Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lucius and Lulu -- part 2

Yesterday, Lucius; today, Lulu.


Today's post, like yesterday's, divides into two parts. First, for the chronometrically challenged, my conclusions from an experiment in publishing a short book through the services of, and then a discussion of some of the practical details of using those services.


If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that, for the past four years, Lulu has been offering a publishing service to authors. Most people would call it self-publishing, but, depending on the deal you choose, you may end up, at least officially, being 'published by Lulu'. But all it amounts to really is a means of getting your book into print form very cheaply.

For a description of the range of services that Lulu offers (which includes the ability to post videos, images, and recordings) see the May 2006 interview with Lulu officer Stephen Fraser.

Most people who read this post will, I suspect, be interested, if only vaguely, in using Lulu to publish their novel. And the first conclusion I have to offer is that, if you hope to make serious money out of the operation, it isn't going to work.

If your purpose is solely to be able to hold your book in your hand, in paperback or hardback form, then Lulu is an unrivalled bargain: truly one of the great inventions and a total revolution in print/publishing facilities. But don't expect to be able to sell significant quantities of your novel to the general public.

Why not? Well, because you're faced with the old-as-time problem. It's always been dead easy to get a book into print, if you had the odd £10,000 or $20,000 to spare. Now you can do it for next to nothing, but the problem has always been getting the book known and persuading people to buy it.

As far as Lulu is concerned, you can, if you wish, buy a very cheap package which will ensure that your book is listed on various 'books in print' databases, and is offered for sale by online retailers. But the evidence so far (see the comments on my piece about Ron Morgans' book) suggests that, by the time Amazon and the likes have added their desired profit to the Lulu cost of production, the price of your paperback novel will be about twice what it's listed for on Lulu, and well above what normal people are prepared to pay.

That wouldn't matter much if people (a) knew about it, (b) wanted it, and (c) just bought it from Lulu, rather than Amazon. But who's going to find it on Lulu? Almost no one.

So forget any ideas of bestsellerdom via that route.

Which is not to say, however, that you can't use Lulu as a very good means of making some modest reputation for yourself and your book. For an example, study the case of Henry Baum. First mentioned here on 14 March 2006, he went on to win the grand prize ($1,000) at the 2006 Hollywood Book Festival, and this got him on to the books of literary agent Frank Weimann.

If you are going to publish a novel through Lulu, your best plan, I suggest, is to think of the operation, from the very beginning, as a means of producing a calling-card. In the television/film world, most agents advise writers to produce a script which is perfectly capable of being produced, in the sense that it is professionally constructed, but which no one seriously expects to be produced. Its purpose is to prove to those who commission scripts that you are capable of doing the job.

A similar approach is, I think, worth adopting with novels.

So, if Lulu is not totally perfect as a vehicle for selling a novel in large numbers, what is it good for?

Well, suppose you are a church warden.Twenty years ago, a member of the congregation produced a little booklet, giving a history of the church. A thousand copies were printed, they've sold, on average, at the rate of one copy a week, and now you're down to the last few. What to do?

What to do, I suggest, is produce a new improved version and put it through Lulu. For a booklet, of say, 24 pages, with a nice glossy cover, you don't pay Lulu a penny until you need to order some copies. And, if you can get the same print-in-small numbers, as-and-when-required facility from a local printer, I salute your negotiating skills. I don't think you will be able to do that.

You order 20 copies of your church history booklet from Lulu, and sell them in one place: the church. When you notice a mistake in the text, which you will, you can correct it, at zero cost, before you run off the next 20.

Similarly, let's suppose you're a poet. Traditionally, poets have published their work in chapbook (booklet) form. And in past decades they would have had to go to a local printer for a short run. Which costs money. Lulu, by contrast, charges no set-up fee at all. You order (and pay for) one copy to check that it looks OK, and then you order more as you need them. You can give them away to your friends, sell them when you've given a poetry reading, place them in local libraries, and so forth. It's a very, very low-cost exercise.

There are many other possibilities. Suppose, for instance, it's Granny's golden wedding, and you want to give her, and perhaps four other members of the family, a hardback book filled with photographs of fifty years of family life. This is going to be of no real interest to anyone other than the four or five recipients. But you can put it together on Lulu, again for no cost except the price of the book. A heavily illustrated hardback might well cost somewhere between £25 and £50 a copy, depending how long it was; but if it's a golden wedding, once in a lifetime thing, who cares?

Final note. I am firmly of the opinion that Lulu works best with non-fiction rather than fiction. And if you really have some practical, hands-on, how-to-do-it stuff that you're an expert on (such as Luciferian witchcraft, or developing web services with Apache Axis), you might actually make a bit of money, if you can get your book enough publicity.

Study the Lulu top 100 sellers. The list changes pretty rapidly, indicating that most books don't sell very many copies, but you will rarely see a novel on the list.

