I was interested to see a brief story in Publishers Weekly about the attitudes if Lulu founder, Bob Young. The very first line is attributed to him:
“We publish a huge number of bad books.”
The story very accurately presents his general goal of publishing a few copies of many books (rather than many copies of a few books). It seems that this approach is proving profitable with projected profits of $30 million this year. I was however surprised that they have a projected staff of 110 by the end of the year and presumably even less now. Sales are almost entirely through Lulu.com where60% of members are customers only; 40% are only or also authors.
I think this all adds up to something that authors should keep in mind. Although a company can make ample money with a low-effort process seeling few untis of many products, the benefits to the author are not on the same scale at all. Lulu benefits from an ‘economy of scale’ even though they only take a 20% cut of net (in prates I would suggest there net is a little inflated too). They spent little time on each book and profit from putting out a great many books. The author of course cannot do all that much limit how much time and effort they put into each book and are likely to have only one or a few books. So when they make less ‘per book’, they simply make less.
For this reason it only makes sense to go to Lulu (et al) with a book if more profitable alternatives are either unavailable for some reason, be it because the book is too specialised for mass appeal, some kind of ethical issue that precludes third party publishing, a need to avoid stress or expedite availability or… as must frequently be the case, the book is bad. The first of these reasons seems to be the best, as Mr. Young is reported to have said: “Subject areas that sell best are education and niche topics.”
The innate limitations of this business model for the author are apparent in Mr. Young’s closing statement: “We’re not trying to get books to a mass market … We’re trying to give aspiring writers a chance to be seen.” To be seen but by very few people, that is. The onus is on the writer to either understand and accept Lulu levels of exposure as appropriate for their work and their goals (100 copies or so on average) or have a cunning plan to become one of the few who grab a real share of Lulu’s small slice of the market (1.2 million sales Lulu has made in the entire lifespan of the company.)
SOURCE: Milliot J. Turning bad books into big bucks. Publishers Weekly, August 6 2007.