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Back in 2009, I wrote a piece about the Print on Demand (POD) outfit known as Lulu.com. Judging by my web-searches back then, a lot of people were thinking Lulu was a scam, but I couldn’t agree because that hadn’t been my experience. Instead I felt many aspiring writers had misunderstood what Lulu was about and consequently had unrealistic expectations of the service. I probably came across as a bit of a Lulu salesperson, which was not my intention, but I think my enthusiasm was justified at the time.

We need to remember that prior to Lulu, and other POD outfits, there was no such thing as an Independent author. The only way for a writer to acquire even the most modest readership was through the conventional press, an ambition realised by the few, rather than the many. Indeed, to put it bluntly, for the majority of aspiring authors, chasing the favours of a publisher was a pain the arse. It was also undignified, and I was glad to abandon it when the online world began offering some viable alternatives. But it really wasn’t until the advent of Lulu that the landscape of writing changed completely for me, because people suddenly started mailing me to say they’d read my stuff. It wasn’t Lulu’s print services that won me a small readership, though. It was the e-book downloads, something I’d not considered relevant at the time, a time when ebook readers were still rare, expensive and butt ugly.

Another important thing to remember here is that Lulu and its ilk eliminated the so called vanity press, who for too long had preyed on vulnerable authors. But the critics seemed to be implying those vanity press shysters had now morphed into POD outfits and were tempting those same vulnerable authors with paid distribution packages and guarantees of bestsellerdom, things which did not materialise.

Hence the bad press.

Speaking for myself, I was under no illusions. I resisted the paid promotional packages and, from the outset, did not expect to make anything from my work at all. I was happy instead to simply discover a readership through this new, experimental and at times delightfully anarchic medium.

To make real money from writing, you will always need a staggeringly vast and opaquely professional distribution network, also a manic publicity machine pronouncing you the best writer in the world. In other words you will always need to court the man. But the man cannot bestow his blessings upon everyone with talent. It’s always going to be a lottery – the odds of winning are probably about the same, the only difference being that with the lottery, you don’t spend several years filling out your ticket – i.e. your manuscript.

For an unknown writer, without a publisher’s publicity machine behind you, you’re either going to have to resign yourself to obscurity, or you’re going to have to pay for someone to publicise you, and that’s always going to be risky unless you know them personally and would trust them with your mother’s life.

So here’s where Indy writers split into two camps: those who’ll pay to publish/promote their work, and those who won’t. Me? I won’t, under any circumstances. I’m a sworn follower of the muse’s golden rules for writing, number one of which states that you should never ever pay anyone anything to have your work published*. The muse’s second golden rule of writing is that if no one will pay for your stuff, then it’s okay to give it away. The former is exploitation, and not to be encouraged, the latter is artistic self preservation, which is sometimes necessary.

Perhaps it’s on account of this rather more circumspect approach I have no reason to complain about the free aspects of Lulu’s service, and I stand by everything I wrote in that earlier piece. However, it’s important we recognise that things are moving on now. 2012 is not 2009, and four years is a very long time. My later novels have not appeared on Lulu. They were written purely as ebooks, because it’s just so much easier if you can eliminate the obsession with producing a paper book.

For the few Lulu paper editions I managed to shift, it really wasn’t worth the effort of all that pernickerty formatting when compared with the sheer distributive power of the Feedbooks website – which takes text in a much simpler form and formats it automatically for a wide range of reading devices. As for Lulu’s ebooks, my only complaint with them is that if you’re not charging for your work, Lulu deems it unnecessary to supply you with any stats, so I’ve no idea how well my stories are doing. I think they’re missing a trick there and they could learn a lot from Feedbooks and Smashwords in that respect.

If you’re writing for nothing, you’re motivated by something else, obviously, by the love of writing perhaps, or by the desire of all story tellers to communicate the worlds inside your head to as many other people as possible. There’s no sense therefore putting your stories where no one will find them, whether that be a bottom drawer at home, or a website where no one clicks on your thumbnail. You have to go where the audience is.

Which would you prefer? One person to buy a copy of your book, or a thousand people to read it for free? Me? I’ll take the thousand readers every time, thanks. You don’t need “sales” to call yourself a writer. You need words, that’s all. Readers are a bonus of course. I understand that “sales” can sometimes equate to self-confidence, that you have what it takes, that you’re a good writer, hip, wikkid, cosmic, and all those other stock phrases, but in chasing such reassurances for too long, be aware that you also run the risk of shredding any self confidence you already possess.

I remember the feeling of seeing my first novel “The Singing Loch” fresh back from Lulu’s printers. It looked great. Just like a proper novel. I slid it proudly between all the other proper novels on my bookshelf, and then I thought, what now? Well,… skip forward several years and now it gathers dust, languishing several editions out of date, and resembles more a curiosity from a bygone age, while the current ebook edition on Feedbooks has recently topped 2000 downloads. If I want to skim “The Singing Loch”, with a view to possibly updating it and sweeping up yet more typos, I turn to my ereader, not to the paper copy on my bookshelf.

There’s nothing magical or godlike about publishing. It’s just distribution. It’s a means of putting your words into other people’s hands. And it’s changing. So is writing. I’ve not used a typewriter in twenty years, nor do I possess the stereotypical private study, lined with leather-bound books, and neither do I use a desk-hogging, steam driven PC with a printer attached. I have a laptop, and an ereader, and I work peripatetic fashion, wherever others are not. So long as I’m in range of that ubiquitous WiFi connection, I’m in touch with my “publisher”, who lives in the clouds and no longer deals with paper. I can “publish” anything in seconds, and people all over the world will be reading it. Instantly.

There’s a moral debate about the rise of the ebook, and many of us older folks are looking on with tears in our eyes as the bookshops close, and publishers tighten their grip on the printed word, attacking the second hand book market with their built-in digital rights management software. But it’s coming, and we just have to prepare for it. Ebook readers are everywhere now. The rate of uptake of ebooks has outstripped all industry forecasts. Publishers have realised there are no material costs whatsoever, no printing presses to maintain, and they can still get away with charging as much as they would for a paper book – sometimes more! No wonder they’re pushing ebooks! Indeed, have they any choice in the current economic climate?

Of course the debate rages between Romantics, still hoarding and sniffing paper books, and Progressives, drooling over the spec of the latest e-reader. As a reader I mostly straddle the fence between these two extremes, but as a writer, it’s the words that count, and the means of delivering them must always come down to whatever is the most efficient technology of the day. Right now, that’s digital. It’s also where a great many readers are now turning.

To date, there are around 45 people in the world who have read a paper book by Michael Graeme. But my Feedbooks stats tell me there are around 150,000 people who have had one of my stories on their reader – and most of those readers are Android smartphones, sitting in pockets, and handbags, which is a very good place for any author to be.

I’m not blowing my own trumpet here. Anyone can do this. If you’re a writer, lying prone and demoralised under a mountain of publishers’ rejection slips, you could be doing it too. You could be published now, for free, and readers will write to you and tell you what they think of your story. Instead of spending time tidying up your manuscript yet again and redrafting your pitch, you could be doing what you actually love, doing what you really need to be doing, which is writing stories.

So to come back to my opening question, is Lulu still relevant? Well, it depends. For an independent author, paper seems very dated now and I think you should be looking more at the ebook services Lulu offers, as well as outfits like Feedbooks, Smashwords, Wattpad and the Kindle Marketplace.

Paper’s for the big boys and girls who sit at the exclusive high table of best-selling authorship. Unknown, independent authors who insist on paper are missing out on a potentially wide distribution of their work in favour of a glossy cover and the smell of printing ink.The only circumstances under which POD services make sense are if you have a small guranteed audience for your work, say members of your family, or your club who’d really like a professionally printed copy of something you’ve written, and they’re just not into ebooks.

But I reiterate the message contained in all my other writings on the subject of self-publishing online, whatever route you take, (E L James’ bondage bonkbusters excepted), it’s unlikely to win you a place at that high table of best-selling authorship. You’re an Indy. You do it because you can’t stop yourself. There’s no glory in it for you my friend. For that you’re still going to have to tackle the conventional printed press at some point, which means convincing a publisher, and an agent how wonderful you are. You’ll spend as much time on your pitch as on your story, and still longer hawking it round from one outfit to the next, with no guarantee anyone will even read your work.

Bah!

No thanks. I don’t do that any more.

Got something to say? Go free. Go e. For your muse’s sake, just get it out there.

But whatever you do, don’t pay to publish!

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I was surprised  when I noticed the above question popping up in my internet search results recently, and I wondered if people were talking about some other Lulu.com to the one I’ve been using. But no, it’s the same one, and it seems there’s a problem – not with Lulu.com, but I think with the unrealistic expectations of some very naive writers, with dreams of stardom.

I’ve now got six books on their server( actually this is no longer true – update below), and I’ve never had any problems, either with the website or with the quality of the books they’ve delivered. Of the half-dozen proof copies of my own books I’ve purchased, the quality has always been top notch, both in paper-back and hardback – the equal of any conventionally published book. As for the cover design, what you see on-screen is pretty much what you get. You follow the template, upload your design at a decent resolution and the quality of reproduction has always been spot on. Perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones, I don’t know – I can only speak from my own experience – but everything Lulu promised me it could deliver, it has done so, consistently, many times.

