Exclusive Web Content: Eileen Gittins, Blurb.com founder & CEO
Eileen Gittins is the founder and CEO of Blurb.com. F2 caught up with her to hear about the problems that brought Blurb into being and the fact that, from the ground up, it was built with photographers in mind.
Firstly, can you tell me how Blurb got started?
Blurb began out of a personal need, and my shock at the absence of a web based company on the web able to respond to it. As well as being the founder of Blurb, and presently CEO and president of the company, I’m also a photographer. I’m a serial CEO: this is my third company, and I’d been shooting portraits of the people I’d been working with as a personal project. Along the way, they would tell me their stories, and before I knew it, I had a whole raft of great content - black and white environmental portraits along with people’s stories. As a web person, my first thought was to turn it into a website, but it didn’t fit together conceptually, and I decided it would look and feel much better in book form book. Famous last words, right? This was about six years ago. I went online expecting to find a company like Blurb, thinking it must exist, because how hard can it be? It must be there already. Well, I found some nascent photo album providers. My first thought was, ‘Brilliant! I’ll try them’. But they were very much photo albums. You were restricted to a limited maximum number of pages - about 40-50 sheets of paper - and the covers had cutouts in the front like a photo album.
So it was more designed as a wedding album?
Exactly, and I thought that’s not going to work: if it doesn’t look properly published, then I’m not going to do it. Then I went on a mission to figure out how you would do a proper book. I started talking to printers and really understanding what the problems were, and I soon found out that they were legion.
What were the main problems?
It was three things: there was no good way to put out a standard file that would enable a printer to print a job of one book economically. If you wanted to do 1000 books, no problem, but that wasn’t going to work for what I needed. I needed 40-50 books, not 1000. It was a question of what I would need to do, to output a file. What I realised I had to do (this happened over a 12 month period of learning), to really make this a viable business, would be to build a software that standardised the output and could be written to the specific instructions of commercial printers, and where you would have to negotiate with printers based on expected volumes, so that you could get a viable production price. The big challenge then became how people were going to distribute and market their books. I really needed an online bookstore, and distribution and marketing capability. It wasn’t enough just to enable people to create a book and have it printed. Photographers, myself included, are not notorious for swimming in cash, which meant that the notion of just buying 200, and having them hang around your apartment until someone bought one and you shipped it off, was not a viable option. That wasn’t going to work, so we knew we needed to create a complete ecosystem; a complete platform. We had to enable users to create a beautifully designed book, which could be output as a standard file. Most photographers (again myself included) have focused on photography and are not book designers. We’ve looked at a lot of books, but when it comes down to starting from a blank page, it’s a little traumatising. So we hired book designers to design templates that were very flexible, with the photographer in mind from the outset.
Things like Blurb and the internet are already affecting publishing in many ways. In the long term, do you see things like Blurb streamlining publishing or eliminating certain areas?
It’s no secret that Blurb’s mission is to democratise publishing for everyone. It used to be that you could only get your work published if either you had deep pockets for the vanity publishing crowd or your work was one of that tiny percentage that hit the jackpot and won the support of a publisher. I’ve heard this from many publishers, that they see work that they think is brilliant, beautiful, and it pains them to turn it away, because they don’t think it’s going to sell well enough for them to take it on. It’s not that they don’t think the work is worthy, they do. So this is where Blurb can have an enormous game-changing impact. Now your work can be published without the filter of what can only be afforded if it is likely to sell 10,000 copies. No matter if there are only 20 people in the world who care, or even just one person who cares about that work, it is now possible to publish it, because the economic structure is so completely upended that it is no longer a negating factor. All of a sudden artists have complete creative control - they’re not at the mercy of the publisher. If they’re fortunate enough to get a publishing deal (which is comparatively rare) compromises will inevitably have to be made to make sure the book sells, and inevitably the artist feels like that this isn’t their vision. One of the beautiful things about Blurb is now the artist can control those things.
Could you see something like a middleman business springing up, of people offering to put your blurb book together for you?
It’s already happening. We have something we call Blurb Nation on our site right now. It’s going to be much bigger this year, and we’re going to give it a lot more exposure, but what’s happening is what you’ve already described. People were raising their hands last year saying, ‘I’m a freelancer, and I would like to make a business using your platform to make books for others’. At the same time, we had customers who said, ‘I have more money than either time or skill, can you guys just do this for us?’, so we started to create the Blurb Nation directory, where we provide introductions for people. We don’t take any piece of that business; it’s a community that we’re building to enable people to build their businesses on top of Blurb and to ensure customers get a higher quality output.
Do you find that Blurb is something a lot of photographers have used? It seems that it is a facility people will be able to use as a marketing tool, which is less disposable than inkjet prints.
For good or for bad, one of the benefits of being the founder and CEO is that we’ve really understood our market very well. When I was a photography student, it would have been absolutely brilliant if I could have used Blurb to capture my work and send it round to potential art buyers, galleries, creative directors etc: to get my first/second/third job out of university. At the time of course, in pre-web days, I was shipping around this physical, huge portfolio. If you want to send your work around to be considered for some print media campaign, then people want to see your work printed. Seeing it on a website does not have the same gravitas, nor does it show the work in the target medium for which they are considering you. The ability to produce a unqiue portfolio, a little soft cover, 40-page book of very targeted work that you can customise for each person that you want to send it to is a huge opportunity for photographers. Not only do we know that photographers are using books in this way all the time; now, when we go to portfolio reviews, universities and professors say the number of their students who produce Blurb books for their final examination or portfolio review is off the chart.
So did you ever end up using Blurb for your original project that started Blurb?
It’s like the shoemaker’s wife has no shoes! It’s in progress! One of the reasons why is that the work is square - it’s medium format, so I want a large, square book and right now, our square book is only 7x7ins. At the moment, I’ve got the small square done and I’m using it as a little proof copy for myself to sequence the work. But one of our book types later this year is going to be a large square.
Jen Allan was talking to Eileen Gittins - founder and CEO of Blurb.com
Click on the links below for web-only content from the Feb/March 2009 issue of F2 Freelance Photographer Magazine:
NME Picture Editor: What every aspiring music photographer needs to know to get a foot in the door at NME.
The F2 Profile: Tim Flach
Starting Out: Toby Smith
Turning Pro: Alison Baskerville
Films Stills photography: Alex Bailey
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