no more than two images to a page. Watching my baby taking shape, image by image, layout by layout, page by page, proved an exhilarating experience.

I devoted a chapter to each destination, opening with an intro and following with big pictures and small words. This was a picture book, after all, and if there was one thing I was certain about, it was that the images speak for themselves.

A thousand words

The visual production was smooth sailing; it was the words that kicked in with turbulence. Every writer knows that writing short is way harder than writing long, and this was a prize example. Not only that, the rewriting went on until I was ready to rip the hair out of my chest.

And after all was written, the proofing shredded whatever ego boost I’d gotten from the pictures. I was practically run out of town by a mob of typos, misspellings, punctuation errors and other gaffes a professional writer isn’t supposed to make.

I came away with a still-greater respect for the professional proofreader. If you do a book, take this advice: gather friends and family around you and get them proofing. You'll need as many good minds as you can muster.

I titled my book Smelling the Flowers from Horseback, Southeast Asia from an old Chinese admonition about rushing through our lives that has never been as valid as it is today. Finally I pushed the send button, transmitting the book to Blurb for publication. Almost instantly it appeared on Blurb’s bookstore. The price started at US$107.95, but with upgrades, especially the company's ProLine Pearl paper stock, it jumped to $158.92. This, was softened, happily, by one of the company’s frequent 20-percent discounts.

It’s still the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased.

Blurb invites authors to add a profit to the base price. In 2010, Blurb returned $2 million in markups to its customers. But because I wanted the book to be as attractive as possible, I elected to keep the price at cost.

Get it right

When Smelling the Flowers from Horseback appeared on the site, I was one very happy guy. I’d experienced the joy — the deep, primal, inexpressible, existential joy — of creation.

But when my book arrived in the mail, disappointment smacked me in the face. Several key images looked as if they’d been printed in mud. I was horrified. Was I just another victim of corporate connivance?

I contacted the company’s helpline representatives and explained the discrepancy between the book as seen on the website and what actually arrived.

A tech told me results are best if you set the brightness level on your monitor to about 70 percent capacity. At this level what you finesse on your screen will match the print results. But whoa, whose fault was it that I didn’t know this when I was prepping my images?

My contact seemed to get this. Blurb agreed to reprint the book, incorporating my changes. I went to work brightening the darker shots on a recalibrated monitor.

This time, we all got it right.

But the story isn't over: preview software allows browsers to peruse Blurb's books page-by-page, in whole or part. But for people eager to promote and sell their books, the choices are considerable: BookShow software makes it possible to promote your book on Facebook. Another free program delivers a link to everyone in your email address book. And for $1.99 plus your own profit, your book can be downloaded to Apple iBooks and sold as an eBook.

In other words, you make it once and publish it in the medium of your choice. Or more than one medium, if it suits you. Welcome to the new century of publishing.

Imagine posing all this to a geezer who stays clear of iAnything, reads a real newspaper with his morning coffee, likes real books he can hold in his hands and has tried to slay his computer with a harpoon on 22 occasions.

It makes me want to flee, preferably to another planet, where tablets are still made of stone. But did I tell you I’m working on another book?

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Showing 1 comments

  1. On January 12, 2012, Dr. Malcolm Brigden said:
    It's hard to argue with the authors results-his book is spectacular. On the other hand the price would seem to be somewhat exorbitant, even given the quality. In Canada and you can get a beautiful book with about 40-50 high-quality color pictures of a city like St. John, Victoria or Charlottetown for about $30-so, even allowing for volume pricing, the self publishers are obviously making a significant profit in this case.

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