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.com Live: Online Book Publishing

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Eileen Gittins
Chief Executive, Blurb
Thursday, May 4, 2006; 1:00 PM

Columnist Leslie Walker hosted Eileen Gittins , chief executive of Blurb, for a discussion on book publishing software and Web services.

A transcript follows.

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Leslie Walker: Hello everyone. Today we're talking about on-demand book publishing. A new breed of self-publishing services is taking hold on the Internet, which I wrote about in my column today :

Blurb (www.blurb.com) and Lulu (www.lulu.com) are two examples. Rather than charging authors up-front fees to prepare manuscripts for printing, as so-called "vanity publishers" do, these firms charge a commission on each book printed. The economics are interesting -- and very different from traditional publishing.

We'll be answering questions live at 1 p.m. ET, so submit yours now.

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Leslie Walker: A big welcome to Eileen Gittins. We're glad she's taking time to answer questions about the Web's print-on-demand business, which is relatively new.

Let's start at the beginning. When and how did you get the idea for Blurb Inc., your book-publishing startup?

Eileen Gittins: In a former life I was a photographer (worked for Kodak for several years). I started photographing people that I had built companies with, and after the bubble burst dedicated myself to this photo essay project. Before I knew it I had more "essay" than "photo" and wanted to share this work as a gift. But I could not "gift" a website... so I thought OK, I'll make a book. This was in early 2004... so I went online expecting to find Blurb -- but all I could find were "send in your manuscript" vanity press stuff or photo album tools. I wanted a well-designed, bookstore quality book -- so I created Blurb for the millions of people like me.

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Leslie Walker: What big trends are Blurb and other print-on-demand publishers riding? Changes in consumer behavior, printing technology, Internet distribution--or all of the above?

Eileen Gittins: If I asked you three years ago how many of your friends had a blog -- your answer would probably be "what's a blog?" There's been a *huge* shift in people's behavior -- from being passive consumers of content to active participants and creators of content. This is all being fueled by (1) broadband adoption (2) adoption of digital cameras (3)expectation on the part of consumers that they should be able to make professional-quality products themselves. Also, the new Print on Demand (digital print) technology now makes it economic to print a copy of one.

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Princeton, NJ: Is online publishing feasible for art books?

Eileen Gittins: Yes, absolutely. Part of my motivation for founding Blurb was to figure out a way to produce truly bookstore-quality books, affordably. I am a photographer myself -- degree in Photography, worked for Kodak for many years -- and I am really picky about quality. We tested every print engine out there and have calibrated our software to produce high quality results. Having said all of this, POD technology is close -- but not yet quite as good as offset. Best way to find out if the quality is good enough for you is to make a sample book for $29 bucks and see for yourself

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San Francisco: Could you comment on the absence of editors in your publishing process? The fact is that not everyone is the writer he thinks he is, including the ones who secure a deal with a traditional publishing house. Everyone can use an editor. At minimum, writers should have a copy editor. I shudder to think of the grammar mistakes, typos and spelling errors that undoubtedly make it into the final products from Lulu or Blurb.

Second question -- we've seen a few high-profile plagiarism cases recently. How do services like Lulu and Blurb verify the accuracy and originality of their authors' work?

Thank you.

Eileen Gittins: Boy are you right. Not everyone is a great writer and most (if not all of us) can use an editor. Our plan is to engage a community of folks (we call them BlurbNation) who would like to offer such author services direct to our end users. Additionally, we are making it easy for folks to share their "drafts" with others to get some fresh sets of eyes on their work.

Regarding your second question on plagiarism -- again, we will look to our community to identify these issues as they may arise. We have a process to temporarily remove any such book from our bookstore until the matter is resolved, as well as stop printing any new editions...

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Washington, D.C.: I am curious how, if at all, this new way of publishing will affect the publishing world's superstars, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson and others who command huge advances and sell tons of books?

Leslie Walker: I'll be curious to see Eileen's take, but most folks I talked to for my article didn't see the business of blockbuster books changing for a long time. The paper format for reading novels and longer non-fiction work will be with us for quite a while, most predicted. For now at least, traditional publishing houses doing a decent job of distributing bestsellers (even if the high return rate makes it fairly inefficient.)

