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Sites Let Amateurs Be Published Authors Without the Book Deal

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, May 4, 2006 10:55 AM

Shane Gilreath, an amateur poet and artist, wasn't planning on becoming a book author -- until he met Lulu. Neither were Karen and Walter Del Pellegrino, a couple who tapped Lulu to publish their guide to Italian ceramics as an anniversary present. And before Lulu, entrepreneur Pete Edwards was still printing test-preparation guides for students one-by-one on his office printer.

No, Lulu is not a book agent, publisher or publicist. Lulu is an on-demand publishing service that prints and ships each book as it is ordered, then offers online tools for authors to sell and market their books over the Web. With no upfront fees, Lulu ( http://www.lulu.com/ ) takes a commission only when each book is sold.

Started four years ago in Raleigh, N.C., Lulu has come into its own in the past year as part of the self-publishing phenomenon sweeping the Internet, with tens of millions of people writing blogs and seeking ways to distribute their work offline and online.

As further proof that the market is growing, a new player -- called Blurb ( http://www.blurb.com/ ) -- became a competitor to Lulu yesterday.

Blurb's self-professed goal is to "bring book publishing to the masses," in part through software that helps authors lay out their manuscripts and soon will allow groups to do joint publishing online.

"The book industry is next in line to be 'indied' after music and movies," declared Blurb founder Eileen Gittins, referring to material that ordinary people produce independent of large media companies. "In the past three years there has been a huge shift from people being downloaders and consumers, to being uploaders and producers."

More than 91,000 professionally bound books were published through Lulu in January alone, nearly three times the 35,500 paper tomes the site produced last August. Sales are running at about $1 million a month but growing at an extraordinary clip of 10 percent monthly, said founder Bob Young.

Fueling the growth are the many specialty topics such as vintage Rolex watches and horse manure ("The Little Book of Horse Poop" is one Lulu title). They may not produce enough sales to land a book deal at Random House but have little trouble finding readers online.

"Our goal is to empower all authors who have something important to say, regardless of how small the market for their content might be, " said Young, who is better known as the co-founder of Red Hat, a distributor of the open-source Linux operating system.

Both Lulu and Blurb take advantage of the economics of modern digital printers, which mimic copiers and laser printers rather than the costlier offset printing presses that require minimum print runs of thousands of copies. While today's book publishing industry is set up mostly to print books in volume, Lulu and Blurb are all about publishing one at a time.

Each transmits the author's final manuscript over the Internet to a professional printing firm, where it is printed, bound and shipped directly to the purchaser or author. No humans massage manuscripts en route. Nor are warehouses and bookstores involved, as in traditional publishing.

Blurb and Lulu say they are unleashing people's pent-up desire to publish books that otherwise might have never existed, much the same way that Web logs triggered a new wave of self-expression.

Karen Del Pellegrino, a bookkeeper in Keansburg, N.J., who collects Italian ceramics, said she and husband Walter used Lulu to publish three illustrated books about Italian pottery markings. So far, they have sold 400 copies to buyers around the world, including Japan, Switzerland and England.

"Walter would have been content with a spiral-bound workbook for his own personal use," she said, "but when I saw what he had put together, I knew it deserved better treatment."

Pricing and mechanics differ at Lulu and Blurb, though the basic process is similar. At Lulu, authors upload their material as preformatted, printer-ready files and then tweak them online. Blurb offers offline formatting by providing special software that authors download and use to lay out text and images.

For now, Blurb offers only full-color hardcovers starting at $30 for 40 pages, each 8 by 10 inches. Prices rise to $35 for 80 pages and $80 for 400 pages. Paperbacks will be coming soon, along with templates for different genres, including novels and text-only manuscripts.

Lulu offers far more choices, including text-only formats, paperbacks that start at less than $9 and color books at less than $35.

Authors can set their own sale prices and pocket 80 percent as a royalty, with Lulu taking the remaining 20 percent. Lulu also charges extra for an ISBN number to make their books available for purchase through Amazon.com and other retail outlets.

Lulu's pricing for full-color books caught the eye of Gilreath, a 39-year-old law-firm employee in Los Angeles who writes Reflekshins, a Web log that blends poetry with imagery. He recently used Lulu to convert his artistic blog into a 130-page, full-color book that sells for $32.14 -- or $8.11 more than what it costs to print. Of that, Lulu keeps $1.62 and Gilreath keeps $6.49.

While it's only sold a few copies so far, Gilreath said he's happy.

So is Edwards, who owns and runs a Los Angeles test-preparation service called Achieve Tutorials. He's sold several thousand copies of an SAT manual he published with Lulu, he said.

"The numbers on Lulu certainly can't compete with the big publishing companies," he said, "but I think it's remarkable how successful my book has been."

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail at leslie@lesliewalker.com. She will be host a Web chat at 1 p.m. today with Blurb founder Eileen Gittins. To participate, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/.

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