Software Musings

Having Fun with Lulu

Posted on: 20/01/2007

A few blog entries ago I said that I had decided to publish my latest book, a book on mathematics, particularly mathematical philosophy, for teenagers not through a conventional publisher but through self-publication with Lulu. My previous books have all gone through conventional publishers but I often felt the publisher was not bringing much to the party. I have always delivered camera-ready copy to them (prepared using LaTeX and the style sheet of the publisher concerned) and their work has basically been:

  1. to obtain the ISBN,
  2. design the cover under my direction,
  3. publicise the book and
  4. take most of the profit

So, working through Lulu, how is it going? Lulu’s website has an excellent set of tutorials but an actual usecase may be instructive:

  • Opening an account with Lulu and starting a new project was a doddle, and free
  • Writing the book, particularly as I have a co-author this time (a teenager from the target audience), was relatively easy although trying to explain the issues simply was both a challenge and delight. Whether we were successful only time will tell. Lulu needs a pdf copy of the book and, using LaTeX, that’s obviously trivial. I didn’t have a good style sheet for a teenage book and it took some time to find one—in the end I started with one I found on the Cambridge University Press website and modified it heavily. The other minor issue was page size. If you want to use Lulu’s distribution service (of which more later) you have to conform to one of a limited number of page sizes. I chose 6 inches by 9 inches (an inch is a primitive unit of length approximately 1/45th of an ell).
  • Designing the cover was, as one would expect, time-consuming. My colour-blindness didn’t help and my co-author and I had a number of discussions about the front cover picture before we settled on a picture of M51. Since I hadn’t personally taken a picture of M51 there was an exchange of emails with Hubble about the use of their pictures which took a week or so. You may wonder what M51 has to do with mathematical philosophy but close your eyes and imagine drawing a picture of the Law of the Excluded Middle. That makes M51 look really attractive.
  • Deciding on a copyright licence was a bit time-consuming and, in the end, we decided to go with one of the Creative Commons licences.
  • Pricing is interesting. The cost of printing and binding for a monochrome book is US$4.53 + 0.02/page. Our book has 128 pages so the production cost is 4.53 + 0.02*128 = 7.09. That’s straight arithmetic. Pricing is the difficult one. For anything over the $7.09 production cost, the authors get 80% and Lulu 20% of each sale. We set a selling price of $15.95 and so we should get $7.09 per copy sold and Lulu $1.77. This is, by the way, a much better percentage royalty to the authors than anything I ever got with a traditional publisher.
  • Then the question of where to get the ISBN. Lulu offers a so-called “distribution service” for US$99 which includes issuing an ISBN, making the book available to Amazon, etc. We decided to go for this and were issued with one of the new, 13-digit, ISBNs (978-1-4303-0630-6) and we put the barcode onto the back cover.
  • Coming now into what we thought was the home straight, I uploaded the book contents and cover to the Lulu site and answered a lot of questions: was it to be made available for download (where the production costs are obviously zero but the royalty can stay the same), was it to be made available in printed and bound copy, what type of binding did we want, what were the keywords, how much and which part of the book should be available to on-line browsers, etc?
  • Having answered all these I was told that, before I could release the book to the unsuspecting public, I would have to order a copy (for the production cost + postage) and inspect it. So I ordered two copies late on a Thursday evening. They arrived the following Wednesday and were closely inspected. The quality of the binding and printed seemed excellent. We decided that the cover colour was slightly wrong and that the margin at the bottom of each page was too small. We reworked these and uploaded the cover and contents again. At this point, being cautious people, we decided to buy another copy just to make sure that we’d corrected things and currently we’re waiting for that copy to arrive. Apparently, if that looks OK, I go back onto the Lulu website and click on “Make Available Generally” and we’re done. We sit back and rake in the royalties. Thinking it a good source of revenue, I spoke yesterday with a colleague who’s a scout leader and asked about the scouting Mathematical Philosophy badge. Apparently the Canadian Scouts don’t have one (!) and he advised that I speak with the chief scout: the Governor General. I still have to do that.

So, how did it go? The process went really well and really easily. For what even I must confess may turn out to be a long tail market (Mathematical Philosophy for Teenagers), it seems ideal. No waste and no warehouse or garage full of books: if n copies are bought then n copies are printed.

Our total outlay to date, apart from the royalties for using copyrighted photographs that would have been the same for any publisher, has been US$99 for an ISBN and distribution service and US$40 on three copies of the book for inspection. And that’s it. I used the Lulu help chat line twice to ask questions. Each time I got a helper on the line within seconds and I’m sure that it was my fault that I never managed to explain my problem the second time.

Browsing Amazon for something else the other day, I noticed that they now also offer a self-publishing service but I have no experience of it. I am professionally interested in long-tail markets and the way they are being addressed. Surely this indicates the beginning of the end of the traditional publishers. I certainly intend to request back one of my earlier books that is now out of print and republish on Lulu. The downside is having to do one’s own publicity but the web helps there and I’ve never really found that my conventional publishers did much there anyway—technical books seem to sell much more as a result of Internet searches and word-of-mouth recommendations than by publicity from the publishers. We shall see.


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January 2007
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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