So, is Lulu a scam? No. It’s exactly what it says it is: a print on demand publisher.  This is a new era. You need to forget the old way of doing things.

Some of the comments I’ve read are regarding late payment of royalties, and if that’s true then, okay, there’s a problem there that needs sorting out. I can’t offer anything on that debate because I’ve set my royalties to zero and am consequently not making any money from my books at all. To be frank, I’d rather shift copies than optimistically charge the earth for them  and have them sitting there doing nothing. This means the e-book versions cost nothing, while the print copies are the cheapest they can possibly be, and every penny paid by my customers goes to the printer. I’ve managed to “sell” about 40 print copies to complete strangers, even one book of poetry, which was the last thing I was expecting, while my free downloads are currently in the region of about 8000 all told.

Perhaps I’m odd, but I’m actually very happy with this. Perhaps my expectations are pessimistically low, but I’ve been writing stories and sending them to commercial publishers for thirty years now and I don’t think they are.

Writing is a hobby for me. The odds of making it big as a writer are actually rather small and most of us just labour on in obscurity. We have to grow up and be accepting of this. My novels are never going to top the best seller list. Commercial publishers won’t look twice at my stuff because I’m an unknown scribbler, possibly crap, and unlikely to make them much money.

Lulu is a print on demand publisher. They’re different. They are not in the business of making you rich and famous. They will take anything – even if it’s a load of gibberish – and “publish” it for you. What they make out of it is what you pay them for your own copy of the book – there’s no obligation for you to buy it, but I think most writers will want to. Any more copies you sell to strangers is a bonus for them. If they can sell you an ISBN number, a marketing package and a listing on Amazon, then fine, it’s not expensive, but you’re straying a little deeper into vanity publishing territory there, and you really shouldn’t expect miracles. Now, multiply all of this by the million writers who have used Lulu, and you get an idea of their business model. It works for them. It works for us. But it’s not a scam.

If you want to be rich and famous, then study the market, as they say, write your novel, send it off to a big name publisher and good luck to you. The writers who follow this route and make it are the ones who can still keep their heads together when their manuscript has been returned for the fifteenth time unread, and so many years have passed they can barely remember what their own story is about any more. I’m not one of them. I admit I can’t handle it. It depresses me. It takes my love of writing and turns it into a three-by-two that others can  use to hit me with.

I’m done with that. I didn’t want to waste my whole life negotiating the literary path to published authordom, finally to drop dead and with not a single person in the world having ever read a story by Michael Graeme. So, I’ve got a day job to pay the bills, and I’m currently writing like there’s no tomorrow. I’m also thoroughly enjoying it. That’s entirely thanks to Lulu.com and other free to upload sites like Feedbooks.

Use them wisely, and be under no illusions. If you want your writing to make you rich and famous, then okay, Lulu is probably not for you. If you want your story to be read by people all over the world, tomorrow, then go for it. You’ve really nothing to lose.

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Updated Jan 2016

This piece is becoming rather dated now (2009) but it’s still a popular read and reading it through again I realise it’s mostly still relevant, so I’ve left it unchanged for writers who might be searching for answers to the question it poses. In 2016, the only thing I would add is that from the writer’s point of view things have moved on a lot in the DIY self-publishing world. In my opinion paper books are looking a bit old fashioned – harking back to the olden days of print publishing and what it means to be a proper “published” writer. So, I no longer have any books on Lulu’s server, and have moved them all to the likes of Feedbooks and Smashwords, where the download rates are better. I no longer think of paper when I write.

Certainly for the unknown, independent author, I think ebooks are the best and most progressive option, offering you the potential of delivering your work to everyone’s pocket via their smartphones. There’s still no money in it, but if it’s readers you’re after that’s where you’ll find them for now. Is Lulu a scam? No, it’s still a print on demand publisher offering some paid “author services”. It’s up to you, the writer, to understand exactly what that means before you fall into the trap of nurturing unrealistic expectations about what they’re capable of delivering.

Remember:

1) A writer is a person who writes.

2) A publisher publishes.

3) Publishers pay writers.

4) Writers never pay publishers. Anything!

Michael Graeme January 2016

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Michael Graeme is an Indie Author currently self publishing on Feedbooks and Smashwords.

If you’ve used Lulu.com, you might like to help other writers who are still exploring the issue by voting in the simple poll below:

I have used Lulu.com to publish my writings and I was:Market Research

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