Eileen Gittins: Hey, Washington DC. Thanks for the question. I would die and go to heaven if Blurb becomes a place where the next John Grisham is discovered. For those John Grisham's already out there, I agree with Leslie -- they already made it into the club!! Blurb is for the rest of us...

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Washington DC: So do you follow the traditional editing process, or do simply provide your service to every document that people bring your way?

Eileen Gittins: Blurb actually provides you the authoring and layout software for you to create your own book. The software is free and works on a Mac or PC. You can import pictures and graphics as well as autoflow your text document into one of many templates we offer. We actually never see your book until it comes through our server as an order. So the entire creation and editing process happens at your end (as well as via a community of folks who may help you get your work into shape).

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Herndon, VA: What is a typical blurb.com order? Size, quantity, cost?

Eileen Gittins: Since we publicly launched just yesterday (!) I don't yet have any data that's meaningful to share. We anticipate there will be a mix of orders including gift books, fundraiser books, promotional books, and commercial for-profit books.

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Newark, DE: What is the difference between blurb.com and Apple's iPhoto book service?

Eileen Gittins: There are many differences (although let me put in a plug for Apple's product -- which if you want a photo album -- is terrific.) First, we are not in the photo album business -- but rather the book business. Our software has a complete text engine that manages things like kerning and leading (for all you print geeks out there). Because we are more text-centric, we offer book types like cookbook, blog to book and the forthcoming all text options. Our books are also commercial quality with custom dust jackets and library bindery. Finally,we offer a marketplace for you to sell your books. I could keep on going but I suspect you get the idea..

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Vienna, VA.: Who owns the copyrights to material published through Blurb? Can the authors do a book deal with a traditional publisher, too?

Eileen Gittins: Part of our whole Indie thing is that you are your own publisher -- and own the copyright to your book. Period. Woohoo if you use your Blurb book to help you springboard into a big book deal with one of the majors.

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Washington DC: Do you provide isbns for you books? Do you provide any way for the book to be distributed?

Eileen Gittins: Right now you can distribute your book at Blurb.com. In fact when you make a book, you automatically get your very own bookstore that can be private, shared or public. We do plan a marketing service that will offer ISBN and broader distribution -- stay tuned for more details.

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Washington, D.C.: How do you go about turning a blog into a book? Aren't the pictures in most blogs too low resolution to print well on paper?

Eileen Gittins: We are launching a special blog to book beta program in the next few weeks that features our blog slurper. It will enable you to identify what elements of your blog you want "slurped" and then it will flow them into a template of your choice. On the resolution front, it turns out that more often than not we will be able to pull the higher res version either from the blogging service provider -- or you can swap out the image from the blog with the higher res version on your hard drive. Finally, you can always print the image small!

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Leslie Walker: Craig in King of Prussia, PA writes: 'I showed your article to a colleague and the first thing he said was, "Sounds like a scam to me." Can't say I blame him. In self-publishing, how can we separate scammers from honest business entities? Also, I grew up hearing the term "vanity publishing." No one ever had nice things to say about the vanity press. How is today's self-publishing different from the vanity publishing of the 1970s?Thank you for your time. Craig

Leslie Walker: Many people felt the older "vanity press" model of self-publishing was problematic because vanity publishers typically charged hefty up-front fees. Some even led authors to believe they'd get marketing and distribution help which rarely came. But I don't see today's Internet book publishers as scams. I personally have self-published a dozen photo books at another Web publisher called MyPublisher.com. My books came out great and cost less than $100 apiece. One was the story of my late mother's life, which my entire family loves. MyPublisher is mostly a photo book service. One thing I like about Lulu and Blurb is that they handle text better than MyPublisher.

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Arlington, VA: Hi Eileen -

Does Blurb include help on setting up a website and other marketing tools that will help drive public interest and sales? Obviously with your business model, the more books that sell, the more money you make.

Also, do you plan on offering plain text publications (such as a plain manuscript)?

Thanks,

Garrett

Eileen Gittins: Hi Garrett- Thanks for your inquiry. Right now you will get a bookstore (which is a web page) that you can direct people to. We do plan to expand this into more of a web site as you have described, to help drive traffic and promote your books.