In short, the Lulu enterprise is one of the very great initiatives of the 21st century, and I take my hat off to its founder, Bob Young.


So much for my conclusions, which I had hoped would be succinct, but turned out not to be. Now to consider the question: How easy is it to use Lulu?

The honest answer is, not nearly as easy as Lulu claims. Because it's all done on computers. And, as you know by now, computers are 'easy' to use -- provided you've done a three-year degree course in computing, and have also had a day's training on three or four page-layout programs and the like. However, if I can make a fist of it, most people should be able to do the same.

My suggestion is that, before you do a whole book-length project, you should have a trial run with a shorter document. Either a short story, or an essay, or something, just to get the feel of the procedures.

In my own case, as I explained yesterday, I used a newly written short story called Lucius the Club.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that, if you're using Norton antivirus software, as I am, you will almost certainly need to turn it off while you're using Lulu. I definitely had to. If you don't do that, quite a few important links won't work. For instance, until I worked out this manoeuvre, I couldn't watch the demo videos on how to do things, couldn't see the font samples, couldn't view the document after conversion to PDF, and so forth.

And the next thing to say is that, before beginning even the simplest test, it would be a good idea to read up as much about the procedures as you have patience and time for. Lulu itself publishes a couple of free books about using the system: the one by Danny Snow is quite useful, but there are others. In Lulu search, enter publishing and Lulu and you will get quite a few, some of which are not free.

You then need to prepare your text in Word, or some other accepted format. You will need to have decided, in advance, what size book you are going to be printing in: I chose 6" x 9", which in Europe is slightly bigger in metric.

Lulu offers some templates in Word for the various sizes, and you could use one of those. That's certainly the simplest way. But I chose my own layout. It was based, if you really want to know, on one used by Villard de Honnecourt in a manuscript of c. 1280; this gives margins -- spine, top, edge, and foot -- in the ratio 2:3:4:6. Why did I do that? Because I like the rather strange appearance, and because I wanted to see if Lulu could cope with it. And it can.

You should also use one of the fonts which Lulu states that it can handle; though in practice you may find that it can also handle fonts which are not listed. But not all, as I discovered.

The publishing process consists of five stages. At each of these you need to fill in certain types of information. At first, if you're anything like me, you will find some of this far from straightforward, but the more often you do it the easier it becomes.

An early stage, which is quite important, is the conversion of the text file to a PDF. If you're an experienced designer, and if you have the right software, you can produce a PDF yourself, according to the required specs. In my case, I just laid it all out in Word and clicked the button for Lulu to do a conversion.

This, after a few failed experiments, works OK. In any case you can see the result on screen, and can go back and change things if they don't look right. In my case I had to have six attempts before I was satisfied, which is why I suggest a small experiment before tackling a major project.

Another important stage is creating the booklet's cover. Again, if you're an expert graphic designer, you can design your own cover and upload it as a PDF. For my experiment, I took advantage of the Lulu gallery of ready-made covers, and simply chose one which looked appropriate. You then get to choose from a list of fonts, and specify the size of type, for the wording of the title and the name of the author on the front cover. You also have the option of adding text and a photo to the back cover.

Initially, it is probably best not to publish your book to the whole world until you have had at least one proof copy and checked it carefully. And in fact you may never need to publish it to the whole world, if it's a short history of your church, as described above.

You are also required to price your work. There will be a basic production cost, which in my view is not unreasonable. For my 48-page, saddle-stitched Lucius the Club, the price (at current exchange rates) is £3.02. I could, if I wished, add some 'profit' to that, say £1. If I did, Lulu would take 20p as their profit. But you don't have to do that, and in the case of Lucius the Club I didn't, so you can actually buy the booklet cum chapbook at cost. Why so? Well, not because I'm a saint, but because I don't seriously expect to sell more than 4 or 5 copies in a year, if that, and for sales of that volume adding 'profit' is pointless.

What you get, at the end of the day, is a book printed on a Docutech machine, on 80 or 90 gsm paper, with a pretty decent (in my opinion) glossy card cover (full colour, laminated, 240 gsm). It's never going to be the equal of a traditionally printed hardback, with sewn sections and top quality paper. But it is every bit the equal of many a trade paperback.

Further reading there is in abundance. But you could start with these:

Chris Davis on publishing with Lulu, part I
Chris Davis part II
Chris Davis part III
Philipp Lenssen
Deborah Woehr


Anonymous said...

A great, point-by-point breakdown. The difficulties are minor, when you consider just the difference between the internet of today versus ten years ago. In short time, the kinks will be worked out and it will be simpler yet.

Maria said...

This was a really great post. Thanks for the info.


Anonymous said...

Thanks. I haven't thought of something like Lulu for myself, but the uses you note seem more than reasonable.

