What Blurb is For

oldpostI love Blurb. I use them all the time. I think the books they create are so, so beautiful, and they make for amazing keepsakes and gifts.

But I don’t understand how their name keeps coming up in the self-publishing world, because I don’t see how you could possibly self-publish with them in any kind of commercial sense.

What Blurb is Great For

The first time I used Blurb was back in 2008. I’d spent three months backpacking with my best friend Sheelagh (you can read all about it in Backpacked) and, at least every other day, trekking to the nearest internet cafe to update our travel blog so our family and friends—and especially my mother, who had Interpol on speed-dial lest a day went by when I didn’t check in—would know where we were and how we were getting in. So when I discovered that I could take the text from our blog and our hundreds of photos and turn them into a beautiful, hardcover photo book, I thought it’d make the perfect memento for me and the best ever Christmas present for her.

Another time I used it for something I’d probably use CreateSpace or Lulu for now. I was organizing my inbox when I discovered a whole load of e-mails between me and a very good friend of mine from a few years back, and they were hilarious. (We’re both quite funny in e-mails, thank you very much. Plus we were always doing silly things, so there was always plenty to be funny about.) Because we didn’t live in the same place—we weren’t even living on the same continent for a lot of it—the e-mails were complete stories, and I thought it’d be fun to read back over in years to come. So I used Blurb to make a book of the e-mails, in chronological order, and gave it to him as a present.

This past weekend was my mother’s 60th birthday, and I gave her a large, square ‘coffee-table’ style Blurb book filled with old pictures that I’d scanned while she was away on holidays, and new ones I’d stolen off her computer. Perfect. (And slightly evil…!)

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My mum and I in one photo spread over two pages in Blurb’s ‘large square’ coffee table style photo book with image wrap and premium paper.

This is what Blurb is great for, because the books just look fabulous. They’re beautifully put together, and their premium paper feels fantastic. They’re great for presents, weddings, graduations, yearbooks, a book of your mother’s recipes, blogs to books, or just a place to put all those digital photos you took but never developed. They also ship lightning fast, and you can order just one copy of the book if you like. Best of all is it’s so easy to make a Blurb book—you just download their software, Book Smart, to your computer, and then it can be as simple as dragging and dropping.

So: yay for Blurb.

What Blurb is Bad At

But it costs a bloody fortune.

Now don’t get me wrong: in terms of the pure joy the Blurb books I’ve made have brought to people, they’re utterly priceless. The books I’ve made as gifts have all been absolutely worth what they cost. But if we think of this in terms of self-publishing, where we intend to sell our books and collect a profit, it’s just not doable.

For example:

  • My backpacker book was Blurb’s ‘standard landscape’ size and 102 premium pages with a dustcover. One copy is €47.43 before shipping.
  • My e-mail collection book was Blurb’s 240 pages of Blurb’s ‘pocket’ size (think your average paperback) in hardcover with image wrap. One copy is €18.26 before shipping. Were I to go with a softcover edition, it’d be €9.84.
  • My mum’s 60th birthday book was Blurb’s ‘large square’ with 106 premium pages and image wrap. One copy is €84.24 before shipping.

(€10 = $13 = £8.50, approximately).

For any of you that have just experienced a coronary event, may I say again: these prices are worth it when I’m giving these books as special gifts. And the product is so beautifully put together, I don’t mind that the price is that high, because you’re getting what you pay for. And Blurb frequently send out e-mails with 10% or even 20% off or other promotions, so hang around long enough and you’ll get a discount code.

But for self-publishing/selling, who’d pay nearly €100 for a book?

I think this comes down to the fact that for photographic books, Print On Demand self-publishing just isn’t there yet in terms of an affordable product.

But take the e-mail book, for instance, which is very similar in size and spec to my 5.5. x 8.5. CreateSpace paperbacks. CreateSpace are definitely creating an inferior product, but it does the job, and it does it for just $3.50, or about a quarter of what Blurb would charge for the same thing. And of course, CreateSpace are throwing in distribution, Cover Creator (ahem), monthly royalty payments, Amazon.com, etc. for that.

So, please, go use Blurb to create stunning books that will make you and your friends and family very, very happy.

But self-publishing with them? I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Have you used Blurb? For presents or for publishing? Share your experiences or thoughts on it below!  

Did Someone Say It Would Be Easy?

