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Online Publisher Lulu Angles For The Next Wave Of Self-Publishing With Picture.com

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Founded in 2002 by Red Hat’s Bob Young, Lulu is one of the oldest self-publishing houses on the Internet. Initially the company offered printing services and editing tools for self-published authors and, arguably, in 2002 they would have still been called a vanity press. Now, however, they’re another solid link in the chain between authors and readers.

This month the company launched a new photo book printing division, a move that runs parallel to the way the market is going. While most fiction and non-fiction is ending up on reading devices, folks still love a good album. The service, available at Picture.com allows for instant photobook generation and the printed end products are handsomely bound books, calendars, and even business class brochures and marketing collateral.

According to Lyra research, half of all American households with kids under 5 have ordered picture books and the market is set to double from 42 million units to 78 million by 2014.

I spoke with founder Bob Young about the move into the pictures space and how it felt to be one of the first to market in the ebook era.

John Biggs: Lulu has been around for years. You started in the publishing game but that’s all changed. How has it changed, that you’ve seen? What are you still doing at Lulu that the other guys aren’t?

Bob Young: Lulu practically invented the self-publishing category. Uniquely, we remain the only publishing service dedicated to the needs of the author over any other agenda. We are not trying to be the world’s dominant bookstore, or the worlds largest electronic device vendor, so we’ll help you publish your book wherever your readers may be. We’ll help you publish to your website, or your organization’s website, or any content marketplace you deem worthwhile, not just on our tablet or on our website.

Our vision was and remains simple: To cut out the middleman and open a direct relationship between creator/seller (an author) and consumer/buyer (a reader). That idea has not only taken root, but flourished into a growing industry. While a decade ago self-publishing might generate a snicker as a ‘vanity project,’ now it’s known and respected as a powerful industry with the potential to make careers and influence the broader culture. “50 Shades of Grey” has its roots at Lulu, and we see traditional publishers increasingly interested in this market.

We understand what authors expect in terms of quality and customer service. As we’ve delivered, we’ve attracted a growing base of customers. So much so that we’re preparing to launch Picture.com, a new destination for people and companies eager to celebrate memories, share information, and convey knowledge, in pictures. Collaboration, simplicity and high quality photo books and calendars are the hallmarks of Picture.com. It’s designed to solve the issues we know people have with making photo books and calendars: slow photo uploads, confusing interfaces and an all-around clunky experience. Even the web address is easy.

JB: What is Lulu now? What was it then?

BY: Lulu’s mission remains to help people tell, and sell, their stories, on their terms, in words and pictures. Still, a lot has changed in the 11 years since Lulu pioneered self-publishing. Technology and distribution channels, for example, have transformed. Today, Lulu offers more options than ever before for creators to do what they want and reach who they want. A prime example is our online presence. The Lulu.com home page is now highly tailored to the self-publishing author, offering a wide array of ways to cut out the middle man and forge a direct buyer-to-seller relationship. Listening to our customers and to the wider market, we’ve learned much about the wants and needs of the millions of people interested in sharing and celebrating their memories through photos and photo books. And so, Lulu is launching Picture.com, an online experience tailored to the wants and needs of all sorts of people and groups that value lasting memories — from families to businesses. That’s all a way of illustrating the point that since 2002, Lulu has become a more diversified company dedicated to bringing new ideas to the market.

JB: With the launch of these picture books are you moving away from formal publishing?

BY: No. Lulu is more committed than ever to the revolution that is independent publishing. Lulu has long provided photo book and calendar making capabilities through a tool we call Lulu Studio. Designing around the wants and needs we’ve heard our customers voice, Picture.com ups the ante for Lulu and industry with:
Increased collaboration. Depending on the product a person wants, friends, family, teammates and even business associates can share pictures and create their own high quality photo books.
Increased quality. Photo books are meant to preserve memories while being handled a lot by lots of people, which means wear and tear. Picture.com books are built to last and maintain their integrity.
Increased ease. Our smooth, drag-and-drop system is just one improvement. The Picture.com UI is clean and uncluttered.

Another example of how we continue to support the self-publishing author is Helix. The one-of-a-kind offering allows authors to compare their writing against a database of well-known books using the powerful analytics engine developed by the Book Genome Project — a massive digital humanities effort to analyze the universe of the written word.

JB: Why should someone publish with Lulu vs. going to an established press? Is publishing still important?

BY: With Lulu, you are the master of your destiny. Trying to publish with a traditional press can be heartbreakingly hit or miss. Even if you get past the gatekeepers and go to market with a traditional press, your odds of success are not all that great. Strike that if you’re Stephen King; otherwise, the odds are against you. At Lulu, the net profit from the sale of a print book is split 80/20 between the creator and Lulu, respectively. And authors own the rights to their own content, always and forever. For eBooks sold on Lulu.com the net profit is split 90/10.

Yes, absolutely, publishing remains important. Let’s just look at one specific area — books published by thought leaders. Lulu’s own Arik Abel just published a piece in which several sources confirm that a book opens people’s minds to new ideas — and opens doors to high profile speaking engagements. Publishing with Lulu is the right way to go because in addition to the full-service platform we’ve already built, we’re always listening to our customers, looking at the market and improving the Lulu experience. We also offer tailored solutions for other discrete groups, from knowledge experts, to memoirists to poets to romance writers. We do what’s best for our customers.

JB: What’s next for Lulu? The big guys are closing in. How do you stay relevant?

BY: Hey – Lulu is “the big guy” in our space! We continue to do all the innovating, and campaigning on behalf of our authors for the benefit of their readers. We can’t deny there are some imitators out there in our space, aspiring to serve our audience — but what’s that old saying about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

We’re listening to our customers and, guided by what they’re saying, we’re innovating and diversifying. Picture.com is an example of Lulu listening to customers and offering an innovation in allowing friends and families to collaborate more in creating a photo book. Helix is an example of Lulu harnessing a brave new world — big data — to help authors better understand who their audience is and how to market their works. As we continue listening and innovating, look for more new tools from Lulu. For example, with Picture.com, we understand that mobile platforms and photo-centric apps are increasingly important.

JB: What books are on your nightstand?

BY: I read slowly, but I read a lot. So I typically have several books open at the same time. Right now I’m helping out with my wife’s Needlepoint.com business and have found a great Lulu published title, “Wonderful Stitches, 320 Decorative Stitches for Needlepoint” by Diane Schultz. I continue to be fascinated by and very supportive of everything to do with making our world more free and transparent, and have the book Richard Stallman published on Lulu: “Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays.” And I still read some traditionally published works such as John Coates’ “The Hour between Dog and Wolf”, about the latest research in neuroscience.