With Photo Books, Flickr Gets Into The Print Business

The same service that helped put your photos online now wants to help you take them offline.

When Flickr launched in 2004, digitizing photos was still new. Now, nine years later, the Yahoo-owned service has created a product aimed at showcasing photos on old-fashioned paper.

The product, called Flickr Photo Books, allows users to print albums based on sets of photos they’ve already loaded to the service.

Launching on Tuesday, just as consumers start making their Christmas lists, Photo Books will compete with album-printing services from giants like Walmart and Walgreens as well as specialized online photo printers like Shutterfly. Flickr Vice President Tom Hughes says he hopes people will choose Photo Books because it is easy to use. “The pain point in the market is really that it’s a time-consuming process,” he says. “There’s a really high drop-off rate once users begin the creation process of being a photo book."

Flickr users’ photos are already organized in albums or "sets" on the site, and a new tool automatically formats one of those sets into a book, choosing the set cover image as the book cover image and laying the photos out in the same order. The software avoids placing faces on the edge of a page and will automatically zoom and crop photos so subjects appear in the right place. “There’s a lot of photo science behind it,” says Markus Spiering, Flickr’s head of product. A third-party partner, who Yahoo declined to name, will print the albums after they're designed.

Over the last couple of years, Flickr’s service has gotten a massive overhaul. The service completely revamped its iPhone app, redesigned its website, and, in May, gave all of its users a free terabyte of data.

The last move, Spiering says, dramatically tripled the daily numbers of photos people upload to the site. It also killed one of Flickr’s revenue sources, a premium product that granted customers extra storage. Flickr’s new photo books could help replace that revenue. Books will cost $24.95 for 20 pages. Additional pages will cost 50 cents, up to 240 pages.

Unlike Facebook, Instagram and other online photo-storage hubs, Flickr stores original-quality photos rather than shrinking images to make them faster to share, which means those companies would be unlikely to compete on photo printing (Flickr has plenty of competitors outside the photo-sharing space: Snapfish, Blurb, Mixbook, Winkflash, Artifact Uprising, and PopPhoto are just a handful of the many startups that focus on formatting and printing photo books).

Setting up shop as a photo book printer seems ironic for one of the sites that made it easy to stop printing photos in the first place. But social media has never quite cut into the business of photo books and other merchandise to the degree it's disrupted the photo printing business. Market research firm InfoTrends predicted that photo merchandise sales in the U.S. would grow into a $2.2 billion business by 2015.

It could be that all that time online, where everything from our Netflix queue to our Amazon shopping carts is tailored to our activity, has made us even more susceptible to physical albums.

“People are very used to getting personalized things,” says Hughes, “And what’s more personal than a bunch of high-quality photos? “

[Images courtesy of Flickr]

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