Beyond Apple's photo books

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With the layout tools built into iPhoto and Aperture, Apple has made it easy to assemble your favorite snapshots in a professionally bound photo book. But Apple isn’t the only game in town. Whether you’re looking for improved image quality, more-flexible design options, or the ability to mass-market your finished books, there’s a book-publishing option that’s right for you. Here are three of our favorites.


If you don’t use iPhoto, or if you want a book that contains more text than iPhoto allows, Blurb is a great alternative. Like iPhoto, Blurb lets you design the book on your Mac and then upload the finished project. Blurb then binds your project as an 8-by-10-inch hardcover book with a custom dust jacket.

To start your book, download the free BookSmart application from Blurb’s Web site, and then point the program to the folder containing the images you want to use. Unlike with iPhoto, you’re not limited to photo-intensive layouts. Blurb includes page designs for a wide variety of books, including cookbooks, baby books, and Weblog anthologies.

Each type of book project offers a vast selection of page templates, including designs for a table of contents, quotations, copyright notices, and full-text pages. You can customize each page by dragging images from the My Pictures pane into placeholder boxes on the page, and then filling out the blocks of text.

BookSmart offers some nice features that iPhoto and Aperture lack. For example, you can choose from an extensive library of photo borders. Although it’s still considered beta software, I found BookSmart to be very stable and full featured. BookSmart’s weakest point is customization. You can’t change the size or the aspect ratio of a picture box, or design layouts from scratch. And like iPhoto and Aperture, BookSmart limits you to a preselected group of fonts.

When you’ve finished designing your book, BookSmart uploads it to the Blurb server for printing. Prices are comparable to Apple’s hardcover books—ranging from $30 (for up to 40 pages) to $80 (for 440 pages). Print quality is also similar to what you get with Apple’s books; however, the books’ full-color dust jackets are a nice finishing touch that you can’t get from Apple.

Your book remains on Blurb’s server for up to 14 days. In addition to ordering a copy for yourself, you can give friends and family the option of buying your book. Or you can choose to post your book in Blurb’s public bookstore, where any visitor to Blurb can buy it. Although visitors can’t preview the contents of your book, they can see the cover and a short write-up provided by you. You don’t get any proceeds from the sale of your book, but you can let family members and others purchase their own copies of your creations without your having to do additional work.

Ideal For: People who don’t use iPhoto; people who want a combination of text and photos.

Pros: Good variety of template designs; drag-and-drop interface; customizable dust jacket; other people can purchase your book.

Cons: Offers only one book size.

Contact: Blurb

Tip: Before you rush your book out to friends and relatives, order a single copy for yourself to proof the contents and image quality.


If you feel confined by the layouts that iPhoto and Blurb provide, and if you’re willing to take on the design work yourself, Lulu’s book service offers much more freedom. It can also help you make a bit of a profit from your book by selling it online.

Like iPhoto and Blurb, Lulu lets you upload books for printing. But unlike the other services, Lulu doesn’t provide desktop software for designing your book. Instead, Lulu prints books from standard PDF files. This gives you the option of designing your book in any software that can save to PDF—including Adobe InDesign, Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, and Apple’s Pages.

Once you’ve designed your pages, simply select File: Print, and choose Save As PDF from the PDF pull-down menu. (Lulu does offer Web-based tools for designing a photo book, but I recommend skipping them.) The site can be a bit glitchy with Safari, so I recommend using Firefox to upload and purchase your book.

Lulu offers a wide variety of book sizes and binding options. Softcover books come in nine sizes, including standards such as 6 by 9 inches and 8.5 by 11 inches, as well as more-unusual sizes, such as 7.5 inches square, 6.6 by 10.25 inches (a comic-book format), and 9 by 7 inches (landscape orientation). Hardcover books can have an image printed directly onto a glossy cover, or can come wrapped in a full-color dust jacket. Lulu also gives you the option of selling an electronic copy of your book, which other people can download as a PDF file.

Because of the variety of printing options, Lulu’s pricing is much more varied—and more com-plicated—than Blurb’s or iPhoto’s. Prices start at around $5, with each full-color page adding 15 cents and each black-and-white page adding 2 cents. That means, for example, that you can get a 6-by-9-inch book with 150 black-and-white pages for around $8. Quality-wise, Lulu’s books are very similar to Blurb’s and Apple’s—providing good color and detail.

While you can buy copies of your book for yourself, Lulu’s main focus is helping you sell your book to others. After creating your book, you can add a royalty fee on top of the book’s cost. Lulu’s royalty arrangement is extremely generous, leaving you with 80 percent of the total profit. You can then place your book in Lulu’s public bookstore or, even better, in other online bookstores, such as Lulu will also provide you with a free ISBN (Interna-tional Standard Book Number), which is required to sell any book commercially.

Ideal For: People who want to make their books available to a large audience, or who want to make money off of book sales; people who want complete flexibility in the book’s layout and size.

Pros: Good variety of book sizes; affordable prices; distribution through online bookstores.

Cons: Limited design tools included.

Contact: Lulu

Tip: There’s an art and a science to designing books well. If you have little or no experience, find a book that you like and use it as a model.

Unibind PhotoBook Creator

While the books created by online services such as Lulu, Blurb, and Apple look nice, their print quality can’t come close to what you get from a good photo printer. Today’s photo ink-jet printers use a more sophisticated printing process, which results in true continuous-tone images. They also give you the freedom to reprint images until you get them exactly the way you want.

Once you have a stack of pages printed, you need a way to bind them. This is where Unibind’s PhotoBook Creator fits in. This $100 device provides a simple, fast, affordable way to create your own hardback books.

To bind a book, first choose which hardback cover you want to use. Covers, sold separately, come in a variety of colors and sizes. You can choose from linen, faux suede, or leather finishes. Some covers even offer a cut-out window so you can see a portion of your first page. Prices vary depending on which options you select: a basic linen cover costs $18. When you order, make sure to select a spine that is big enough to hold all of your pages. Unibind offers guidelines for determining how many pages will fit in a spine. To make the most of your page count, use double-sided photo paper.

Each cover has a special type of glue in the spine. To make a book, you print your pages, stack them inside the cover, and then place the book, spine-down, in the PhotoBook Creator. In about a minute, the machine melts the glue, and your book is bound. The result is an attractive, sturdy, and professional-looking book.

Here’s the best part—your book’s design isn’t set in stone. Later, if you decide you want to add new pages, or if you want to rearrange the photos— to remove snapshots of your ex, for example—you place a finished book in the machine to unbind it, change the contents, and then rebind it.

Ideal For: Photographers who want to produce books with photo-quality images.

Pros: Gives you complete control of print quality and paper selection.

Cons: You must have your own printer.

Contact: Unibind (You can purchase the PhotoBook Creator at LexJet.)

Tip: When designing your pages, remember to leave some room along the left side for the binding. If you print on thick paper, also consider scoring along the front left margin with the back of a table knife to make the bound pages easier to turn.

Something for Everyone: Each of Blurb’s hardcover books (top) come with a full-color dust jacket. Lulu offers not just design freedom, but also a wide range of book sizes, including this 7-by-9-inch softcover (bottom).When Quality Counts: By using my Epson R2400 to print images on Epson Enhanced matte paper, I was able to create a portfolio book that really did my images justice. I then placed the whole book in the PhotoBook Creator device to bind the book.
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