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Eileen Gittins wanted to print 40 books. A tech industry executive fresh off the fizzle of her second startup, she turned to her lifelong passion, photography, to escape computers for a bit. Her idea: shoot portraits of people she had worked with over the years, capturing them lost in their own hobbies and passions. The pictures, Gittins says, would be a gift to those who worked with her.
The challenge came in the delivery. Since Gittins spent hours hand-developing every picture, 40 photos times 40 people meant prints wouldn't be feasible. Hosting the images online didn't seem right; she wanted to give people more than a URL. "I thought, I'll just make a book," Gittins says of the 2003 project. "It was the classic entrepreneurial statement--'How hard can that be?'"
The answer, she soon found out, was "nearly impossible." Though a few online photo-printing services were printing picture books on demand, production on the whole was dominated by the economies of scale. "Most books were created as products for sale, not as gifts," Gittins says. "Unless the contents of my book had real commercial value, there was no way it was going to get produced."
Yet she saw opportunity in the problem. "It was clear to me the publishing industry was a broken business model," Gittins says. "I could see the integration opportunity just sitting there--it was desktop publishing systems that I had built in previous companies meets print-on-demand digital technology."
So, at a time when the world was launching Web 2.0, Gittins began selling the power of the printed page. A known commodity in Silicon Valley, she was able to book meetings with venture capital firms, and she spoke their language. Still, says Gittins, "the VC community thought I was a lunatic."
Today, traditional publishers appear to be the crazy ones. Gittins' venture, Blurb, has realized a 30 percent increase in revenue over the last year. The 100-person company has more than 750,000 customers, of which more than 50 percent are repeat bookmakers and purchasers. Blurb offers simple solutions for photo albums and other books, along with services for their target market of creative professionals. From filmmakers to ad agencies, thousands use the service to print marketing pieces like portfolios, catalogs and even RFP responses.
Erin Markland, a director and independent stylist for jewelry and accessory purveyor Stella & Dot, published a book that helps stylists quickly show customers ways to wear their products. "Having the visual of several different pieces is very helpful to me in my business," she says. "I have had lots of other stylists use it, and they've told me it's helped to increase their sales."
Creatives can also sell their books commercially through the site. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Thomas Hooper has earned more than $20,000 in sales from his collection of illustrations, Book of Lines. Celebrity fitness trainer David Kirsch published his Butt Book through Blurb and sold more than 30,000 copies.
Gittins, meanwhile, output her 40 copies, and then some. Last year alone, Blurb printed at least 2 million books, and in 2012, leveraging social media to make recommendations, it's anticipating even more press runs. "That is the new form of distribution and how people are discovering new books," Gittins says. "People who love your stuff are doing your marketing for you."