by Will Viharo
With so many digital self-publishing platforms to choose from these days, how do you make the right choice that ideally suits your particular needs, desires, and agenda?
This is the first in a series that addresses that question. First up is a company I’ve had personal experience with: Lulu.
So is Lulu for you too? That is the question.
Here is one answer…
Lulu Press is without a doubt one of the most popular and successful independent publishing platforms in the world. One reason is that it’s a pioneer company in what is now a thriving field, which has far exceeded anyone’s expectations.
Founded in 2002 by Bob Young, who also co-founded open source software giant Red Hat, Lulu has maintained its status as an industry leader, currently boasting over two millions titles under their banner, with authors in over 225 countries, and counting.
When I decided to begin self-publishing my stack of dusty old manuscripts in 2010, I have to admit I chose Lulu based strictly on its primarily positive word-of-mouth reputation, without doing any online research.
Not to completely denigrate Lulu, with whom I did enjoy a mostly pleasant business partnership, but today I regret that decision, and would not advise the same uneducated course of action.
Let me backtrack a bit with some brief background on my own publishing history, pre-Lulu…
Where There’s a Will…
In 1995 my private eye novel Love Stories Are Too Violent For Me was published by a San Francisco startup called Wild Card Press. Long story short, the company went out of business before they could publish any of the four sequels I wrote in quick succession. The first book in the series was already out of print when Christian Slater miraculously found it in a Los Angeles bookstore and began optioning it for a film in 2001.
So far, despite some close calls, that dream has not yet come true, but the novel itself was officially reissued by Gutter Books in 2013, with a new Vic Valentine novel, Hard-boiled Heart, due for publication this December by the same press.
Another company called Double Life Press is systematically reissuing all of my self-published novels in a series of anthologies called The Thrillville Pulp Fiction Collection, including the four Vic Valentine sequels from the 1990s in an omnibus called The Vic Valentine Classic Case Files.
All of these titles were originally published via Lulu, with covers illustrated by friends of mine that were professional artists. Unfortunately, I did my own editing, and missed some glaring typos that have been corrected in the recent, “definitive” editions. This is called “learning the hard way.” I don’t recommend it.
But the fact remains, if I hadn’t self-published these books – including A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge, Chumpy Walnut, Lavender Blonde, Down a Dark Alley, Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room, and the four Vic Valentine sequels released as two “double features,” Fate Is My Pimp/Romance Takes a Rain Check and I Lost My Heart in Hollywood/Diary of a Dick – I wouldn’t have attracted the attention of these small press publishers.
As you can tell by the titles, they’re all rather unconventional books, not falling into easily marketable categories, which is why I bypassed the traditional publishing process and pitfalls altogether (thought I had a New York agent in the1980s, and was actively courted in the early 1990s by New York celebrity editor Judith Regan, all to no avail).
So while I have no regrets about my self-publishing route, since this circuitous path eventually led to me becoming an exclusive small press as opposed to DIY author, which comes with its own set of stigmas, my initial decision to go with Lulu came with some somewhat serious caveats…
Here’s the Beef
My two biggest beefs with Lulu were lack of communication and occasionally poor printing quality.
I’m not sure if their practices have changed in the past five years, but when I first signed up for their services, for a fee of about three hundred bucks, I was assigned a personal editor who walked me through the process, helped me upload my own professionally designed cover (though they also offer their own separate cover and editorial services, which I passed on), and provided me with a very elegantly concocted product, since this package deal also included professional interior design. I selected my own font, and instructed them exactly how I wanted each title constructed.
Chumpy Walnut, my very first novel, completed when I was 19, included my original, Thurber-esque illustrations, and they were happy to organize those inside the text, too, per my precise instructions. So far, so good.
The day I got my copy of Chumpy Walnut in the mail would’ve been the happiest day of my life, after a fruitless thirty-year odyssey, except that was also the day my cat died. I then belatedly discovered numerous typos that I was able to fix within the limited, allotted amount of time Lulu permitted before the online file copy is set in stone. No further alterations were allowed once the book was in worldwide distribution. Unfortunately some flawed copies were sold before I caught my own mistakes, and that has always bugged me.
But the fact that all my books were now available via not only Amazon but also numerous other worldwide distribution outfits, including Barnes & Noble, was very satisfying. Each book was also assigned its own ISBN number. Lulu later chose two of my books to be featured in the iBookstore, free of charge. (At the time their own in-house digital book services were extremely limited, only available via their site, and most readers don’t like signing up with multiple companies, so they mainly stick with Amazon).
All in all, a very good deal.
Except when it wasn’t.
I gradually began getting reports from people who purchased the book that their print copy arrived with text literally missing due to sloppy typesetting; cover art too dark to see; or sections even missing!
When I tried to get in touch with an agent to complain and set matters straight myself, it took days and sometimes weeks to get an adequate response, despite repeatedly filling out online service request forms (unlike with Amazon Author Central, there was no direct line to a customer rep).
Eventually the bad copies were replaced free of charge to the customers, but I was worried that other inferior copies were being sold and shipped around the world, to people I didn’t know personally.
This cheap, amateurish quality would reflect poorly on me as an author, since I was self-published. Lulu was simply my designated printing/distribution platform, not a true publishing house in its own right. And then there were the typos, which were my fault, since I didn’t spring for their editorial services. The truth is, I just couldn’t afford it. No excuse, though.
For this reason, I do recommend “beta readers” – i.e. literate folks in your own social circles – to read your manuscript carefully for mistakes before you put it out in the world. Some of my books went through four or five “editions” before I finally felt like I’d caught all the typos. I stilled missed some, as pointed out to me by eagle-eyed readers. And by then, it was too late for me to fix them, even if I paid extra for it.
To be fair, the editors assigned to me for each different title were very helpful, patient, and responsive, but once our professional relationship ended, I often found getting in touch with an actual person at Lulu to be a very frustrating task.
Eventually I deleted my Lulu account, but only after I’d signed a contract to have all my self-published titles reissued by the above-mentioned small presses.
Overall, the good outweighed the bad during my four-year Lulu association, and some of the problems were due to my own impatience and negligence. Others were not.
Write From Wrong
Lulu is a very large company, and so I can’t blame them for being somewhat inaccessible at times. But then so is Amazon, and I must say, their Author Central network is much more user-friendly. I would’ve definitely chosen them if I knew then what I know now. In fact, Amazon uses its own printers, even when the book is published via Lulu, and I’ve never had any complaints about those.
However, I’ve heard other complaints about Kindle from its authors. My old self-published titles, with their original covers, are still available as Kindle editions only, so I have direct experience with that company as well. That’s for another column, though.
Meantime, take what you can use from my own individual experience, but always do your own research.
I sure wish I had.
Have you published with Lulu, and if so, care to share your own experience with them? They’re all different…
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO