Unless you're still snapping photos on that disc camera you got back in '86, you're probably aware of how digital technology has changed personal photography. It's now possible to shoot, edit and - most important - share your images online with family, friends (and MySpace stalkers) quickly and easily.

But 20 years from now, do you really see yourself cuddling up with the kids on the couch to page through your wedding album - on your laptop? Technology is nice and all, but it doesn't look particularly lovely sitting on the bookshelf.

Fortunately, online photo Web sites have moved far beyond just offering two-for-one prints. It's now possible, even easy, to turn out an artfully designed, beautifully bound photo book - or just about any other kind of book - yourself.

Last year, as her daughter Isabel's first birthday approached, Susan Lubking Kling found herself staring down the digitized mountain of snapshots she'd taken of her baby. But she wasn't about to go the sticky-paged photo album route.

"I have boxes and boxes of photos and I rarely put them in albums," said Kling, of Erdenheim. "And then when we had the baby, we took thousands upon thousands and I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to be able to keep these organized.' "

She happened upon a magazine article that mentioned PhotoWorks.com. Soon she uploaded and clicked her way to a leather-bound volume chronicling not only Isabel's first year, but also what came before. There's Isabel in a profile, from an ultrasound pic. Then Kling and her husband, John, smiling and touching her swollen belly. By the end of the book's 50 pages, across more than 250 pictures, Isabel goes from swaddled newborn to birthday girl in a pink crown, all for just $59.99.

After the baby book, the wedding album seemed like the next step, since the couple didn't have a photographer at their 2002 wedding and relied on digital shots from friends and family. Another visit to PhotoWorks, a little more DIYing - and Kling has 36 pages worth of pictures.

"It took me five years to motivate myself to organize the photos, but once I started, it was finished in several hours," she said.

There's now a small library of leather-bound volumes on the Klings' bookshelf, documenting what the companies that sell online photo books say are the Big Three subjects: Wedding, Baby and Travel.

Led by sites such as Snapfish, KodakGallery and Shutterfly, photo-book publishing is becoming more popular even as people forgo standard prints, hosting and sharing their photos online.

None of the major sites would give sales figures, but all said photo books were becoming an increasingly important part of their product lines.

"In PhotoWorks' last quarter, photo-book revenue increased 42 percent over the same period a year ago, and represented close to one-third of total revenue," said chief executive officer Andy Wood.

Snapfish, once known just as the place to get cheap prints, now offers five photo-book styles, with prices starting at $4.99. Sales of the books more than doubled between the 2006 and 2007 holiday seasons, said Jennifer Loo, a company spokeswoman.

All the sites claim easy photo uploading and layout tools, to various degrees. Snapfish, for example, doesn't play well with Macs and certain Internet browsers. KodakGallery.com, being the online arm of the big name in photo finishing, will prompt you if the photo you're trying to put into a layout doesn't fit, or has red-eye, or won't reproduce properly.

Once your photos are in, you can do everything from placing your wedding photos, with captions, into a leather-bound Legacy book (starting at $69.99) to making your hubby a necktie adorned with a photo of your dog. (Not that such crimes of fashion should be encouraged, but the point is, you could, for just $29.99.)

About the only thing the Kodak site doesn't offer are custom-printed boxes of tissues - but wait, over on MyKleenexTissue.com, you can order boxes of tissues ($4.99 and up), perhaps personalized with a picture of you and your fiancee and offered to wedding guests for tears-of-joy dabbing, or maybe with, say, an image of weeping T.O. as a gag gift for your favorite Cowboys fan.

Drawn by an online coupon passed along by a friend, Sandy Yannatell of East Falls went to Snapfish to print some of the many digital photos parked inside her computer. She ended up creating a photo calendar and two styles of photo books that became family Christmas gifts.

