[Update Apr 16, 2010] If you are here because you’re looking for comparisons of various photo-books software – and why else would you be on this page, anyway? – I also invite you to also read my most recent follow-up at this link
Having finished with Travelog, I spent some free time in the last couple of days test-driving two services for photo-book-making that I first mentioned in this article: MyPublisher and Picaboo. For those interested, the first-time user comparison follows.
[Update Jan 2nd]: I also now played for a couple of hours with another similar service that only recently came to my attention, Blurb. The article has been updated to include that in the comparison.
These services were my primary targets because photo-book production is their specialization, unlike photo-sharing and -printing online services that may offer photo-books as additional products. The key similarity between the three is that they provide a desktop software for creating your book, which is uploaded in its finished form for professional printing. MyPublisher is currently on version 3.1 of the software, Picaboo is at 2.0, Blurb’s BookSmart application is at 1.9.9.
Picaboo offers almost 300 different page layouts, from text-only or 1-photo-per-page to “blanket-spread” that can accommodate 20 or so pictures on a single page. MyPublisher possibly offers a similar total number of layout options, but with a serious limitation: You need to select a book “style” before starting with your project, and each style has only a segment of layouts available, somewhere in the vicinity of 90. Conversely, when Picaboo asks you to select your book style, that is simply to pre-build an empty book (or to automatically build the book with the sequence of your selected pictures); you then have a complete control over layout changes, not limited by the book “style”. To wit, Picaboo has 50 different layouts for a single-photo page; MyPublisher’s Travel style offers only 7. Furthermore, almost all of MyPublisher layouts are grid arrangements. A fun layout such as the one below is only possible in Picaboo.
Click to enlarge.
Blurb does not force you into a limited selection of layouts and segregates them into for-purpose categories, such as “Recipes”, “Quotations”, “Index”, and special types such as “Copyright pages” or “Table of contents”. Altogether, there are probably over 200 layouts, of which 93 are picture ones. Unfortunately, most of them are uninspiring and grid-like. There are 16 variations of “collage” layouts, where you can combine up to 5 photos in an overlapping fashion, but nothing very elaborate.
Where Blurb comes ahead is that it allows you to design the book dust jacket or cover, as opposed to the other two services, where you can only select a picture to appear at the front of the book.
Advantage Picaboo by a mile, with honorable mention to Blurb for the cover design.
MyPublisher provides unalterable stock backgrounds for every book style, with some styles allowing for an additional choice of background color for every page. Picaboo, just as with layouts, offers 130 “basic” backgrounds, with user in complete control of choosing one for every page. In addition, there are tons of custom backgrounds downloadable from its “free goodies” library. Some of those are pretty elaborate. (The background I randomly picked for the picture above comes from basic “New Year” themes.) Blurb offers 85 backgrounds of patterns and watermarks, none of them especially brilliant, which are further customizable in terms of the actual colors, plus the full RGB palette of solid color backgrounds. You can also add assorted “ornaments” (small images appearing at the top and bottom of pages), if you are so inclined.
Advantage Picaboo by a light year over MyPublisher and considerable distance over Blurb.
Your images are loaded into the “media tray” in all applications. If you select a batch of images to load from a folder on your PC, they will be ordered chronologically by the date they were taken on in Picaboo and MyPublisher, but not in a discernible order in Blurb. You can then manually re-order them in all three applications. The film-strip nature of the tray in Picaboo and MyPublisher makes it somewhat inconvenient to organize large sets, since you only see a portion of your set in the tray at any given time. MyPublisher provides a separate facility to re-organize your set in a grid gallery view. Picaboo and Blurb do not, but Blurb’s tray is vertical with two pictures in a row, so manual ordering is easier. Blurb also provides several standard options to sort the pictures by, although “Date Picture Taken” does not seem to be one of them (“Date Added” did not produce the sort order that I expected).
Advantage Blurb, with MyPublisher beating out Picaboo for second place. This is a not very important item, though.
I also had a strange problem with Blurb in that it did not allow me to navigate through my hard-drive folder structure to get to the picture set that I wanted. I had to copy the folder to Desktop in order to be able to see it. My email to technical support elicited an advice to use the work-around until the bug in the system can be fixed.
Picaboo allows for re-ordering of pages in your book even after you’ve finished editing them, via a separate page order screen. Blurb does it in a film-strip fashion: You have a strip of your pages running along the bottom of your workspace; just drag and drop pages to re-order as you wish. In MyPublisher, if you want to put the pages in a different order, your only choice is to insert new pages at the desired points and manually transfer all photos and captions from the old positions.
Advantage Picaboo slightly over Blurb, with MyPublisher not even competing.
In MyPublisher, if you want to re-use the same photo in two different places in your book (for instance, first as a title picture and later as a properly captioned entry), you have to add it to the media tray twice. As soon as you insert a picture into your book, it is taken off the tray. Picaboo gives you control over the process: You can have images drop off the media tray as they are placed in the book, or you can keep all images in the tray; no double-loading of the same image for re-use is needed. Blurb does the same and even allows you to sort your images by the “used in book” indicator.