And your tempered take on self-publishing more generally is much appreciated. In the past I would have had something snarky to say, but a couple of weeks ago, my brother-in-law told a really great story about sharing his young-adult novel-in-progress with a kid he met on a trans-Pacific flight.

My BIL had printed a few copies of his manuscript through some kind of online publishing service, and had brought a copy along. The kid ate it up (how would he know he was supposed to be snarky). And that gave renewed energy to my BIL, who's been shopping the manuscript for a while now with hardly a bite.

Upon his return, he had a letter from an agent, asking for the full ms.

Anyway. Again: thanks.

Susan Hill said...

Excellent post and extremely helpful for people wanting to know how it works and how it doesn`t. Very good point indeed about it working for Non-f - though there are many fewer aspiring non-f writers out there than novelists. Someone who is not computer-literate even after following your guide, could pay a student who is a flat fee to do the donkey work. Student ? What do I mean student ? 9 year old child would be fine. You then have a decent calling card or something to give your nearest and dearest - the family memoir would be perfect.
A local man came to me in despair having asked for a quote from our local printer - very good printer if you want wedding invitations and headed stationary- for his book of poems. He was going to have to pay about £14 each - so the local bookshop would be selling the at £22.He asked me if he should print 1,000 copies.
Two cups of coffee later......

Anonymous said...

The man who was quoted 14 pounds could probably get 1,000 litho printed for around two grand.

And, unless the book is huge, for much less than that.

You could try Biddles; they are very responsive and helpful to micro publishers.

If you went digital at such a place you could do smaller print runs even more cheaply.

Lulu-type processes are wonderful for making work available but if you really want more than say, 500 copies then there are printers out there who'll do you a deal.

The main thing is to hold off on typesetting until you're sure what you want the thing to look like.

No doubt Lulu has some stock page sizes as do 'proper' printers but they are not all the same.

And even if you use Lulu you still have to do a lot of typesetting and design work.

Your friend has quite a lot of research to do before panicking about the things that merit panic.

There are many issues involved (RGB v CMYK, fonts and spacings, packaging the digital file properly for printing, etc., etc.).

Lulu solves a lot of these problems for a few compromises. But they seem pretty pricey and if you reckon you can shift a few hundred then a real printer looks more attractive (and would certainly be better quality).

But if it's a short book then Lulu (or similar) is probably best (although preparing the book for publishing should be the same; regardless of the way it is printed, it is a massive job).

There are sites out there where people actually talk about designing fonts (or digitally rendering classic fonts). Rootling about in such places can solve many typesetting problems.

Publishing a book used to require a number of quite disparate skills.

And it still does. The computer (or, given it's proper monicker, the Universal Machine) fools us into believing we are writers and editors and copy editors and typesetters and printers and inkers and designers and marketing men and PR girls and salespeople.

These are unlikely skills for a modern poet to possess but they can probably be mastered (or faked), to a degree, by perseverence.

It's astonishing that the vast majority of self-published writers are gobsmacked by how bad their carefully word-processed opera look after printing.

The only way to get the page to look right is to drench it in sweat. Each and every page, every paragraph, every sentence, word, letter and symbol needs the same tenderness awarded the prose itself.

The difference between the 'properly' published book and the self-published book (whether POD or not) is in how it looks. How it reads is in the ether but how it looks is in your hands.

Anonymous said...

Found my way here via Bookslut, and wanted to drop a comment to say that this is cogent, well-reasoned, and well-done; thanks for writing & posting it.

Last year, a collective of poets & bloggers (under the imprint "laupe house press") published a chapbook of my poems using Lulu as a print-on-demand house, and it was a terrific experience. I love being able to order small batches of the chapbooks to give away or to sell at readings. (I posted about the experience, and about how I think Lulu plays into the "long tail" theory, here on my own blog.)

EelKat said...

what a great post!

I rember LuLu when it first started, not sure when that was, but I rember searching Google for self-publishing and finding this little site that boasted to haveing printed "over 100 books". The site was a total mess, very unprofessional, hard to navigate, and really had no info about what they did.

The whole web site was based on a chat-room, and didn't really have a home page. I rember laughing at it and saying that no one in their right mind would let such a crappy looking web site publish their book.

That was a few years ago, and their site was online, maybe a month at that point, and had a notation that it was "under construction". I blew it off as someone's little pipe dream and never gave it a second thought.

Well, last week I was chatting with some fellow writers and one of them was telling me how she was doing her next book with LuLu. I thought" You have got to be kidding! Is that crappy site still going!" She tells me, that yep they were and boy had they changed. So I went and checked it out, and WOW! Did they ever chhange! It don't even look like the same site. I'm amazed that they have come so far in just a few short years. I've got a short story, I wrote a while back, but never published anywhere, yet, and I think I'll test LuLu out with it, see what happens.

Thanks for the great post.


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