And, yes, we will be offering an "all text" template very soon. One of the advantages of our software architecture is that we can "continuously upgrade" the application. No more waiting months and months for the "next release".

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North East MD: Who owns the ISBN? Blurb or the author? If is is Blurb, then the author is NOT their own publisher... Blurb is. Correct?

Eileen Gittins: We will merely offer a service for you to purchase the ISBN. You will own the ISBN -- not Blurb. You truly will be your own publisher.

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Alexandria Virginia: How soon do you expect to have paperbacks and text only available?

Eileen Gittins: Stay tuned for a formal announcement. We are actively work on this and it is our number one priority.

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Leslie Walker: Many of you have asked about getting an ISBN number assigned to self-published books, so they can be distributed through more traditional booksellers as well. Blurb has said it is planning to offer such a service. Lulu already does offer ISBN numbers, but they cost extra.

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Silver Spring, Maryland: I am college professor. I am concerned whether the scholarship of my book will be negatively impacted. Should that be a concern since the online publisher will very likely be listed as Lulu or Blurb, which are unfamiliar to the public in general and the academic world in particular? On the other hand, I do find this to a effective way of making my publications available.

Eileen Gittins: You raise a very good point. I think you will have to evaluate the perceived benefit of having a traditional imprint put their stamp of approval on your book vs. the control, flexibility, timeliness, and cost advantages of producing your work via the Blurb service. By the way, there's nothing stopping you from creating your work first in Blurb and using the output as a galley or proof print to shop to the traditional publishing community.

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Leslie Walker: A reader in Maryland writes: Silver Spring, MD: Thanks so much for writing this article! I had no idea that Internet publishing companies were so user-friendly. Maybe now I'll finally get around to writing my first novel...

Leslie Walker replies: You are welcome. But if you write your first novel, don't give up on the traditional book industry too soon! The competition to get fiction published the traditional route may be keen, but the joy of seeing your work in bookstores all over the country is a great reward. Personally, I think people writing fiction should at least TRY to get an agent and a traditional book deal first. Self-publishing is not for every work, though it may BE for everyone because everyone likely has some kind of personal book they'd like to see in hard form.

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Snow Hill, MD: Since the typesetting is left to the author, and typesetting is a refined craft (I am a career book designer), can't we expect that books typeset by amateurs will LOOK amateur? And isn't that why many self published books are rejected by the trade anyway? How do you control quality?

Leslie Walker: Excellent questions, and I'm keenly interested in Eileen's answer. I spent an hour installing and playing with Blurb's book layout software. While it seems powerful, I found it hard to figure out how to tweak the text formatting and make my copy fit inside the text boxes next to the photo boxes. Eileen, is this something that gets easier after a while? Is there a steep learning curve?

Eileen Gittins: Our product is template driven -- meaning you choose from literally hundreds of page layouts with different sized text and image containers. When you "autoflow" your text into a Blurb template, it will continue to create new pages, flowing the text from page to page, until it gets to the end of the file. There will undoubtedly be pages that you will want to manually edit. BTW, we have people on staff here at Blurb who are also professional book designers - having done work for Taschen and Chronicle Books among many others.

Leslie - regarding your question... it may be an issue of choosing a different page layout with a larger text container. And while we are on the subject of text, we will be supporting many, many font options in the very near future.

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Washington, DC: Will you also print and bind magazines? How about printing art on standalone sheets, like posters or postcards?

Eileen Gittins: These are all interesting opportunities for Blurb! We will listen closely to what people seem to want from us and then prioritize accordingly. Magazines and zines seem particularly interesting...

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East Stroudsburg, PA: I submitted an earlier question about formatting. How does Blurb work, what's uploaded, downloaded, etc. I'm very much a beginner in this type of computer use.

Eileen Gittins: Hello East Stroudsburg!

