A little under a decade ago, Eileen Gittins was in her 40s and in need of a break. A former Kodak executive turned Silicon Valley CEO, she had run two technology start-ups -- Salsa and Personify -- selling the second company right after the dot-com crash.
Looking for a “cathartic, creative outlet,” Gittins spent a year photographing and interviewing 40 of the people with whom she had built companies, hand-developing every image. “I just wanted to make a book, something I could wrap with a bow and send out to the subjects with an inscription that said, ‘thank you, it’s been great,’” she recalled.
In 2004, Gittins went online seeking a service that would allow her to upload her copy and photos into a professional-quality book template and print 40 copies. But it didn’t exist. “I could see it -- desktop publishing in some incarnation for people like me who are not book designers,” she said. "I kept thinking ‘Why is that not there? Why is this so hard?' After carping about this to my husband countless times, finally he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?'"
Gittens somehow convinced investors to support her counterintuitive move from digital to print and launched Blurb.com, which last year shipped two million books to 70 countries. Users can create a book for as little as $3 for a text-only, pocket-size volume, to more than $200 for a 400-page coffee-table book in four colors. Customers include designers, photographers, architects and others who use the books as portfolios, as well as individuals who want to commemorate a special event or see their great American novel in print.
The San Francisco-based firm, which has 110 employees, offers localized websites and tools for making books in seven languages. In 2011, customers grew 44 percent year-over-year. Although Gittins won’t reveal sales numbers, Inc. magazine estimated 2009 revenue at $45 million, dubbing Blurb “America’s Fastest-Growing Media Company” in 2010.
“At our peak volume last year we saw a new book title coming in across our servers every 1.1 seconds,” Gittens said. Blurb.com also has an online store that allows users to market their books; last year private sellers sold 90,000 copies of their creations. If anything, the firm's success has proven the death of the printed word has been greatly exaggerated.
The key to Blurb’s success was figuring out how to make a profit on a print run of one. The site offers an app, Booksmart, that gives users templates with a drag-and-drop functionality that doesn’t require knowledge of gutters or bleeds. Gittens lured printers to the table by offering them a new stream of year-round business that would require no sales force, technology, customer or order support -- and would arrive as standard output files loaded directly to their servers. The catch, of course, was they had to be willing to take orders for a single book.
Now in her mid-50s, Gittins is having the time of her life. “One of the great things about being 50 is you’ve come to a real understanding of your strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “If you have an opportunity to pull together things you’re good at and you love, and people pay you money for it, that is the best ever. So here I am, a photographer, an insane reader and a web entrepreneur. I put those three things together, and out comes this ability to make a print book available to everyone in the world who has access to a browser and 10 bucks. Why should it be the purview of publishing industry to decide who gets published and who doesn’t?”
Gittins grew up in California. Her British dad worked his way over on the Queen Elizabeth after World War II, and then up the corporate ladder at McKesson, the health care firm. “We did not live a life of exalted privilege; I grew up in a household where it was very much ‘okay, you’re 18, good luck, hope that works out for you, we love you and good bye,’” she laughed. “I paid off my final student loans when I was 30 years old.” She studied English and journalism at UC Berkeley, where she also fell in love with photography; Eastman Kodak hired her in marketing in 1983.
Gittin’s Irish-American mother was a teacher of literature who allowed her nine-year-old to attend her Great Books classes. “She always read several books at a time; she never used bookmarks so there would be books facedown everywhere in the house,” Gittins recalled. “She instilled in me a great respect for the written word.”
Not that it’s necessarily Shakespeare or Hemingway or Austen crossing the servers every few minutes. “But even the bad books are awesome, because it’s someone’s poetry, pictures of someone’s dog -- someone’s passion,” Gittins said. “It’s the best thing ever to give creative voice to so many people who never had this kind of platform. I now have a full appreciation that you can change the world. For me, it’s one book at a time.”