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Tell us about Blurb.
Blurb is a creative publishing platform. We enable anyone with access to a broadband connection to become a globally published author.
We give our bookmakers access to a range of online tools, which include:
- Free creation tools, such as BookSmart (our own software) as well as Adobe InDesign templates to enable professional designers to upload a PDF which they can print via Blurb to book format. We’re always working on new creation tools.
- An online bookstore at blurb.com. Our model is that you can keep your book private if you wish, but if you make it public, you can set your own price above your cost, and you will keep 100% of the mark-up. So if your book print cost is £10 and you set a price of £20, Blurb sends you £10 for each book sold. Each author has their own book detail pages, with their profile information, hosted for free at Blurb.
- Complete order and transaction management, fulfilment and distribution. The minimum book order is one. Blurb has 7 print locations around the world — when an order is placed, Blurb automatically routes to a location closest to the ship to address. Books typically arrive in about 5-7 days.
- Free marketing tools, such as BookShow, a widget that enables the author to share a digital version of their book (or parts thereof entirely selectable by the author) that can be embedded on a blog, Facebook page, website, etc. The widget features a Share button, meaning people can Tweet, send to Facebook or email with one click. The widget also enables access to comments, a Book Info button as well as a Buy button.
Our single largest target market are creative professionals, although in a typical day we will see everything from a baby book, to a How To Dogsledding book (not kidding) to design and photography portfolio books, event books, marketing books, bad (and good) poetry books, social cause books, cookbooks, vacation books — you name it.
What is Blurb’s business model?
From the outset we knew the business would only work if we could make money from a book order of just 1. We have 7 print partners around the world to enable our global distribution and keep shipping costs to a minimum. We work very hard with those partners to ensure our standards are met.
In 2009, we delivered $45 million in revenue, representing over 1.2 mm books. At our peak volume, we were seeing a new book title come over our servers every 1.1 seconds. This means that in less than 2 minutes we saw more titles than a midsize traditional book publisher typically does in a year. We have been profitable for the past two years and now do business in 74 countries on 5 continents.
Our market is split into three segments. First, personal book makers: people making family books, holiday books, etc, with no intention of selling them for profit. That’s about 40% of our business. Then 30% of our books are promotional marketing tools. Lexus does books with us, Ducati, Honda, Google and Microsoft. Each run will be a few hundred copies. Recently we’ve seen a spate of company books celebrating some kind of product launch or event.
The final 30% are absolutely for-profit books. One of the beauties of our online bookstore is that because we make our money on the printing side, you can retain 100% of whatever mark-up you’ve put on the book over and above your cost.
Traditional publishing models are struggling, where do you see the sector heading?
There are two varieties of books: books you want to keep and books you want to consume. For consuming, people will go digital. We’d predict that within five years, 50% of books will be digital. Then there are other books that you want to keep. These are objects of beauty. They might be reference pieces like a cookbook, or gifts, and you can’t give digital.
Because of the economy, there will be fewer books in bookstores and fewer bookstores themselves. They won’t go away, but they will become more social places. They’ll become more like a coffee house, a social place where you meet up with other people for book signings and events.
Traditional publishers are suffering from a legacy business model. This is often the case when there is a big disruption in the industry. We are a very direct model where there aren’t any of those people on the food chain. We are an internet company. We didn’t have all those legacy relationships. We don’t pay agents, we don’t pay advances and we don’t take the risk like big publishers.
The point of Blurb is not that we’re selling 20 books, each of which sell 30,000 copies, but we’re doing 30,000 books each of which sells 20 copies. Traditional publishing is really becoming a blockbuster business. The big publishers can’t afford to take on the rest of us that may be delighted to sell 20 copies or 2,000 copies. They just don’t have the finances to do it.
So Blurb becomes a really great outlet for those people who are trying to either break in to build an audience or are publishing because of personal passion and if they sell 50 copies they are thrilled.
How do the publishing industry and your competitors view you?
Two years ago, they’d probably wish we’d go away. That’s not true now. We’re being approached by publishers for partnerships because there are some book titles that are not economical for them, but they would still like to maintain the relationship with the author. People who go into publishing have a great love for books and it pains them when they’re just not set up to get something out. It may be skewed, but those are the ones we are seeing.
Why do you think some authors don’t like the idea of e-books?
I don’t think its e-books they don’t like the idea of; it’s the larger change within the industry that this new book format is opening up.
Earlier this year, when Apple announced its pricing policy for books sold through its store for the iPad, is when we saw most author commentary about what the dawn of ebooks means, and it seems to be mixed emotions. From concern over the ability for the retail channel to further squeeze publishers margins and in turn author royalties, through to a debate about getting your ebook into ‘print’ versus it being ‘published.’ So where Bnet describes it as an opportunity for authors to self-publish, some authors question how much support they can get with these efforts to ensure their books are successful.
Tell us about the difficulties of taking a successful US business and launching it in Europe.
The biggest challenge is local market nuance and of course, local language support. We have seen a lot of organic growth in markets where we’re yet to launch a local language version. Our challenge is really to understand what people are using the platform for and to understand how the market breaks down and what opportunities for growth are there if we do deploy a local language version. The next challenge is prioritising those markets; as much as it’d be great to do it all at once – if we’re going to do it properly and support our growing user base in the right way we need to step back.
How will the iPad impact on Blurb?
The iPad, along with other ereaders, are certainly going to impact our business and in our view, it’s all for the better. We are making investments in e-publishing and outputting to the various e-readers: Nook, Kindle, etc, as well as HTML5 for the iPad. We have one of every e-reader at Blurb and we’ve hacked books on to everything.
Very soon you will see output to e-book standards so that you can make your book available on Google or wherever and will be able to read your book on an e-reader as well as an iPad.
The reason why this isn’t already available from Blurb is up until pretty recently it was all e-readers, so black and white – which is only 10% of our business. Now it’s on the iPad, we’re in colour and for us it makes things way more interesting. In addition to printing copies of their book, many of our authors have iPad versions.
I think the iPad has changed people’s relationship with technology in a very intimate way. Your access to technology is not about producing, it is now about consuming media. Before, if your laptop or mobile phone was your consumption device, you had limitations. But on the iPad, if you want to consume video games, a book, or look at television, it’s brilliant. I think it’s going to change the distribution of print media and it’s going to change people’s fundamental relationship to technology.
What prompted you to join a small business?
When I first joined Blurb there were only 2 of us on the ground in the UK. The user base was only just beginning to grow and I knew I would be in for a great ride. The opportunity to grow a business across Europe was and still is exciting. Not many people can have such an active part in growing a business and I’m privileged to be a part of it.
Where would you like to see Blurb in five years time?
I’d like to see us as a household name, a company that enables people to create fabulous things – whether they’re memory books as gifts or dynamic and colourful ebooks.
What other ideas do you think are hot in the start-up world right now?
There is so much interesting stuff going on, but I have to say, the power of online and applications for crowdsourcing never cease to amaze me. I’ve just been reading about crowdsourcing being applied to food products; companies like Yellow’s chocolate bar and Vitaminwater’s flavour contest are great examples, but read recently about an ice cream company in New Zealand taking crowdsourcing into its supply chain! And Giapo Gelato is inviting consumers who grow organic fruit to sign up as suppliers for the store’s new “Giapo Certified Organic” line