Here's how Blurb works: first you download our free software to your Mac or PC. You then select a target template and select the pictures or graphics from your hard drive that you want to import. If you have a text document, you would select all (to your clipboard) and then copy into a text layout. As I mentioned previously, by clicking on the Autoflow button, Blurb will automatically flow your entire text document in, creating new pages on the fly as it goes. When you have a draft complete, we recommend you make a local print using your own printer, to proof the copy. When you are ready to order, you will click the Order button, give us your credit card, tell us how many you want and where we should ship. YOu will receive your books in about a week -- and yes, you can order just one.

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Leslie Walker: Several of you asked about printing magazines through these services. I interviewed a man, Derek Powazek, who publishes a high-quality print magazine through Lulu and was happy with the results. It's called "JPG Magazine" in print and you can see it online at www.jpgmagazine.com. Powazek told me: "We chose Lulu to publish JPG Magazine because they take care of all the ugly parts of publishing - the printing, billing, shipping, etc. - leaving us with all the fun parts: making a magazine."

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Washington, D.C. : How do you screen for copyright violations--or do you?

Eileen Gittins: We do not screen your work. When you download our software, you are asked to agree to our End User License Agreement that states that you have the right to the work in your book. Further, just before checkout, we present you with a checklist reminding you to get clearances for any work that is not your own. Both of these efforts are an attempt to inform people, not police them. Beyond that, if people are abusing copyright and it comes to our attention, we have a process to temporarily remove the book from the bookstore and discontinue printing until the issue has been resolved.

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Leslie Walker: A Reader from Chicago wrote: Chicago, IL: Hi Leslie. Why no mention of iUniverse or Xlibris or AuthorHouse in your article today?

Leslie Walker replies: Good point. I did mention those Internet-based publishers in my first draft, and also wrote a column about them when they were new six years ago. But I opted not to include them today because it was confusing enough introducing people to two new Web-based publishing services, without talking about others.

The chief difference between those olders services and these newer ones (Blurb and Lulu) seems to be that Xlibris and iUniverse both charge authors up-front fees, which makes publishing through them more expensive.

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Austin, TX: What solution(s) do you have for the DRM [digital rights management] problem? How can online publishers protect their intellectual property from copying?

Eileen Gittins: Are you familiar with Creative Commons? It is a terrific new service that enables end users to attach license rights (at various levels) to their work. We will be supporting Creative Commons licenses...On the broader DRM issue, Blurb is not building a DRM solution platform. There are all kinds of things that we will not build ourselves, but may otherwise integrate into our offering. As we grow, and as DRM solutions proliferate, I'm sure we will look to actively integrate..

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Baltimore, Maryland: What do you think the ramifications of e-publishing are for fiction writers?

Eileen Gittins: I think solutions like Blurb will hugely expand the market for fiction writers ... as well as every other kind of book.

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Leslie Walker: We are running out of time. You all sent in a lot of great questions and I'm sorry we won't get to all of them today.

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Leslie Walker: A reader in Colorado Springs, CO writes: Leslie - I spoke to a friend just last night about the book market turning indie, and it may be the shake up the publishing industry needs. Along these lines of self-publishing, do you feel there is much of a demand for e-books or do you think readers still like to curl up with a book in hand, rather than sitting in front of a computer to read, or deciphering small print on a palm pilot?

Leslie Walker replies: I think there will be a demand for paper books for a long, long time. That said, I suspect the nature of that demand is already being impacted by the flood of info available electronically via the Internet. Stuff you might have learned mainly from books in the past can now be obtained with one click at Wikipedia or 10 clicks on Google. That's likely to impact demand for books in ways we don't yet understand. As for e-books, I don't think they've come of age. The display quality is not good enough yet. Still, it may take 10 years, or even 20 years, but I do believe e-books will have their day

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Eileen Gittins: Hello Everyone-

Many thanks for your interest. For those of you who had questions around "how does it work" or "will the quality be good enough" - I encourage you to make a sample book. It does not have to be a masterpiece, or even complete -- in fact we have many people who are just throwing the kitchen sink at it to see what comes back. For $29.95 and less than an hour of your time, you can get a pretty good feel for whether this is for you.

Looking forward to seeing you in print!

Best,

Eileen

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Leslie Walker: That wraps it up for today, folks. A big thanks to Eileen Gittins of Blurb Inc. for her informative answers.

So much interest in this topic; we'll have to do it again soon. Good-bye for now!

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