Advantage Blurb and Picaboo, although I realize that for most projects this may not be an issue.
All products allow text-only pages for extended narration. But when it comes to caption boxes, MyPublisher is considerably less flexible than Picaboo, which in turn is slightly less flexible than Blurb. There are only a dozen fonts in MyPublisher, versus about 40 in Picaboo and over 200 in Blurb. There is a character limit on every caption box in MyPublisher, pretty much defeating any possibility of telling a short story related to the photo in question. Furthermore, every caption box in MyPublisher is preset with less than a handful allowed font sizes. Picaboo sets no such limitations – anything from 8 to 72 pixels go, and you are limited only with the area of the caption box. Blurb is the most advanced in this aspect, alone of all applications allowing for different font attributes to be mixed within the same caption box (with font sizes from 7 to 80 pixels). It also has a nifty way of alerting you when you text does not fit into the caption box boundaries (MyPublisher does a less niftier thing to alert you to the fact that you exceeded the character limit).
Because I need to be able to put large chunks of text among the pictures on occasion, this is a huge advantage Blurb or Picaboo for me, with Blurb ahead by a neck.
As I mentioned in the past, I wanted to be able to write my narrations in Russian in the photo-books. MyPublisher strictly refuses to recognize Unicode after a certain limit (French diacritics or German ß will be accepted, but Cyrillic letters or Czech ř, for instance, will not). Picaboo played a cruel joke on me with its acceptance of Cyrillic without a problem; after I saved my work, closed the application and re-opened it the next day, all of my Russian text showed up as pretty rows of question marks, with no way to recover. I abandoned my idea of writing my narratives in Russian altogether.
Because I was test-driving Blurb after I made the above decision, I did minimal checking of its tolerance for Unicode. I was able to type Cyrillic characters in a caption box, closed and saved my project, re-opened it right away and saw the captions unaffected. It might be a serious advantage Blurb, if not for the fact that I already dismissed the necessity of it. You may think it a key factor.
Updated on 04/24/2012: A couple of commenters below supplied conflicting information about Cyrillic support in MyPublisher since this article had been penned. I am not keen on a re-review at present due to available bandwidth, so please keep in mind that this review was written as far back as 2008, and all of the products must have evolved since. Exercise your own due diligence if any of the parameters that I used herein are of importance to you.
MyPublisher and Blurb both offer integrated spell check. Picaboo FAQ suggests writing all of your captions in a spell-check enabled software, such as MS Word, and then copying/pasting it into the book. Since I don’t finalize the caption until I see how it looks on the completed page, I was stuck with doing the reverse: Copying the text into MS Word for a last-minute check of the spelling. Far from optimal, but I certainly do not want “Cathderal” to appear in the caption accompanying a beautiful shot. Picaboo FAQ also mentions that they are considering adding a spell-check engine into the future versions of the product.
Big advantage Blurb and MyPublisher.
Ordering of a completed book is done similarly in both products, but Picaboo has all of the finishing options, shipping options and the total price for the order on a single screen (if you are ordering multiple copies of the same book, then it becomes somewhat confusing with another screen in play). MyPublisher does a step-by-step checkout and, annoyingly, does not allow you to see the total cost until you provide your credit card information. Blurb also has a step-by-step checkout, with a twist of its own: There is no “Back” option to modify the previous information; you have to click on the “Shopping cart” to start from the beginning.
Picaboo attempts to back up your saved projects to their online store every time you close the application on your desktop. You may or may not like this feature, but because the software is smart enough to upload only deltas as the work progresses, it may be useful for large undertakings. After all, you will need to upload the book eventually. In MyPublisher abd Blurb, upload only happens at a point of buying or sharing the book.
I give tiny advantage to Picaboo.
All services allow you to share your completed books with others online.
With Picaboo, you need to designate a “pal” in your desktop software; if that pal is another Picaboo user, your book will download into their application; otherwise, a link to your online book will be sent to them in an email (that link cannot be “navigated to” – you have to know the exact URL, which has your encrypted user id and encrypted book reference number). Your pals will be able to view the book online and may then buy that book for themselves; they will have to create an online Picaboo account if they don’t have one. The important thing here is that you can share a previously uploaded book without having to upload it again.
With MyPublisher, the book is uploaded in its entirety every time that you initiate the sharing (you can specify multiple emails at once, though) and stored online, protected by special id and password. Every upload will result in a separate book being stored. Your recipients – and you – get an email with the URL and credentials to view the book online. There is a curious limitation for ordering: Until the book creator bought a copy, friends cannot buy one themselves. Not sure what the reason for that might be.
With Blurb, once you uploaded your book, you can send email invitations to anyone you want to view it. They will get a link with encrypted location of the book. However, unless you expressly turn on preview option for the book, all that the visitors will see is the front cover. Furthermore, the preview function seems to show only the first 20 pages of the book, followed by the back cover. Anyone can buy your book, but if no orders for it are made within 15 days, it will be deleted from the online store. One additional service that Blurb offers is the “sell for profit” facility, where the author can set a price for his/her book, and keep the proceeds after costs.
