A First Printing of Blurb Trade Books

I published my first Blurb book recently.  For some time now I have been looking for an affordable way to print small collections of my photos in book form.   My iPad used to be my means of showing people my body of work but there is just nothing like holding a real book in your hands.  I wanted something easy to carry around that looks decent and doesn't break the bank.  A book needed to be big enough to show off the images, while being small enough that I can carry a few in my messenger bag.  It needed to be inexpensive enough that I can sell them at a relatively low price or just give them away if I feel like it.

I was starting to think such a thing didn't exist until I stumbled upon Blurb trade books.  Daniel Milnor, a photographer I highly respect, mentioned them in a blog entry some time back.  After reading his small writeup and watching his video review I decided to place an order.  The trade books are not a typical photo book and the price reflects that.  They are smallish books at 6"x9" in a portrait orientation.  The paper is not photo paper.  It's regular uncoated paper and is available in cream colored (black and white only) or white.  My first project was all black and white so I ordered one of each.

After doing my layout in Blurb's BookSmart app, I uploaded my book and waited a little over a week for shipment notification.  For just two small paper backs shipping was rather steep at about $10 via FedEx, the only option I was given.  It would be nice if they offered a USPS book rate option.  The books themselves were relatively inexpensive at about $8 for the cream paper and about $17 for the white paper.  My books are 94 pages so this isn't bad at all when you compare prices with real photo paper options out there.

When the shipment finally arrived, I tore open the box immediately, eager to hold my creation in my hands.  My smile faded away quickly.  The books were tightly shrink wrapped to a piece of cardboard inside the thin shipping box.  During transit the box obviously took a hit or drop - nothing from outward appearances that would raise an eyebrow, just a typical shipping ding.  The damage inside the box was much more severe.  The jolt to the shipping box apparently rippled through the internal cardboard backing of the books and since they were tightly fused to it they were badly crumpled.

Upon further examination I found a second problem.  There was a very definite bluish color cast to the white paper book.  The effect varied by light source but was distinct under everything from tungsten to daylight.  My image files were a mixture of scanned black and white negatives and digital files that were all converted to black and white in Adobe Lightroom.  They look neutral on my calibrated monitor and in my prints at home on my Canon Pro 100 inkjet.  The CMYK printers used by Blurb were a different story.

An email was sent to Blurb support and I received a reasonably timely response indicating that my order would be reprinted at no cost to replace the damaged books.  My question about the color cast went unanswered initially so I asked a second time.  The next response was a link to recommended color management practices on the Blurb site (already been there, done that) and a code to reprint my order once I corrected my images.  Um, OK.  So, what was there there to correct?  A few more emails went back and forth and I listed the exact steps by which my images were prepared.  I was told my process was fine.  Um, OK.  Now what?  Print again and see what happens was all support could really suggest.

Shrugging, I resubmitted the order as it was, making no changes to the files.  After a little over a week passed I had fresh unmangled books in my hands.  A good start.  Also good - the blacks looked a lot better in the new printing of the white book.  Great!  Except...since I didn't change anything this tells me that the output of the printers is not so consistent.  Not so great.  More emails were exchanged with me asking if there is anything I can do to get more consistent results.  After a little back and forth with no solid answer from support I was left a little frustrated.  While the Blurb support person did respond promptly each time, the answers were not particularly informative and I felt like my questions weren't really comprehended.  Kind of like the answers were scripted - you know, the kind of stuff you get back from support lines that are outsourced to another country (I don't know if Blurb outsources their support, it's just the same sort of responses).  Disappointing but not surprising these days.

I then exchanged some messages with Mr. Milnor, who was kind enough to humor my struggle to understand the Blurb printing process.  Our correspondence didn't leave me with anything to definitively address color cast avoidance and he stated that I should be able to expect pretty consistent results.  I'm still scratching my head and wondering if my first shipment was the last one before beer o'clock one day.  Or is it really not possible to get consistent neutral black/gray output from the HP Indigo printers used for these books?  I understand that the grays are really a combining of colors and not "true gray."  Still, it seems like a properly calibrated printer wouldn't produce distinct color casts.  Hmm....  While I love the concept of these books, the control freak in me detests the possibility of color weirdness.

One thing Dan mentioned did get me thinking.  He typically applies a tone to his black and white images.  I'm wondering if toning might minimize the perception of a color cast.  It's more obvious (I think) when the image is expected to be neutral. Maybe I'll give toning a try in my next print sample.

Enough rambling, it's picture time.  Here is a look at what I got.

The book, "War Faces", is a collection of images I've taken over the past 3 years of the people who participate in WWII reenactments held at Camp Mabry in Austin several times a year.  Above is a comparison of the white paper to the cream paper.  I took these photos in daylight through a window.  Depending on how the light hits the paper, a slight color cast can still be seen.  I'm deliberately angling the white paged book away from the window light in the image above to maximize the apparent color cast.  It is not anywhere near as apparent under most lighting as the original printing and this one looks fine to me.  Acceptable, although not true neutral.  The cream paper looks fine from a neutrality standpoint.  This comes at a cost of cream colored whites (not a big deal) and shallow blacks (big deal).  The cream images look faded, weathered.  Not a huge problem for these particular images maybe.

The images look sharp and overall neutral in the white paper book (above top).  The blacks aren't incredibly deep but they aren't bad.  If I could be assured of a consistent print, I'd say I have a winner. The cream colored book (above bottom) is decent, especially considering the price.  While the white paper minimizes grain, the cream paper accentuates it.  Mid tones look muddy on the cream paper.  I'd say it's better suited for higher contrast images, although you still won't get the range of the white paper.  In all fairness, I have to say that Blurb is clear on the fact that the cream paper isn't really designed for photographs.  It's the same sort of paper you'd see used with a typical paper back novel.  I gave it a try thinking it might work for some images and I believe with the right contrasty material it would be fine.

A double truck spread in the white paper book really pops and has nice dynamic range.  I'm liking this.  I didn't print any color images this time but it's nice to know that I could combine color and black and white images in the white paper books.

Muddy mid tones and grain are even more apparent in the larger images on the cream paper.  Not horrible but the images just don't pop off the page.  I really wanted this inexpensive option to work for this collection of images but I think I'm asking too much.  Square peg, round hole.  Still, the price is sure nice on the cream colored paper.  I'll have to show these around some more and see what people think.  After all, I'm always going to be the toughest critic of my work.  Maybe I'll try cranking the contrast and do another printing one to see if I can get the images to pop a little.

Overall, my first experience with Blurb trade books isn't completely wowing me.  However, I'm not scared away from further experimental printings to see if I can get something I can be consistently happy with.  There is some great potential here and I honestly didn't expect perfection my first time at bat.  Stay tuned.