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August 06, 2007

More Lulu Wonderfulness

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've written before about the wonderful print-on-demand outfit For one lengthy example, see here. Short version: Lulu is to traditional book publishing what blogging is to traditional magazine publishing.

One of the great things about Lulu is that you can use the service as you see fit. Publish a book meant only for your family or friends. Make a photo book, or a comic book. Alter and revise whenever the mood strikes you.

A couple of other excellent uses of Lulu have just come to my attention:

* Use Lulu to bring out of print books back into print. Dave Lull points out that the Mises Institute is using Lulu to make a lot of their harder-to-find publications available in attractive paperback editions. Catch up with some of the giants of free-market theory.

* Use Lulu to create an anthology of your own brain. Blogger / commenter / webcreature John Emerson has edited and expanded a lot of the writing available on his website, and has turned the results into a Lulu book. I haven't yet had the chance to make it through every last word of John's book, but I've spent enough time with it to be dazzled by its cabinet-of-wonders quality. Though basically a collection of quirky mini-essays on topics from Freud to Parmenides to Bob Dylan, it also has its own Borges-like, Calvino-like character. John is a perfect person to be using Lulu -- he's a freelance intellectual with his own way of making sense of the world, and his own distinctive way of piecing things together. His book is both a stimulating browse and an act of intellectual pointillism that coheres into something larger.

* Small, a-propos-of-nothing rant: John's book reminds me that one of my favorite book-forms is what's known as the "miscellany" -- a ragbag that can be entered and enjoyed from any number of angles. Why on earth don't miscellanies get more respect than they do? (The NY trade-book industry seldom publishes miscellanies these days, and reviews of such books are even rarer.) But why should the thing we generally expect from a book be a work that is meant to be read from page one through to the end? Nothing against this particular kind of book, of course. But it seems to me that we have our expectations ass-end up. It seems to me far more natural that most books should be ragbags, miscellanies, and collections -- books that we pick up, put down, and put-together for ourselves, at our own choosing. After all, why should any of us be expected to serve someone else's ideal of "the book"? Why isn't it the expected thing instead that books should serve us?



UPDATE: Conrad Roth reviews John Emerson's book here.

posted by Michael at August 6, 2007


I entusiastically endorse Lulu. Their process is incredibly easy. Once I had the book formatted (I used Open Office Writer, a "Word" clone I think) it took me only a few hours to get the book the way I wanted it. It cost me about $40 for three proof copies.

Now that I've learned the process, the next books (once written edited, and formatted) will take me about two hours each and cost me about $20.

I do hate editing old cold stuff. People have also complained bitterly about my use of the Arial typeface, but I just don't like serifs.

I had one little glitch getting the page-count right, and another little glitch making a .gif for the cover. These made the actual process a bit more difficult and expensive than it should have been. (I wouldn't recommend Open Office, because it apparently doesn't have the .gif-conversion software Word does.)

Besides publishing my own complete works, I also plan to publish some local histories and family histories and the poems of some friends. This is print-on-demand and even if only ten people are interested in something, it's worth doing.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 6, 2007 11:50 AM

Though I'm on a Mac and don't mind serifs (I use Palatino, which some aesthetes find childishly romantic), my experience with Lulu has been very much like John's. The hardest part is always the cover and sometimes I commit other gaffes in the text, but they're my fault, not Lulu's. They provide a lot of instruction and prompts and when I've had a major disaster, they've leapt to my assistance.

I've got one book on my sales place that has an ISBN and buying that has worked to get the book ("Twelve Blackfeet Stories") out there all over the place. (Strange to see it listed in Japanese, but they love Blackfeet stuff.) Other books were sort of specialized anyway: a family history, a novel my 7th grade class wrote in 1989-90, a compendium of history references for Blackfeet, a sort of almanac/blook composed of blogs on the weather in Valier, a "Western" version of the Demeter myth. I've got plenty more on the way.

The best part is that you don't have to get a venture capitalist involved to make "product." People, I'm discovering, have to SEE stuff to understand it. I want to do a workshop at the Blackfeet Community College to show them how to use this for looseleaf textbooks, family histories, and so on.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 6, 2007 4:05 PM

For a more detailed review of John's book, see here.