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In all the time I’ve been researching self-publishing, self-publishing myself and reading about the experiences of other writers who’ve self-published (I started my self-publishing shenanigans in November 2009), I’ve never once come across a post by a self-published author that said “My book started selling 1,000s of copies every day almost from the first one. One Friday I couldn’t quite make my rent, and the next I was counting out a wad of cash in front of my landlord, saying “Heck, I’ll just buy the place!”‘ Or, ‘What really amazed me was how, mere hours after I published my e-book, it shot up to the very top of the Amazon charts and never left! All I had to do was press the “Publish” button!’ Or ‘I still can’t believe how easy it was to become a bestselling self-published author!’

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What I have seen plenty of lately, however, are what I call the ‘Woe Is Me, The Failed Self-Published Author’ posts. These are usually written, as far as I can see, by writers who came to self-publishing having previously been traditionally published and/or worked in the publishing industry, or perhaps been a journalist. There’s usually a back-story ranging somewhere on the scale from mild professional disappointment (got a good deal some years ago but the books didn’t sell as well as hoped) to red-rage bitterness seasoned with contempt (has dart board of agent’s face in office, refuses to this day to read any books published by writer’s former publishing house, rubs hands together with glee like psychopathic cartoon villain whenever bad news for the traditional publishing industry comes out), and then a more recent unhappy result to add to it: they self-published five minutes ago, and it didn’t go well.

They might put this down to the Everest of an obstacle they can’t find a way up: obscurity. With literally millions of books out there for readers to choose from, how can they possibly convince anyone to buy theirs? And that would be after they find them and tell them about it, which seems harder still. Or maybe they’re too good for that Twittering business [insert eye roll], so they haven’t used social media at all, and goddammit, they don’t even want to live in a world where no one reads anything except stuff they found out about online. (It reminds me of a participant at a workshop I was at, who told the social media expert at the end of two intensive days that ‘Books sold before all this, you know.’ His response: ‘Yes, they did, but they weren’t self-published.’) Perhaps they have failed to take in a single smidgen of the free advice that seems to now coat a large section of the blogosphere, and didn’t release an e-book edition. Or maybe they strode into this new world still carrying a map of the old one, and relied on things like print media and radio interviews (printed or aired in a specific geographical region) to sell their self-published book (available worldwide but only online).

Maybe they didn’t do anything wrong at all. Maybe they did it all right. But it still didn’t work.

The point of these articles, of course, is to try and make it work. The title of the book is mentioned plenty of times, and there might even be a cheeky link to its Amazon listing. I think that bodes well for the book’s future, because it’s a really good idea. (In a way, it’s how I’ve made my books sell. Blogging is responsible for a lot of my first book’s sales, at least in the beginning.) But what I resent about these ‘Woe is Me’ articles is that, more often than not, they seem to suggest that those of us who say you should self-publish and that you can sell books and you can begin to make a living (or at least part of one) from the thing you love to do most of all are wrong, that you can’t do it and you shouldn’t bother.

Because this writer failed at self-publishing, we must be making the stories of our success up.

(Side note: I notice that none of these articles ever ponder whether or not the author has just self-published a book that no one wants to read. See here and here for more about the No. 1 thing you need to know about self-publishing: nobody gives a tiny rodent’s arse about your book.)

Did somebody say self-publishing was easy?

Did somebody say success was guaranteed?

Did somebody say it was easy, success was guaranteed and that hitting No.1 on Amazon would happen overnight?

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I know three successful self-publishers who, at first glance, could be considered to have had an easy time of it getting to the top. The first doesn’t blog, tweet or do any sort of organized promotion, but she’s sold nearly 80,000 copies of her novel and just got a two-book traditional publishing deal. BUT she wrote an amazing novel, heavily invested in editorial input and stunning cover art and worked hard to release it on a date that corresponded to the centenary of an historic event at the novel’s core. Another has four or five books consistently high up in Amazon’s charts, and also just signed a traditional deal based on their success. BUT she has been tirelessly blogging and commenting on blogs daily since before I ever published a post, probably devoting 1-2 hours per day to it, everyday, and she writes 2-3 books a year and still manages to engage with her fans all the time online. And of course, she’s written books people really love to read. And my third Amazon bestseller who, I’m sure, is on the verge of a traditional deal, would appear to have easily sold well over 300,000 copies of novels she writes publicly plus ones in an entirely different genre that she writes under a pen-name, and even if you asked her she would say she didn’t do much promotion. BUT again, she wrote great books (and wrote lots of them), invested in editing and professional cover design, and used the contacts she had in her other life as a book reviewer to secure glowing blurbs from top names. And I know what your reaction is here: she had contacts. Yes, but once upon a time, she didn’t. She didn’t know anyone. Then she started reviewing books on her blog, and did such a great job of it that publishers started offering her the books for free, and then when it came time to publish her own books, her hard work was rewarded because it helped her give a leg up. The hard work she did was in making a name for herself as a book blogger.

