There are now several reasons for paying attention to what goes on at Lulu.com.
Lulu.com first came to my notice perhaps a couple of years ago. It appeared at that time to be just another place where self-publishers could go to get their book into print. And at that point it did not seem to me to be very different from the (recently) much criticised PublishAmerica, or the firm which is now known as AuthorHouse (originally 1st Books). Or any one of a number of others.
Lulu is still a place where you can get a novel or a memoir published. But it is also rather more.
One of my other interests, besides books, is photography, and a month or so ago there was a flurry of discussion, on one of the groups that I subscribe to, about the possibility of publishing photographic books through Lulu.
Now that really made my ears prick up. Because I know quite a lot about printing illustrated books, and believe me, it ain't easy.
I had heard, distantly, that it had become possible to publish full-colour illustrations through print-on-demand presses, but I had got the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that the facility was confined to children's books which were printed on a fairly stiff card. As far as I knew, most POD printing facilities could only offer to print black and white line illustrations, or low-quality black and white images.
So I went over to Lulu and had a look. What I found there surprised me. I discovered that some reasonably well-known names are using Lulu to print and publish collections of their photographs, either in black and white or full colour. And, so far, I have not picked up any gossip to the effect that the quality is unsatisfactory.
People who take photographs on a professional basis, or a serious-amateur basis, are notoriously fussy about the reproduction of their images. So here we have a situation which at least merits further enquiry.
To see an example of what I mean, go take a look at these Lulu links. First, a book about California by Noah Grey. This runs to 147 pages and costs $49.99. (With all these examples, you can click on a preview button and see a PDF file with some sample illustrations.) Next, Visions, by Wanda Sanders-Young; 96 pages at $34.96. And third, Woofers, by Paul Treacy. A particularly nice one, this, I think; 56 pages at $17.93.
Now -- I have by no means fully explored the Lulu.com site, and I haven't quite figured out how they do the printing. But it is probably some form of inkjet. And if you know anything about the printing of fine-art photographs by inkjet printers you will know that there have been problems of longevity. In short, the pictures tend to fade with age and exposure to light.
There are also, of course, endless problems about printing in colour, even when you're talking big-time printers with million-copy print-runs of a high-quality fashion magazine. If a professional printer manages to get within 5% of his target colours, he probably feels he's doing a good job.
Whether these technical problems, of fading and colour control, have been fully dealt with by Lulu.com I don't know. But in the meantime it looks as if the results are good enough to satisfy most people.
Now this, I have to say, constitutes a hugely dramatic change in circumstances. Only a couple of years ago, if you had asked me how to go about self-publishing a book of photographs I would have told you to forget it. You would have had to order a minimum print-run of 2,000 copies, to bring the cost per copy down to anything like a reasonable level; and you would have been left with a huge bill and a garage full of unsold books.
But now, with Lulu, you can do the job for absolutely minimum cost; and you don't need to keep stock; you can have copies run off as and when they're needed. True, you will have to master the technique of preparing a PDF file; and true, the full Adobe Acrobat program for creating PDFs costs a lot of money. But there are cheap alternatives to Adobe Acrobat: Serif Page Plus, for instance. And if I can manage to produce PDFs, anybody can.
Ah yes, I hear you saying. But even if you print copies of a book at an amazingly cheap cost, you are still faced with the problem of selling the books. And indeed you are. But you may not actually want to "sell" any, in the traditional sense.
You might wish, for instance, to produce a set of wedding photographs which, instead of being pasted in the traditional album, are printed in the form of a book, which could be distributed free to key members of the family; or even to every guest; or to every guest who wanted to buy one.
And if you're a professional portrait painter, for example, you could publish a book showing many of your recent portraits and use it as a sales tool.
And so on. The possibilities are enormous, and to my mind quite astonishing. It is only about ten years since a colleague first showed me what was then called a bubble-jet printer; and look how far and how fast we have come since.
Another reason to take a long look at Lulu is that it offers the facility to produce and market other things, beside books: CDs and DVDs, for example. Or ebooks. And you can make your own calendars from art work or photographs. Take a look at the corporate profile.
And, finally, another interesting thing about Lulu.com is that the company is sponsoring the Blooker Prize. Yes, that L is meant to be there.
The Blooker Prize is the world's first prize devoted to books which originated from, or are based on the content of, a blog. Which is a good excuse to remind you that, if you are looking for a modestly priced present for a bookish friend, you could do no better than give said friend a copy of the book version of the Grumpy Old Bookman. This is available from either Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com, and in either case at a generous discount.
And, yes, thank you for offering, but there is no need for you to nominate the GOB print version for the Blooker Prize. The rules allow me to do it myself. And I will, I will.
Oh, and by the way. I nearly forgot (typical). I have Maud Newton to thank for this one. Yet another reason for visiting Lulu.com is that they offer a way to use that enormous pile of rejection letters. Some people paper a room with them, but Lulu has a better idea: you can have them printed out on toilet paper.
Admittedly, this service is a little expensive. (And perhaps they don't intend it to be taken very seriously.) But think how much better you will feel as a result.