Rewriting the book on getting published

The man who broke Microsoft's stranglehold on computer operating systems has set his sights on the book business. Ian Irvine meets Bob Young
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The Independent Online

he frictionless nature of the worldwide web has created many new commercial opportunities and vastly expanded other sectors. eBay is in one of the latter. In its 10-year life it has transformed the world of auctions. Every day, millions of items are traded across the world, and last year they brought eBay revenues of $3.27bn. Auctions had previously been in the expensive hands of firms like Christie's and Sotheby's: eBay, without replacing those top firms, democratised the market.

It's a model that appeals greatly to Bob Young, the 51-year-old founder and proprietor of www.lulu.com. He intends to do for book publishing what eBay did for auctions. Lulu clears away all the obstacles between the wannabe author with a manuscript and the pleasure of holding a finished printed copy of his book in his hands.

The Lulu website offers - free - all the tools for turning your manuscript into an elegant and printable book. The beauty of the enterprise is that money only enters the equation when someone actually orders a copy. Then print-on-demand technology runs it off and posts it to the buyer. After the cost of printing (average paperback £5, average hardback £11), the final price is determined by what the author sets as his royalty, of which Lulu takes 20 per cent. If the author forgoes a royalty, Lulu does too. Copyright is with the author. So who needs publishers, when you can easily do it all yourself, take 80 per cent of the profit and retain copyright?

It's not yet eBay, but it's getting there. Now in its third year, Lulu offers more than 40,000 titles on its website and new ones are being added at over a thousand a month. In October it sold 45,000 copies and growth continues at 10 per cent or more each month. In three years they have sold 444,000 books. Two thousand new authors sign up each month.

It might be objected that, by avoiding the traditional structures of publishing, a Lulu author is also avoiding the traditional strictures of reviewing, promotion and distribution, which actually sell copies. That's only partly true: most of the titles are not intended to sell more than a few dozen copies (and some in fact only one). Tom and Nina - 30th July 2005, a 32-page perfect-bound album of wedding photographs with a price of £28 would have been unlikely to tempt a commissioning editor at Thames and Hudson.

Marketing is up to the author, who in most cases will be a much better and more motivated promoter of his work than the overworked publicity departments of a large publisher. For a modest fee Lulu can provide the book with an ISBN (which allows it to be ordered through bookshops) and a listing on Amazon. There are currently 2,000 Lulu titles on Amazon: their current No 1 bestseller is Raw Foods for Busy People: Simple and Machine-Free Recipes For Every Day by Jordan Maerin.

It isn't just books either. They'll publish your pictures in a calendar, your songs on a CD, your software - anything, in fact, that's lying around on your computer's hard drive. This week a bestseller is a photo-calendar of the world's ugliest dog. Other recent titles include The Stripper's Guide To Making More Money by Helena Lustig, How To Cook A Peacock: Le Viandier - Medieval Recipes by Taillevent, Milking That Crazy Cow - A Century of Cereals (a breakfast cereal encyclopedia), an Elvish dictionary, and Selling Retail Floorcovering - A Humanistic Approach by Buddy Wisdom. They are creating a new world of micro-publishing.

Bob Young says that he intends to revolutionise publishing the way that Steve Jobs revolutionised the music industry with Apple's iTunes. And the fact that Lulu's founder and principal investor is Bob Young means that this is an ambition which must be taken seriously. He has had a spectacular career as an digital entrepreneur. In 1993 he and Mark Ewing co-founded Red Hat, a company that sells a packaged version of the open-source Linux operating system and associated software with technical support. In 1995 he became its CEO. Idealistic and energetic, he had the startling ambition to wrest control of the personal computer from Microsoft. The company's annual sales have swelled from about $20m six years ago to more than $250m today. Today it has a market value of $3.8bn and Young has a net worth of several hundred million.

One of Red Hat's greatest achievements was breaking Microsoft's grip on the PC industry. Young said. "We convinced the financial market that Microsoft didn't necessarily own the future. We planted the seed of doubt." The effect was to halt the spiralling share price of the world's largest software company and eliminate its currency for hiring the best minds in the business - its stratospheric stock options.

Lulu has been growing in excess of 10 per cent a month for the past year. "I've only every seen one other company have that kind of growth rate, and we know what happened to that," Young says, referring to his early days at Red Hat.

Both companies share a similar philosophy and rebellious outlook, namely that too much intellectual property gives large companies too much control over the market. The concept behind Lulu was to identify the people being hurt by too much intellectual-property legislation and then build a business to solve their problems. Its mission is to level the playing field in the publishing industry, helping individuals sell niche items, whether it's poetry or technical manuals. "We think Lulu offers a better way for bringing these works to market than the very narrow channel that currently exists, through the few major publishers there are."

Young's own experience with publishers informs his vision of Lulu. His book about Red Hat and the open-source movement was published conventionally in 1999. The delays, the various problems he encountered and the way he felt traditional publishers placed authors in "indentured servitude" made him convinced there was a better way.

He is convinced that making books out of dead trees will soon be a thing of the past, and expects some form of digital device by which a downloaded book can be easily read to appear in the next few years. At the moment the books at Lulu are available for digital downloading for a few pounds. And by then Young hopes to be one of the biggest names on the planet, up with Google, Amazon and eBay. "Lulu will change the world as surely as Gutenberg did," he says.

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