I’m a big believer in the idea that succeeding at self-publishing is doable. With a book people want to read, determination, dedication and a LOT of time and hard work, you can make it happen. But it’s certainly not easy, and if you think it is, I can’t begin to imagine where you got that idea.

Because it’s not. It takes time. When I first self-published I was unemployed, and so had nothing else to do all day but work on self-publishing. Even then, it took at least six months (of working full-time on it) to get to 100 copies per month, and a year to get above that.

That was in 2009 and today, in 2013, it’s still not easy. In May I released the first installment in a collection of essays, Travelled, that has barely sold any copies at all, despite the fact that the book of mine that’s most like it is my bestselling one. I’m not surprised, but I did absolutely nothing to promote it except mention it in a blog post here the day it became available, and on my Facebook page at the same time. That’s literally all I did. (Being released in installments, I might do some promotion when the ‘full book’ is out at the end of the year.) So even though I have three successful books, truckloads of blog and Twitter followers and a FB page with over 1,000 likes, I still can’t just publish a book and sit back and relax. It never gets easier. With the continuing growth of self-publishing’s popularity, it might just get harder and harder as time goes on.

People just don’t want everything that’s put in front of them. For example, I loved The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but I couldn’t find a thing to like about her follow-up, The Almost Noon. This isn’t the way with just books, though: it’s everything in the world. Think of an album you had on repeat for at least a year of your life, and the follow-up to it that you can’t even name. (I’m thinking of Craig David’s. And James Blunt’s. And did Damien Rice ever release anything after O?) Or the movies that come out that nobody goes to see. (I’m thinking Movie 43, one of the biggest bombs of the summer.) That’s partly why I think it’s so funny that one of the main Anti-Publishing arguments is that publishers don’t know what sells books, why one works and one doesn’t. Um… that’s, like, all of the books? In fact, it’s all of the stuff…? Some self-published books will sell, and some won’t. Some products will sell, and some won’t. That’s just the way the world works, because with so many factors influencing purchases, it’s impossible to predict what people will rush out to buy and what they’ll stay at home and ignore.

Success at self-publishing is not guaranteed. But then I can’t think of much in life where it is. What I do know is this though: you should still try.

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And here’s a thought for today, following on from my book blogger friend having contacts now but not always: in a lot of these ‘How can we combat obscurity?!’ groans, CuckooGate is frequently cited as being evidence that even great books can’t compete in today’s publishing world. You must have a leg-up, like a well-known name. JK Rowling has two Top 2 bestseller spots: one for a (many would say) mediocre novel and one for a (reportedly) fabulous crime novel that she wrote under another name. People are buying them just because JK Rowling wrote them, because she could write a Post-It note now or a shopping list, and people would buy it. And since The Cuckoo’s Calling sold less than 1,500 copies in hardcover prior to Rowling-connection reveal (which, news flash, is actually not that bad for a debut in hardcover that’s 30 times the price of most self-published e-books), this proves publishing is in the toilet, unknown authors can’t compete and in ten year’s time, the shelves of bookstores—if there’s any of those left—will only be stocked with novels James Patterson wrote the outlines for.

Except that J.K. Rowling was once nobody at all who got numerous rejections for her debut novel, was told there’s no money in children’s books and got only a £2,500 advance for a novel that not only became the first in a series of globally mega-selling books, but spawned a blockbuster movie franchise and a cash-cow for Universal Orlando, and turned Rowling into a billionaire.

Rowling wasn’t born a brand name. She earned the right to sell things just because her name is on them. She started from total obscurity, just like all of us will or did.

How have we all forgotten that?

How are you feeling about self-publishing these days? Did you think it would be easier than it proved it be, or have you been pleasantly surprised? 

Yes, my blogging break is over and I’m happy to say a draft of The Novel has been completed. Woo-hoo! To celebrate my return to the Land of the Living (Bloggers), you can purchase the PDF of Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing for just 99c (normally $4.99) for a limited period. Click here for more information.