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April 9, 2012
By Judith Rosen was launched to help authors who wanted to make high-quality, one-off books of baby pictures, photo collections, or journals.

In the five years since Blurb, the self-publishing platform, went live in mid-2006, the Silicon Valley startup has grown with the book publishing industry overall. Founded by Eileen Gittins, who was frustrated when she couldn’t find an affordable way to print 40 copies of her photography book, Five Hours in Napa, to give to friends, was launched to help others who wanted to make high-quality, one-off books of baby pictures, photo collections, or journals. Personal books continue to play an important role as Blurb moves forward, making up 50% of its business.

To get a sense of just how much the other half has grown, in 2011 self-published authors on Blurb earned a total of $1 million on sales of nearly 100,000 books. Top-selling titles include photography books like Claudio Rodriguez’s portrait of New York City, The View from 16th Street; Chef Kory Foltz’s cookbook, Oystercatchers Guest Favorites; and Smith magazine’s new installment in its Six Words series, Six Words About Work. Blurb’s customer base grew by 44%. It shipped more than 1.8 million books to 69 countries, up from 1.4 million in 2010.

“People are making real money,” Gittins tells PW. “We do have some people who make over $50,000 a year from Blurb. For others, it’s enough to buy a new lens cap cover for their camera. The Blurb platform allows self-published authors to set the prices of their books and keep 100% of the profits.” On average, Blurb authors mark up the price of their books $9.95 above costs. However, for some niche books, like medical journals on very specific health subjects, it can be as much as $200. Last year, Blurb’s #2 in terms of both dollars and units was a coffee-table book on bald eagles—not just any eagles: the Decorah bald eagles—by the Raptor Resource Project in Decorah, Iowa. “I look at that just in terms of the differences between us and something HarperCollins would do,” says Gittins, who knows that a traditional publisher is more likely to turn down such a specific project. “Yet they sold well over 1,000 units, and their profits were in the five figures.”

Smith magazine founder Larry Smith, who has published five books with Harper Perennial, regards Blurb as “another menu item. We’re having fun experimenting with Blurb. It’s a way I can do more extensions of my brand. Most important,” he adds, “the books look great.” He also likes the speed with which they can be made. During a conference call with the consulting firm Mercer in September, they decided to bring out Six Words About Work in time for Christmas and had 5,000 finished books by December 1. The book got writeups in the New York Times and on CNN, among others. Earlier this month Smith published Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life through Blurb. He expects strong sales to synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish summer camps, book groups, and interfaith communities. Still, he is open to bringing out future Six Words books from Harper or another traditional brand.

Some people care more about promoting their work with a Blurb publication than making money. That’s the case with Rodriguez, who published his photos taken from the terraces of the Port Authority building on 16th Street in Manhattan in order to supplement his portfolio. “I am working on a second book that I might self-publish with Blurb again unless I can find a [traditional] publishing house,” he says. Before coming to Blurb, he printed a sample copy and liked the paper and binding. Still, other authors, like Chef Foltz, who sells his cookbook in Oystercatchers restaurant in Tampa, Fla., and restocks every month, try to do both. Increasingly, self-publishers have begun turning to Blurb for larger print runs, 250 copies and up, for everything from books to go with gallery shows to “look books” for ad agencies. According to Gittins, large custom orders are the fastest-growing part of the business, up 400% over the previous year.

E-books are also available through Blurb, which charges $1.99 to convert a book to the iPad format. Acknowledging that the conversions aren’t always perfect, Gittins says that this summer Blurb will supply the tools to create more sophisticated e-books. Her goal is high-quality e-books that can have embedded audio and video. “We have this fundamental belief that your customer should be able to acquire your book in whatever media they prefer. It should never be either/or. It should be, yes, what do you want?” she notes. Blurb has already seen some traction for e-books, like blogger Karina Allrich’s Gluten-Free Goddess and the Design Seeds series based on the eponymous blog, which just released its sixth volume, Colors. Blurb customers downloaded an average of 2,000 e-books per week in 2011. As with Blurb print books, authors set the prices.