Blurb is an online “self-publishing” company based in San Francisco. The company launched their first products in 2006. I had seen Eileen Gittins, the company’s founder, speak at DSCOOP6 a couple of months ago, so I was thrilled to see Bruce Watermann was appearing on a panel at the Digital Book Printing Forum in New York last week.
Bruce is the company’s SVP, Print Operations. He’s been there since 2005. Before joining Blurb, he worked at Corbis, and before that at a high end photo lab in Seattle, Pacific Color.
Bruce started out with some of the company’s current “vital statistics”, telling us that their annual revenue is now over $50M, and that in 2010, they paid nearly $2M to authors. Almost 50% of the company’s business now originates outside of the US. They have a London office, in addition to SF HQ. They ship to 70 countries, and they’ve just recently begun to localize their web site, starting with French in 2010, and more to come this year. Bruce explained they are very careful about the translations, so they get the nuances of the culture and communicate their brand value in the locality.
But let’s talk about the fun part, the technology. Bruce built a really cool digital network for producing the many products consumers purchase on the company’s web site. They call it the Print Partner Network, or PPN.
The print service providers in the PPN are handpicked. Once an order/job “lands” at one of the PPN companies, they have three days to produce and ship it. Blurb expects less than 1% manufacturing defects, and enforces this with an SLA. Bruce tells us this is being achieved!
The company insists their partners use 100% HP Indigo digital presses for color, and 100% Oce equipment for B&W when producing Blurb products. In the network, partners have Indigo 5000 series, 7000s and 7500s, as well as WS6000s and W7200s. They have even standardized RIPs, insisting on HP SmartStream Ultra or Production Pro.
Bruce told us, however, that the actual printing is “the easy part”. I think most printers would agree with this— when a job is on the press, you’re making money, it is smooth sailing. It’s everything before and after that kills you. Because of this, Bruce told us that the beyond being able to print with the highest quality, the thing that separates the partners they have chosen is Information Technology (IT) expertise, particular binding equipment and skills, and being able to fulfill a quantity of one.
Getting the jobs to the PPN partner consists of three files: XML (job ticket), book cover, book guts. They use the venerable PrintTalk specification (now part of CIP4 JDF, but formerly an industry e-commerce spec originally developed as a standalone consortium in the dotcom era.) Blurb decides where the job will be printed. One ready, the PPN partner pulls the job down to their facility.
Finishing is also standardized, with Blurb requiring partners to utilize ODM and GP2 binding gear; CP Bourg and Horizon for book block creation, and LBS for materials. As an aside, the paper is also dictated, with Blurb working exclusively with NewPage and Mohawk at this time.
Printers are able to dictate their own internal workflow, but fulfillment is prescribed by Blurb, featuring a global shipping partnership with FedEx. Bruce said they hit their high water mark one day in 2010 when they shipped 10,000 packages in a single day!
Self-publishing consumers in their own homes and offices use one of three separate methods to create their books: BookSmart is a desktop client, Bookify is an online creator application, and PDF to Book provides templates for Adobe InDesign. Customers then send their ready-to-publish creations over to Blurb.
Blurb’s creation tools plug into a RESTful API interface that provides pricing, preview, preflight and plugs into e-commerce functionality. From there, the orders flow into a business layer, and then finally into Blurb’s backend system, which they call “BookServe”, that provides routing and other services.
It’s really damn exciting stuff. I consider companies like Blurb, and Lulu (see my recent post about Bob Young’s talk at the Digital Book Printing Forum) to be part of the “new printing industry”, a group in which I also include my own employer, Mimeo.com.In my opinion, our industry would have a much more vibrant ecosystem if more companies were doing the things we are doing. We’d be able to attract better talent, and explain our place in the digital media landscape much better if more participants had the tech capabilities and the ability to explain those capabilities, like Bruce Watermann did at this event.