Sunday, January 31, 2010

Print Your Own Book

My dad has over the years written several poems and short stories, and I thought it'd be a nice idea to get them bound into a book. A quick survey of book publishing options gave me the following.

Low cost, mini-mass production --
Summary of self-publishing options --
Lulu (books, media, storefront) --
Blurb (has booksmart) --
Xlibris (for serious authors) --
Photo Books --
Discussion on Self Publishing --
Semi-useful blog about how to use Lulu --
Cafe Press (low cost) --

My requirement was to print (not for resale) ~4 books of ~30 pages with flexible layout options using roughly the standard novel paper size and with the ability to embed illustrations. After reading the above, I decided it was a draw between the following two options:

LuLu: Perfect Bound, 32 pages, Softcover, 5.83in x 8.26in, $5.14 USD/book.
Blurb: Perfect Bound, 32 pages, Softcover, 5in x 8in, ~$5/book.

I'd previously heard of Blurb's booksmart software, and Lulu looks like its niche is more for helping you re-sell your final product, so I went with Blurb.

Big mistake.

In the end I was able to produce what I wanted, but the path was full of pain and misery. If I ever try something like this again, it'll be with Lulu.

In the booksmart software, there are three modes: preview, edit and layout. The preview mode (presumably) shows you exactly what your final product will look like. This is a nice feature and is pretty much the only thing I appreciated about booksmart.


Edit mode is where you add your text. It has a zoom feature but as soon as you move your cursor from one editable area to another, it reverts to the default zoom, making the zoom feature frustrating and effectively useless. Another pisser is the restriction on window size (in all modes). They have scroll bars, but for whatever reason, you're not allowed to resize the window much smaller than full-screen -- again, useless.

There are two types of text areas: fixed size and flowing. Fixed size means that if your text fills more space than the available area then it just disappears past the bottom. This isn't very useful for anything other than captions. Flowing means that when text goes past the bottom of the page, a new page is started and the text appears there -- not a break-through technology, that's how every other word processor functions. But here's the coup de grĂ¢ce: if you have text flowing from page 5 to 6 and you later add text to page 5 or change font size or do anything to effect where in your text the page-break occurs then:
1. extra line-breaks are arbitrarily inserted
2. characters from you text are arbitrarily deleted.

Insane. Unbelievable. Garbage. Just to be totally clear: you add a paragraph on page 3 and text is deleted from every following page. That's totally unacceptable.


When you're in layout mode it looks like the following. Because of the "arbitrarily delete your text" bug described above, I ended up making my own layouts (one for left pages, on for right pages). And because I didn't like the dimensions of their header, I added my own. These choices made production of the book very tedious, because I had to copy (and align) my header text for every page, and I had to decide before-hand the layout of all my page text because I had to use fixed size containers and text couldn't flow from page to page. So if you're editing page 20 and you change your mind about page 3 you basically have to redo pages 3 to 20 if the page 3 changes at all effect page 4.


Finally, it has an automatic save-as-you-go feature, which I normally appreciate. But since the interfaces and controls were so horribly non-intuitive and buggy, it was difficult to know the effect (sometimes sweeping) of your actions and how to reverse them. They do offer the ability to archive the current state of your book, which I used often as a means to recover from the devastating effects of their frequent bugs.

In the end, I managed to cobble together an acceptable product and placed an order for four copies on Dec. 22nd 2009. They arrived about 30 days later, and my dad was delighted.

My advice: do publish books; don't use blurb.

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