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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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hexagramsFor any amateur writer considering using the Lulu print on demand publisher, here is an objective review by an amateur writer who has already had his work “published” by the service.

Okay. You fancy yourself as a writer. You feel passionately about a subject, be it a piece of fiction or a factual topic that you have researched deeply and you’re sure will change the world. You also have a day-job and you’re working at this as a labour of love in your spare time. It absorbs you – it is your raison d’etre. Finally you submit it to the mainstream publishers, but to your surprise it bounces back every time – time after time after time after time. It’s taken you years to write, and yet already more years have passed just trying to get the damned thing published!

Incredibly, the publishers do not share your enthusiasm. They seem indifferent. Your manuscript comes back a little more dog eared each time. You freshen it up, then send it out again, and again, and again, but you’re increasingly discouraged and eventually sickened by the whole process. You have something you feel compelled to say, but it seems no one will let you speak!

I can assure any novice writer that you will get through this stage, because one of three things will happen:

1) You will give up writing altogether because you decide it’s a total waste of time.

Or:

2) You will suddenly be discovered by a mainstream publisher and all your efforts will have been worthwhile.

Or, more likely:

3) You will labour on in obscurity, and simply become more philosophical about the rejections.

In days gone by writers in the third category were easy prey for the “publisher seeks manuscripts” adverts – in other words the so called vanity publishers. With vanity publishers, you get a letter saying how wonderful your manuscript is and that they’d love to publish it. You pick yourself up off the floor and read on, only to discover that you’ll have to contribute to the printing cost (i.e. all of it). If you’re desperate enough and rich enough to go ahead, you’ll eventually get a couple of crates containing your printed books which you then have to hawk around yourself if you want to “sell” any.

My advice? Don’t even think about it! There is an excellent “how to write a novel” book, written by the great British novelist John Braine (Room at the Top, Crying game, One and last love, Stay with me till morning), back in the 1970’s, (still in print) in which he said he didn’t need to advise any writer against publishers asking for money because he wasn’t writing for idiots. Heed him well. John was the unknown author’s hero, a Yorkshire librarian plugging away in complete obscurity, with an impressive back list of rejected work who finally made it with a vengeance. But what would John, God rest him, have thought of Lulu?

Well, while Lulu, at a pinch, could be called vanity publishing – it actually doesn’t cost you anything, so there’s no risk in it at all for the writer, so I don’t think John would have minded, though he may have scratched his head a bit. I’ve tried the service, and I would recommend it, but it depends on what sort of writer you are. If you are an unknown writer, Lulu will not suddenly make you famous. For that you still need to tackle the unassailable edifice of the commercial publishing world. So, the chances are you will still be unknown, but at least your book will be available in printed format and attractively bound – and you will sell some copies – just not many, and certainly not enough to give up the day-job. singing loch book cover

My own “first” novel “The Singing Loch” was written in the 1990’s and regularly rejected by every publishing house I could think of sending it to. This is a disheartening business, and what tends to happen is you eventually give up on it and move on to the next project. Consequently the Singing Loch gathered dust in a drawer for many years, but then some bright spark invented the internet, and I started a tentative online presence called the Rivendale Review, where The Singing Loch was able to reside in digital form. Then Lulu came along, and in 2005, the Singing Loch finally became a “print” reality.

If you are a writer who wants to write, have grown out of your early fantasies of giving up the day-job, and you don’t care about the money any more, I think Lulu is the best thing to have happened since the Gutenberg printing press. Thanks to Lulu, anyone who has something to say now has a voice and unlike internet-published material your work won’t simply disappear when your webservice decides to pull the plug on you. A printed book has a life of its own, whether its come off Lulu’s printers or out of a “real” publishing house.

Sounds good? Well, it is, but don’t get too excited: your book won’t appear in a publisher’s catalogue, or on the shelves of your favourite book store. It won’t be available from your local library, nor will you be considered a published author by any of the conventional standards -but standards are changing. We’re on the wave of a print revolution, and if you’re a writer you should be involved.

If you have a manuscript in electronic format, it’s not that difficult to upload it to Lulu’s server, add a cover, and publish. You can either use one of Lulu’s many standard cover designs, which are all very good, or if you’re fussy you can design your own. I designed my own, but it didn’t come out quite right on the early copies so you find yourself buying your own book, just to check it looks okay – if you’re wise you also go through the text yet again to check for typos – then buy another updated copy and check through it all again. Other than this, it really won’t cost you anything, but you aren’t going to make much at it either. Why? Well, the problem is one of basic economics.

The Lavender and the Rose book coverThe cost of printing your average novel length book alone is around £5.00 – the printer takes that. Then there are delivery charges of around £4.50. Already then, the customer has had to fork out £9.50 for a novel by a writer no one has heard of. And remember: you can go to your local supermarket where you’ll find a cracking novel by a famous author for less than £4.00. Now, if there’s a novel for £9.50 by someone I’ve never heard of – even if it has an interesting title, and I liked the blurb – I’d still be drawn to the famous author whose book costs less than half as much and sounds just as interesting.

But hold on, you say. What about your profit? Well, you can add whatever profit you want on top of that £9.50, to which Lulu will add another 25% as their cut, but your novel’s already very expensive, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you can add very much. In my own case, I decided it wasn’t worth getting into a tangle with the inland revenue over what might not amount to more than a few pounds per year, so from the author’s point of view the Singing Loch was basically given away, just to see how it went.

It costs the customer over £10.00, these days, including delivery, but the author makes nothing out of it. Still, I have managed to “sell” several copies and I feel that’s more than I deserve at the price. To those readers who have purchased The Singing Loch, or any of my other books that now reside on the Lulu website, the author offers his sincere thanks and he hopes you weren’t disappointed.

Now, you can go a step further and purchase a marketing package. Your book will then get a proper ISBN number and be available on such websites as Amazon, for anyone whose search criterion pulls your title up. I’ve not gone this far, and frankly I don’t intend doing so at this stage. It may be that you’ll shift a few more copies, but you’ll need to balance this against the cost of the package.

My own advice is stick to the free version initially, and advertise it yourself if you can. Put posters up in shop windows, and on the notice board at your local library. If your book has some local interest, you’re sure to attract attention. If you have a website (another must for any obscure writer!), provide a link to your book and some sample pages so people can see what they’re getting. Don’t expect results overnight – if you sell one or two copies in a year, think yourself lucky.

I am by no means criticising Lulu, here. I think the venture is a noble one. The truth about writing is that there are a lot more people at it than you might think – millions upon millions of us, yet how many published authors are there in circulation at any one time? A few thousand? I don’t want to seem unnecessarily pessimistic, but the odds are stacked against the aspiring writer to such an extent that one can more or less say for certain that unless you’re already famous your manuscript will be rejected. But then what do you want? Do you want to be famous or do you simply want to be a writer who’s work’s available in printed form?

Here’s one author who thinks Lulu’s print on demand service is a good idea, and thanks all concerned.

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