Her parents, brother and sister received books featuring photos of a family trip to Ireland, a custom layout Yannatell did herself. That one took a bit of work, she said, but the quality of the leather-bound book she received was worth the trouble. For the other project, she used one of Snapfish's premade templates, uploaded her photos, and the site did the rest, arranging the shots in combinations and layouts Yannatell said she'd never have thought up herself. The result was two photo brag books filled with snaps of her 1-year-old nephew, as gifts for the tyke's parents.

"It was very easy, and everybody was really impressed," she said. Next time she'll probably stick with the templates. "I'm an interior designer, so I do have some artistic ability, but I'm always up for a shortcut."

The more you look at the various offerings from these sites - Walmart.com offers more than 100 photo-ready items, of various prices and, uh, aesthetic quality - the more ideas you're likely to get.

Once Yannatell's sister got a look at the baby book, she started thinking about the short stories she'd written years ago, and how to put them in a book, maybe with photos or some other illustrations. For that, they're going to check out blurb.com, where users can create, publish and even sell books about absolutely anything, cheap: Prices for a 20-page softcover book start at $22.95. There are ready-made layouts for recipe books, photo projects, even poetry books, business portfolios and the like, but the text-only option means you can finally finish that Great American Novel without having to wait for a publishing deal.

The desire to produce a decent, affordable book featuring her own photographs and stories is what prompted Eileen Gittins to found blurb.com, a San Francisco-based site that went live in May 2006 and has produced books for more than 250,000 customers so far.

"I was photographing entrepreneurs from the dot-com bubble days, and along the way they would tell me their stories, and their stories were at least as interesting as the photographs I'd been taking," she said.

She wanted to put her photos and stories together in a book and make a few dozen copies to give to the interview subjects, but even the smallest vanity publishers quoted her 400-book minimums. Still, she wanted something more than just a photo album.

"I wanted page numbers and a table of contents - I wanted a book. I wanted it to look like a book you'd buy at Borders," she said.

To Gittins, the Internet is "democratizing publishing." It's also allowing people to indulge their creativity and put into tangible form all those great ideas we all have. Books, after all, have power.

"You can take your passions and your creative expressions and turn that into something of great physical beauty, of tangibility and of perceived value," she said.


Getting professional-looking results from your DIY book isn't just about picking nice photos. Experts offer these tips:

Plan ahead. If you're planning to do a book about an event, keep the book in mind while shooting the photos, said Jennifer Breton, a Reading-based children's photographer. Mix it up among portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) shots, don't restrict yourself to posed shots, and be sure to shoot from various distances. Full-length portrait shots are good, but close-ups can be priceless.

Mix it up. Don't be afraid to experiment with different book themes, rather than just the year-by-year chronicle, Breton said. "Instead of throwing together all of the photos you took in 2007 into one book, consider breaking all of your photos into several volumes, such as one for summer vacation, one for Jake's soccer matches, one for Abby's first year."

Tell a story. Think of your book as more than a photo album. For a wedding book, be sure to get pictures of the cake, the flowers, the invitation, and other ephemera of the day. If you're doing a book with photo captions or other text, ask friends or family for their memories - they may remember something you don't.

Outsource. Most sites offer a variety of automatic templates, but if you're really not the creative type, seek help. On sites like TheKnot.com and iVillage.com, a quick search of the community message boards can help you find folks who will design your book for you - for a fee, of course.

Shop smart. If you're willing to be patient, save your project online and sign up for e-mail updates from the site you used to make your book. Then, wait until it goes on sale, and order your stuff at a lower price.

Check, and check again. Patience pays off here, too. Blurb.com chief executive officer Eileen Gittins said the ability to print galley pages of your book to proofread before you buy is something to look for when choosing which site you'll use. Check your project and edit your text more than once to spot spelling errors, missing punctuation and other typos.

Make a spare. Consider ordering a second copy of books you know will be especially well-used. Kling made an extra of her daughter Isabel's baby book. Now, as she awaits a second child, it has come in handy as a storybook for Isabel to help her understand the whole "new baby" thing, and no need to worry about sticky toddler hands or errant crayons. - Amy Z. Quinn