Bettering the Book Business: Eileen Gittins founder of Blurb

Californian photographer, Eileen Gittins is charismatic, idea-rich, but above all, she is a serious business woman. And when her passion for photography led to a desire to make a good book out of her photos, her disappointment in the end result inspired the creation of Blurb. Her company, founded in 2005, is exciting photographers all around because Blurb offers them the chance to finally make their own, personalized, high quality, photo book. Having expanded into England, France, and now Germany, Eileen explains how the company got started and where the company is headed.

What is your background in photography and how did it lead you to found Blurb?

I really got interested in photography from an early age. As a child, my dad gave me a Kodak Retina 35mm camera when I was 11 years old. He sent me off to visit family in London for four months and none of them were photographers, so I had to figure out things like aperture and shutter speeds by myself. That is when I spent all my pocket money on film. I would send snapshots and letters back to the States and my dad, who was a very good photographer, would critique them.

This interest picked up again at university, after which I went on to a Multi-media Studies program at San Francisco University. The whole notion of Multi-media was coming into vogue and I was very interested in still imagery as well as video and audio.

Then, I studied journalism and photography in college. After graduating, I needed a job and so I pursued Kodak for a year, thinking that was where I really wanted to work. The allure was not only working in the photography industry, but also I heard that employees got free film, paper and darkroom chemistry. I thought that was better than rent money! This was in the early 1980s, and there was a recession going on in the United States, so Kodak didn’t have any job to give me, but when an opening came up a year later, I jumped at it.

I started out in Sales and did a little studio work. It was a great and long association; I worked for Kodak for over seven years. I met all kinds of interesting people. This period, though, was in the early transition from film to digital. I became one of the early evangelists for the new digital technology. I got so enamored with the digital that I wanted to get more involved in image management.
So I ended up leaving Kodak in the early 90s, and went to work for a software company in Seattle. They were doing work database software, but it was my transition out of photography into the software startup world. I joined them as a VP of business development, where I would go out and build relationships with companies. It was my first chance to really run a group.
In the mid 90s, the Internet arrived. I ended up meeting with some venture capitalist firms, which lead to my first true start-up where I was a CEO. After the crash, none of us made any money, and very few people did.

I sold that company, did another, and sold that one too. And I found myself, in 2003, with much more time and I started photographing again. I wanted to assign myself a project, because I tend to work on longer-term projects. I chose to photograph entrepreneurs, who really built the web. I had previously worked with a lot of these people. They all agreed to participate and before long I had 40 environmental portraits of people. It was a combination of medium format Hasselblad and digital work. I had images and stories, so it became a photo essay. I wanted to share this content with the group and I thought about making a website, but I realized that it’s very hard to gift a website.

So I thought I’d make a book. I went online, thinking I would find a company like Blurb – a company that would enable you to make a high quality photo book. And it wasn’t there. Late in 2003, I found a company that did photo albums and I tried it. When I received that book, I was both dismayed and excited. Excited because some business had started to make just one copy, unlike traditional publishing. The bad news was that the quality was horrible.

It seemed like there was a possibility of making a new business. I pulled together six to eight former colleagues. We met in every café in San Francisco and built our business plan. Then I went out and raised 2 million dollars in venture capital. The whole spirit of the company was founded based on quality – quality of a photo book.

In this five-year time frame, how has the product you offer evolved?

We laugh now, because when we first started, we were like what Henry Ford used to famously say about his cars: “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” And for Blurb, it was that: you could have any book you wanted as long as it was standard landscape; any paper you wanted as long as this one.

The only tool we had to make our book was our own application, which was fairly basic. You couldn’t customize it. But it was, nonetheless, so novel for people who were discerning about image quality. One of the things we got right from the very beginning was color management. We worked very hard with HP, who we standardized with, so that the files we sent from our servers were highly calibrated to the Raster Image Processor. Even though the printing options were limited, we focused on the color management from day one.

First, people wanted to just make a book. Then they wanted to make a book using their own tools like Adobe InDesign. Then the third phrase was that they wanted to sell their book for profit. The fourth was having more paper options, like a heavier weight paper. The fifth phrase was being able to make a book and change the book size in any direction by just clicking on one button. If it’s not the same aspect ratio, like going from a square to a landscape, we still try our best and run it through. Shortly we will be making books available both in print version and shortly digital version, for ipad and iphone.

We are increasingly becoming a rich media-authoring platform. You design it, then Blurb packages it up and produces it for you, in whatever medium is your interest.

We specifically have a Pro-line as well. People wanted the book materials to be unique, like the book’s contents. We heard from people that they wanted an uncoated paper stock and one “Pearl Paper” from Ilford’s line of photo paper. In addition, we’re also offering end sheets of varying colors and papers. There are now linen cases to the books; in oatmeal and charcoal colors. Peter Marlowe’s Blurb book demonstrates some of these new additions. You can now choose a paper based on the body of work that you have.

Another thing we realized was that making paper choices online is a very difficult thing. So, we came up with a free paper sample kit. We made a point of choosing two images and printed them on different papers. This is a big deal for us.

How do you feel that Blurb distinguishes itself from other companies who offer similar services?

From an online vendor, I’m not aware of a company that offers this array of bindery options and these choices without any minimum runs. We know that we are not for everyone; if what you want to do is spend 20 minutes making a little baby book, there are lots of ways to do that. Blurb distinguishes itself through quality and by being for people who are enthusiastic all the way up through professional.

Can you tell us about Blurb’s expansion in Europe and what drew you towards this market?

When we built Blurb, we were a global business from day one. It took us a couple of years before we could truly translate into local languages and culturally translate. Our very first expansion was here in France, about a year ago, because it was the seat of modern photography. It’s also a huge cultural passion and love for photography, as well as a huge community.

France has been hugely successful for us; our business in France is up well over 200%. We learned that by making it more comfortable for people to make and order a book in their native language, this was a great solution to growing the business.

I’m here in Europe this time to launch the German version. Germany is the second largest photo book market in the world, after the United States.

Beyond France and Germany, we’ll be looking into the Spanish, Italian and Portuguese markets; Portuguese because of Brazil. Then, after Brazil, we’re very interested in Japan.

There are also events that correspond with Blurb, can you talk about one that you’re most proud of?

We’re very proud of Photo Book Now, which we started three years ago. We started it because of one idea: now that people who are into photography can truly publish a professional quality book with zero creative constraints, zero economic constraints, what would they do? So, to characterize that opportunity, we offered an international competition to invite people to show us what they would do. We managed to get HP to help fund the grand prize that first year, which was 25,000 dollars. With this prize, you could start and finish a project that was your dream to do.

As someone who works on long-term projects, I know that when you have the time, you don’t have the money.

We are also very proud of the quality of the jurors, who induced people to enter the competition. We wanted to get people who were editors at the New York Times, curators at the Tate Modern. This year is no exception, and it might be the best ever that we’ve assembled.

We host the awards ceremony in New York, because a lot of people convene there, besides it being another big photographic center. This year it will be at Aperture Gallery. Then we also have meet-ups around the world.

Interview by LG & RD, Translation by Elisa Guenon

In 2011, Blurb became the partner for the magazine www.lesphotographes.com helping with printing and communication.

Link to Blurb’s website