Overall, on this criterion, advantage Picaboo.
Blurb, alone among the three, allows for some sort of conversion of your blog directly into a book. Unfortunately, the only platforms that it can do it from are LiveJournal and TypePad, neither of which I use. It could be an advantage for somebody, but I am just mentioning it as a curiosity.
When I first compared MyPublisher and Picaboo, this is where MyPublisher came ahead.
Let’s first understand that the simplest 8.5” x 11” hardcover book with no cover upgrades will cost the minimum of $39. That’s 20 pages of your pictures in linen hardcover and shipping within the US. At Picaboo, such “basic” book will run only 19¢ more – not exactly a substantial difference. (Curiously, if you choose a leather hardcover over linen, then at MyPublisher you will pay $20 extra for the basic-size book, but at Picaboo only $10 extra.) But if your project requires more than the included twenty pages, the cost widens dramatically, as MyPublisher only charges 99¢ per additional page, while Picaboo charges $1.99. And then, the shipping. MyPublisher uses Fedex, while Picaboo uses Canada Post service (I mistakenly thought that Picaboo was US-based, as all of its pricing is quoted in US dollars; in fact, it is based in Ontario). Domestically within the US, the cost of shipping is almost equal, so no problem; but for someone like me, to ship to Europe, Picaboo costs twice as much as MyPublisher’s Fedex shipping. Furthermore, MyPublisher actually has a UK “branch”, so if I were to sign up with that and pay in sterling, I’d actually come out slightly ahead, as the pound-dollar pricing difference reflects a higher exchange rate than it is now.
My test project at Picaboo was a 33-page book with basic linen cover. I then mocked up a 33-page book on MyPublisher, knowing full well that I could not replicate a similarly elaborate design there; I needed that for a price quote. If I were to ship that book to an address in New Jersey, MyPublisher’s total price for a single copy would be $51.66 and Picaboo’s would be $64.85. Shipping to my home in UK would bring the cost to $62.66 at MyPublisher but to a whopping $90.85 at Picaboo.
And then I tried Blurb. Its “standard” format is 8” x 10”, with the pricing not per exact number of pages but per range of 40-page blocks. It does not allow odd number of pages, so I mocked up a 32-page book. There are three cover options (soft, hard with dust jacket, hard with image wrap). The most expensive of those brings the cost of a sub-40-pages book to $31.95. That’s just two dollars more than a book half its size in pages with standard hardcover at either MyPublisher or Picaboo. And then, the shipping. Blurb ships to over 50 countries and charges only $6.99 for “economy” shipping, no matter the destination. There are express options at higher rates, but they are the same both within the US and beyond. (I also noticed that you can elect to pay in British pounds or euros instead of dollars, but I did not investigate whether it is dollars converted at the exchange rates or separate pricing schemes altogether.) The total for my book came to $38.94, regardless of shipping address.
Advantage Blurb by a mile, with Picaboo bringing the rear far behind MyPublisher.
Cost notwithstanding, I’m going to go with Picaboo for the time being. (My enterprising spouse quickly located a discount coupon online that brought down the cost of my first order by a sizable amount, anyway.)
I think we established that Picaboo is the superior product in terms of unlocking your creativity and setting minimal limitations. Spell-check is the only biggie where it comes short, but even that may not be relevant to everyone. Blurb does good things with texts and covers, but does not offer awesome ways to place your pictures in a book. MyPublisher is way behind either of the two as far as the total package goes. The cost factor pushes Blurb quite ahead, but on balance, the creativity criterion makes the fact that Picaboo is twice as expensive for a 40-page book somewhat palatable (unless, of course, you look to create 100-page books). But only within the US, as the disparity in shipping charges for international destinations is staggering. Which means that I’ll order one copy of my Picaboo test book to see how it comes out, but postpone doing any others until such time that I am back on the American soil.
In any such comparison, the quality of the finished product can be an overriding factor. I am not so dedicated to providing an exhaustive analysis as to spend money on the sample results from all services. I have no idea how good or bad a Blurb book can look, but I’ve seen completed MyPublisher books at my friends’, and the quality of photo printing there looks pretty good. I don’t expect Picaboo to be any worse, but I’ll let you know when I receive my book.
[Updated January 3rd, 2009]:
I placed the order on Sunday, was informed by Monday night that the book has shipped, and received it today, on the following Saturday (no doubt slightly delayed because of New Year’s holiday).
The quality is pretty good, although probably stopping short from brilliant. The fun custom background that I selected came out darker in print than it looked on-screen, which gave some of the pages a slightly duller look than expected. It should be an obvious conclusion, but it only became apparent to me when I saw the physical book, that layouts with more than two photographs leave a lot of margin space on the letter-size page and come out comparatively small-sized themselves. The full-page full-bleed pictures, though, are excellent, even though they are clearly dumbed down in the process pixel-wise. And one-photo or two-photos layouts are quite nice. Overall, a positive result; not a home run that makes me completely discard the other alternatives, but a proof that you would not go wrong with Picaboo if you can stomach its extra cost.