Posted by: Conrad H. Roth on August 6, 2007 6:10 PM

These book mills are destroying American literature. They belch out tens of thousands of nonbooks that are utterly awful to read, but there is no way for the average person in a bookstore or online to tell the difference between this sludge and the material that is submitted by skilled writers to real publishers for consideration.

Real literature is carefully winnowed by literary agents, selected by editorial staffs, and is usually well edited, fact-checked, proofed, copyedited, and packaged by traditional publishers. It is also acquired by consensus, i.e., the judgment of several expert people. Obviously, once in a blue moon the sludge-printers burp out a "book" worth reading. But 999 out of 1000 of these alleged books confuse and dishearten people who are pursuing something worthwhile, and sours them on the whole business of reading books. This is tragic.

It would be helpful if libraries, book chains, independent bookstores, and online stores simply refused to handle this stuff. Let the sludge-works go underground, where they belong. That used to be the status of vanity books, and is the proper place for them.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 7, 2007 10:26 AM

Richard - I'd be completely sympathetic to what you're saying if only I felt that the trad book-publishing world were doing its job reasonably well. But I don't think it is. Decisions are chaotic, people are unqualified, pressures from conglomerate bosses affect everyone, standards are nonexistent, house and brand loyalty have been thrown to the winds, editing and copyediting have become lost arts ... The traditional channels have become all clogged, or run in the wrong directions, it seems to me.

Given all that, I cheerlead for self-publishing. I find it hard not to. If the gatekeepers are screwing up, and aren't about to reform, what else to do?

I don't worry too much about the chaos of it. Blogging looked pretty chaotic at first too, but as a little time went on people started to be able to find their way around.

Anyway, I think of blogging and Lulu not as replacing traditional publishing but as enriching the publishing ecosystem. It's interesting that many people within the mag and book bizzes do too -- mags and newspapers have picked up on bloggers, steal ideas from them, and make regular reference to them. And smart book editors I know are keeping tabs on regional publishing and self-publishing, viewing them as something like off-off-Broadway, where ideas and performers get a chance to try themselves out before going commercial. I suspect that's similar to what's about to happen (or is in the early stages of happening) where audiovisual-thru-time entertainment goes too.

Anyway, trad magazine and newspaper publishing were getting tighter and more out of touch -- thank god blogging came to the rescue and livened (and opened) things up. Lulu seems to me to offer the same remedy where book publishing is concerned. It isn't as though trad book publishing has much to brag about where its record is concerned over the last decade, after all ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 7, 2007 12:13 PM

Sorry to ruin your life, Richard.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2007 1:57 PM

MB, thank you for superb (is that a word?) entertainment for my lunch hour.

Once you adapt a viewpoint of the absurd theater' patron, so many things transform into the source of immense hilarity!

Posted by: Tatyana on August 7, 2007 2:31 PM uses POD to reprint hundreds, probably thousands of public-domain books. I haven't explored their list systematically but there are hundreds of XIXc novels and equally many old travel books.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2007 4:33 PM

Mr. Emerson,

It's not ruined yet, but I haven't read your book.


Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 7, 2007 6:52 PM

Mr. Emerson,

Quips aside, I wish you every success. It has been decades, in fact generations, since we have seen a John Steinbeck or Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway in our midst, and I hope you will be the one to match them.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 7, 2007 7:48 PM

Probably it was already ruined.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2007 7:57 PM

Peace. Nothing was wrong with what you said, but from my perspective, your timing wasn't quite right.

Posted by: John Emerson on August 7, 2007 8:57 PM

"Real literature is carefully winnowed by literary agents, selected by editorial staffs, and is usually well edited, fact-checked, proofed, copyedited, and packaged by traditional publishers. It is also acquired by consensus, i.e., the judgment of several expert people..."

Mmmm. 'kay. If so, then why is there so damn much unreadable krep produced by all these qualified experts, all piled up on the sales tables of the chain bookstores?

I've been reviwing some Lulu and Booksurge output recently and really, they're striking me as not being any worse than the usual output from traditional publishers!

Posted by: Sgt. Mom on August 11, 2007 3:42 PM

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