Tomtom tweedel   Tweedel is a good friend with significant experience in China and has self-published several interesting volumes of his travels in China complete with many great images and informative narrative.  Last year he visited Thailand for the first time and I had a great time showing him around the area. Somehow he found time to put together a like 340 page book of his travels around Thailand and you can get your copy here!  I've got a copy of this book and I can tell you it's well worth it, especially for first time travelers or if you haven't seen more of Thailand than downtown Bangkok.

When Tom agreed to become part of our small select product review team I was both excited and grateful.  I hope you enjoy this and future reviews by Tom.  For those whose plans include extended travel in Thailand and China I’d recommend contacting Tom and inquiring into obtaining copies of his books.  Tom Tweedel is an Austin, TX based photographer and can be reached at:


Thailand, a visual journey

340 Page Book on Thailand, Front Cover


Self Publishing

I got into self publishing many years ago as a way to share my experiences and observations traveling around China.  Since then I have discovered it works pretty well for making photo books and albums.  You can fit hundreds of pictures into a book that is an inch thick at a fraction of the cost (and bookshelf space) of traditional prints stuck into photo album pages.

Previously getting something published (even for your own use) was a daunting and expensive task that involved print shops, binders, learning an entire new industry and people laughing at you when you told them you only wanted one copy.

Publishing on demand has changed all of that.  You no longer need a small army of skilled people to get your book. You just need a computer, the internet, some software and a bit of determination.

There are many different vendors and options when it comes to getting your books published.  Which one to choose can often be an intimidating task.  When trying to figure out which one to use you can ask yourself a few questions to narrow the field.

    • How many pages is the book going to be?
    • Is it going to be mainly text or photos?
    • How important is print quality?
    • How many copies am I going to want?
    • How important is price?


Once you have answers to these questions you can narrow the choices down.

There are two main types of publishers that you’ll find.  Photo book publishers and regular book publishers.


Photo book publishers is a broad description of publishers that want to let you take your photos, load it into their templates and send you an attractive printed and bound book.  The books are available in variety of sizes and bindings.  They usually range in size from 5-50 pages and cost around $1 a page or more.  It’s usually pretty tough to get something done for under $30/copy.  These books have the advantage in that they are easy to create.  Many consumer level photo management programs (like I-photo) have the ability to create these books built in. Others have free software you can download.  Many photo sharing/printing sites (Smugmug, Snapfish, Ofoto etc) have this functionality built in.  You can create a photo book and use pictures from your collections using templates.  Some even have a single click solution where it will take an entire gallery and put it in a canned format.

This type of book has several advantages.  It relatively easy, usually has close to if not true photo quality prints (quality does vary by vendor) and it’s probably integrated with something your already familiar with using.  Some may even give volume discounts.  They are excellent for small projects like short vacations, parties or holiday pictures.

The disadvantage is that you are usually limited to their templates, which may not be what you’re looking for.  Personally I found limited ability to work with text to be very limited.  They also have a maximum page length of around 50 pages which may not be enough for your larger projects.  Finally they can be quite pricey.  They usually have a binding + per page fee that can add up to $30-60 a copy.  Even with a discount on 12 or more you’re talking a good chunk of change.

The second type of publisher is more a traditional book publisher.  They offer a wide variety of products but at their core they allow you to create books in a wide variety of sizes and up to hundreds of pages in length.  You can order as many or as few as you need and you can even sell your book through their online store.  Their pricing is also a binding + per page fee and varies depending on the type of book you publish (size, paper, color, hardbound etc).  While they are really geared towards conventional text type books (novels, reports, works of fiction etc) they have enough flexibility that you can use them for photo books as well.

They have the advantage of being significantly cheaper for larger books, especially if multiple copies are involved.  They also give you options beyond their canned formats which lets you decide how things should be laid out an annotated. Also the fact that you can “sell” your books online makes them easier to distribute to friends and family at their expense.  You can sell it with no markup and they can order all the copies they want at printing cost.

The disadvantage is that you have to know a bit more and have a bit more skill to put the book together.  You’re more likely to run into technical difficulties until you understand their quirks.  It might take a bit longer for the order to be filled (2-3 weeks from order to arrival is common) and the print quality even on the color products is not quite as good as what is available from the photo book publishers.

I’ve used both types of publishers in the past, but given the volume and type of work that I do with my pictures the book publishers are the way to go.There are two publishers that I have used, lulu and Blurb.  They both have their advantages and disadvantages and both will get the job done.



Lulu is probably the bigger of the two and the one I have done the most work with.  They have expanded their product selection over the years to the point where it can be quite confusing.  For those looking to do books they have two options.  You can use the “Lulu Studio” which you upload your pictures directly and place them in pre-formatted templates (much like a photo book) or you can create a “regular” book where you upload the finished files.  The Lulu Studio method is more expensive as it uses a higher grade of paper, but it’s still around half the price of most photo book sites.


Lulu, self publishing

Lulu Publishing Menu


To get a regular book printed you will first need to assemble your book in one of the supported formats.  They support Word documents (Word 97-2003), Text documents,  JPGs, GIFs or PDF’s. One advantage is that you can upload multiple smaller files and have them combine them all into one large file. For example each chapter could be a separate word document.  Or a photo book could even be 150 8.5x11 JPGS.  One thing they regrettably don’t support is multiple PDF files. So if your going to use PDF (which I recommend) you’ll need to get it all wrapped up into one file first.

