When the Tools Create More Work: Two Different Experiences with Blurb BookSmart

I’ve been struggling with a project for weeks.  I’m frustrated and running out of time to fulfill a promise I made.

It began eight years ago when I collected photos of my maternal grandparents, their ten children, and their fifty-two children, and many great- and great-great-grandchildren to create a ring-binder of photos identifying our family.

Cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings were generous with their loans of treasured photos.  In fact, they were so generous the book outgrew the first two ring-binders I bought.  The photos and newspaper articles I scanned, enhanced, cropped, enlarged, and annotated became a massive tome of 300 double-sided pages.  And for every page I printed one side, manually turned the page over, and printed the second side, as the software I had did not allow for double-sided printing.  It took over sixteen hours to print one copy.  (Yes, my printer was s-l-o-w-w-w.)

It was a labor of love.  Exhausted love, but worth the very late nights and very early mornings, when at a family reunion everyone spent time going through the book and sharing their memories.  To my surprise I received over twenty requests for copies.

You can imagine what I was feeling as I pondered another three or four hundred hours of click, print, turn, click, print, sort, hole-punch drudgery.  So I promised to hold the book until I could find a way to publish it without it costing a fortune.  I investigated several self-publishing venues, but at that time there was no way to print a book cost-effectively with that many pages.  Most self-publishing companies didn’t even offer the option to print 300 pages.

As the years passed, prices came down a bit, page capacity increased a great deal for some of those publishing groups.

Now, another family reunion is fast approaching and I want to complete this project.  Not only for me, but for the cousins who’ve been waiting (not always) patiently.

I originally created this book in Publisher on my old computer, which of course, died last year.  No fear, I had already backed up every file onto my new laptop before the death rattle sounded.  But my Publisher program would not install on my new computer, forcing me to purchase and install a new copy before I could open any of those saved files.  And I do mean “files” plural.  With a project that massive I had to chunk it down into sections of twenty pages or so.

Okay, Publisher is installed and working on the new laptop.  I’ve already reformatted the book size and orientation three times in an attempt to bring the page count as low as possible.  And the only way to know if I’ve eliminated pages is to re-do the entire book from the first to last page for each template.  That means re-sizing and re-positioning every photo and every text box and resizing fonts. I’ve finally found a size that reaches a compromise for being able to see the photos and being able to pay for the book.

Last fall I had great success with a book I published on Blurb for an artist/poet.  I felt the BookSmart tool was fast and intuitive.  The ability to duplicate a set of pages was invaluable.  I liked the Preview function which I could choose at any time during the process and look at each page in relation to the next.  The two-page and multi-page spreads allowed me to see how the pages looked in relation to each other.  It was easy to make changes to the book when necessary, even to the extent of uploading an edited version after reviewing the proof copy.

It’s extremely easy to switch themes, backgrounds, and cover colors without creating a new version of your book.  Simply select the variation you want to try, and if you don’t like it, “undo” the change or select something else.  There’s a nice option to add small ornaments to the page if you want something a bit fancier.

What didn’t register at the time was that every page of that poetry and art book was either text or image.  One or the other, no combinations.

While redoing the Publisher files for the family book I grouped the photo and associated text, and then created a master group of all the grouped items on each page.  My thought was that, although it would be time-consuming, all I would have to do was move from page to page in the Publisher files, copying a page, and pasting it into the BookSmart page.

But what I’m discovering is that the BookSmart tool is not so easy to use when every page is a combination of image and text annotations.  You cannot copy and paste an image/text combination into a text box or an image box.  Neither format will accept the hybrid.  Each page must be individually formatted.

Every photo must be downloaded into the Content Library before it can be inserted on the page.  Once you’ve added them to a page, you cannot delete photos from the Content Library to make the list more manageable.

While there is a large selection of Page Templates for both text and image, the choices are quite structured.  If you’re interested in doing something a little different you can (and will have to) create your own template.  For my project each image box and every text box will have to be individually sized for the specific photo and text, so I won’t be able to design a single template for the book.

The small viewing area available for editing the page makes it very hard to see what you’re doing without constantly zooming in and out, switching between the editing and formatting screens, and toggling the Page Layout Templates, Page Navigator, and Content Library off and on.

I’ve been up until 2:00 am for several nights already, and I’ve barely started on what promises to be a long task.  I’m no longer confident I can finish formatting this book in Blurb BookSmart, and order and receive a proof copy in the ten days left before the reunion.

I hate breaking promises, but I hate even more when tools that show great promise turn out to be useful only in limited functions.  It’s going to be a long haul, but I’ll get this photo book finished, printed, and available to the family.  And maybe I’ll find a better tool along the way.

My score for Blurb BookSmart functionality and ease of use?  An 8.5 out of 10 stars if you’re creating a straight text or straight photo book.  But I have to say it’s only 3 out of 10 stars if your pages have multiple images combined with text or you’re interested in creating something original.

These scores don’t address the Blurb Help experience.  If I ever finish this project I’ll come back and share about that.

Have you had experience with self-publishing photo books with text annotations?  What tools to you like and why?  Which tools do you not recommend and why?  Inquiring minds want to know.  [I don’t remember who said that, but it was very popular when I was much younger.] 😉