Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas present to myself

If you've ever used one of the self-publishing sites to make your own calendar, cards or photo book, you may have noticed how excited these folks get around the holidays.  I started getting almost daily emails from both Blurb and Snapfish in mid-November, with new special offers in every message. I love making my own books, and after much trial and error have pretty much figured out how the software works, but I always have sticker shock at the pricing and am always on the alert for special offers.

So on the morning of Christmas Eve, I was drawn by Snapfish's offer of 70% off on all photo books.  I took a vacation with my siblings in New Mexico last month and had thought about making photo books as mementos, had even started to go through my pictures and choose the best ones, but it took 70% off to make me actually do it.

And since I was blissfully without social obligations for the whole day, I spent a couple of very pleasant hours revisiting my trip and coming up with a little book.

If you've never made a photo book with one of the online services, or if you have been frustrated with your attempts, maybe these helpful hints will make you more likely to try again.

*  Learn on their dime.  You can start a project that you don't even plan to print, just to play and figure out how the site works.  I have also had good luck with Blurb's help desk, sending emails when I couldn't figure out how something worked and receiving fast, helpful responses.

*  Photo sites have long memories. Feel free to start a project, upload photos, even get the whole book finished, and then walk away.  Sometime in the future they will offer you 70% off, and you can go back and hit the "print" button.  But review your work first; I often find that my second look at a project reveals things I'd like to change or improve.

*  Upload more photos to the site than you think you'll need.  It's easier to upload one big batch and omit some of them than to be interrupting yourself to upload more, one at a time.

*  Make your own cheat sheet of the photos you have uploaded.  The book sites arrange your pictures in teeny weeny little thumbnails in a long column that often extends off the page.  To find what you're looking for you have to scroll, squint and try to remember what you have already used.

When I get all my photos on the upload page, I take a screen shot and paste it into my Paint program, and keep this window open alongside the photo site.  Then as I use each photo in the book, I cross it out with the pencil tool.  For a more complicated project, I would label them with the page as well as cross them out.  It's way less frustrating to navigate around your own familiar desktop programs and zoom in if you have to than to keep track of things in the photo site program.

* Remember that photo sites are aimed at the dumbest, least creative people in the universe.  They are designed to help dolts make photo books that don't look awful, without having to put any thought into it.  But you're not like that, are you?

You should forgo the themed books, the ones with pre-decorated pages, the ones with fancy curlicues around the photos.  Look for the "simple" option, the one where you design your own book.

When they show you a blank page, check out the tab called "layouts."  For my latest book I wanted one photo per page.  I chose two options from the layout menu: one with a landscape photo, one with a portrait photo, and for each page, used the appropriate layout depending on my photo.  Those were the only two layouts used in the entire book, so it had a consistent look.

You should especially forgo the option to have the site automatically flow your photos into the layout.  You know which pictures are best, which should come first, which two should go together on a spread.  This is the joy and creativity of making your own little book: designing and arranging the pictures and text for the effect you want, not a haphazard collection assembled by an algorithm.

*  If you want text on your pages, you don't have to choose one of their text layouts, which generally place centered type smack in the center of your page.  Instead, call up a text box and choose your own font, color and point size, then move the text box to exactly where you want it.  With a full-page photo, I look for a place in the picture with an uninterrupted area of solid or almost-solid color, and choose either white or black type to show up against this solid area.

* Photo sites don't have to be just for your vacation or grandchildren pictures.  Make a book of your quilts, your collages, your sketchbook, your Photoshop experiments.

*  Write down what you learn!  Every time I use one of these programs I discover something new about how the platform works -- often I learn how to do something that had me cursing and throwing things the last time.  I have a Word document called Blurb and one called Snapfish where I document my projects -- my personal user manual.

* Have fun!  I love making little books -- so far I've done two personal ones (this one for my siblings, and one for my husband) and four "general readership" ones that I sell or give away.  Last month I also learned to make calendars.  If you like taking pictures and think some of them are worth saving, I encourage you to try one of these sites and see if you like the process and the product.  Let me know what you think.


  1. Thank you, what an amazingly helpful set of guidelines. I tend to print out thumbnails of images using contact sheet in Photoshop so I can play with arrangements and keep a page for notes or striking off that I have already used as you say with page numbers and other notes.I shall copy your post and save it as it is so good. from a lovely morning in Northern Ireland

  2. I too, think this post is a wealth of information. Have sent it to my daughter hoping I get some "books" in the future. The idea of making a quilt book of the quilts I have made is a wonderful way to document out quilt lives.

  3. I love making books. My most appreciated have been of beloved homes that friends and relatves have sold. I duck in secretly and shoot tons of photos, including tiny details like the end of a curtain rod, etc. these gifts are always met with tears of appreciation. BTW I use InDesign and just upload it to Blurb. It is way more flexible and I realize not available to everyone.