Their books come in a wide variety of sizes, which you will get to select when you are starting your project. You also have the option of printing in black and white (for $.02/page) or color (for $15/page).  I often will order a B&W “proof” copy of my work to check for errors before committing to color. The binding fee for soft covered books is around $5/book.

The wizard will take you through the different steps of selecting your size, binding, paper and uploading your files.  They can accommodate books up to 700 pages long and files up to 700mb.  To upload individual files more than 300mb in size you will need to use FTP. If you use multiple files or any file that is not a PDF you have to go through a conversion process where Lulu takes your file and converts it to a PDF for free (you can even download it afterward).

This process is where I have had the most trouble, with close to half of my conversions failing.  The conversion can take a couple of hours and the failure and subsequent troubleshooting can take days to resolve.  I HIGHLY recommend that you go ahead and get your files all converted into a single PDF before starting your project.  There are a number of inexpensive solutions for this problem.  Ever since I started doing this my failure rate on projects has gone from near 50% to zero.

After you have gotten the meat of your project up there you can create the cover.  You have the option of using the cover wizard which gives you a variety of pre-defined templates to choose from or you can upload your own cover.  I skip the wizard lay my cover out, put all the text I want in it and then save it as a JPG to upload it. Either way will produce satisfactory results.

After creating your front and back covers and spine your ready to go.  You fill in some information about your book for marketing purposes and then your project is done.  If you want to sell your book you can set the purchase price.  The revenue you get is 80% of the net profit after production cost. If you want to market your book they have a variety of marketing kits and programs you can purchase and they will even list your book on Amazon.

Lulu doesn’t do just books, you can sell your products via CD, DVD, electronic downloads and other media. They are really a one shop does all publishing/distribution operation.



Lulu used to have live chat support. The agents were prompt, consistent, and for technical problems generally useless.  They have switched to an email based model and do generally get back to you within a day.

If you have printing problems (something misprinted, mangled pages etc) they generally ask for a picture as evidence and then will reprint your order.  They may or may not ask you to ship the books back to them. If they do you get emailed a link for a UPS label.


Some tips for dealing with Lulu

-  If you use the “Lulu Studio” to create your projects or you have them do the conversion for you expect problems.  Their email based support is fairly responsive, though the usual solution is delete your project and start over.

-  As impressive as the hardcover products may feel I wouldn’t recommend them for photo intensive project.  The press they use is different and it’s not as sharp or saturated.  The paper has more of a matte finish. Stick with the soft cover as the print quality is a bit more saturated and glossy.

-  Understand that this is not true photo quality chemical print quality output.  You may experience some color shifts, loss of dynamic range and other technical “flaws”.  But remember your paying $.15/page and not $3.



Blurb is Lulu’s biggest competitor as far as I know.  They don’t offer quite the same range of products as lulu but there is enough overlap that your will find something that will fit the bill.  They are also unique in that they offer oversized printing (12”x12”) that Lulu does not, at a price.

In terms of price they are pretty comparable.  Rather than break their costs into a binding + per page fee they have a flat fee for a certain number of pages.  The fee is a sliding scale that means the higher the page count the cheaper the per page cost.  Lulu tends to be cheaper for lower page count books, at the higher page count the prices are pretty similar.


Setting up your look

Blurb Style Menu


Blurb takes a different approach to book creation.  You download proprietary software (for free) from their site and use that to assemble your book.  It is a page layout application with a variety of templates.  You will need to find the template that closest suits your need and go from there. The templates can be modified by the user if needed.  Still if you have put your book together in Word it’s going to take some effort to get it into their product before you can upload it. Depending on your layout this effort might be significant.

The upside of this is that you know the book is formatted like THEY want it.  This eliminates problems with conversions you might experience at lulu.

They also have added the ability to accept a PDF file.  This possibly eliminates any issues you might have with the flexibility of their templates as you can do your layout in whatever form you like as long as you can get it to PDF.

You can also sell your book on blurb for a percentage of the net profits.

There are a few notable product differences between Blurb and Lulu.  In my option the color printing quality is a bit better at blurb than lulu.  However the biggest “normal” size book Blurb offers is a 8x10, not 8.5x11. For someone who is trying to maximize their picture real estate per page this was a bit of a disadvantage.  However Blurb does offer 12x12 books but the cost is significantly higher.



If you have a problem Blurb has email based support.  They usually get back to you within a day.  If there is a printing problem (something misprinted, book cut wrong etc) they ask for photographic evidence and then will send you a re-print.  They will ask for the book back and email you a UPS Label.


Tips for Dealing with Blurb

-  Before starting your project email them asking what the true printed size of the book you are contemplating is.  I found out the hard way that 8x10 was the “marketing size” and the actual printed size was a bit smaller.

-  Blurb also has good email based support

-  If your project doesn’t fit one of their templates select the “blank book” template and modify it so there is no formatting or restrictions  and print your pages out as JPG’s, then place those in the book. Or use PDF.

-  Like Lulu these are not going to be chemical print quality pages, but then your not paying chemical print quality prices.



If you’re looking to do a quick one off photo book with a few pages you’re probably better off going with one of the photo book makers.

For larger or more extensive projects lulu or Blurb is much more practical.  Which one to use is largely an issue of what output you want and which one you become comfortable using.  Lulu has a slight price advantage while Blurb has slightly better print quality. I mainly use lulu because I’m more familiar with them and they allow a full 8.5x11 output vs. slightly less than 8x10.  But aside from that I wouldn’t hesitate to use Blurb.


Thailand, a Visual Journey

Back Cover of Thailand Book