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Last Updated: Sunday, 31 July 2005, 23:07 GMT 00:07 UK
Rewriting the rules of publishing
By Bill Wilson
BBC Business News

Bob Young with desk and chair built from unsold copies of his book
Mr Young has literally built on his unhappy time as a traditionally published author

"A cross between Ebay and Amazon," is how Canadian entrepreneur Bob Young describes his online publishing venture Lulu.

It is like Amazon because it is dealing with published product, and it is like Ebay because it is undermining the traditionally accepted way of doing things.

What Ebay did for auctions - "enabling the hidden 90% of would-be sellers" - the 51-year-old from Hamilton, Ontario, hopes to do for publishing and would-be authors.

After successfully launching the site - which allows readers to download single copies of books stored on Lulu without the need of huge print runs - in North America, Mr Young is unveiling his UK-based site on 2 August.

Mr Young already has a billion-dollar company under his belt - he is the founder of Red Hat, the Linux software company that has mounted a serious challenge to Microsoft.

His Lulu site offers budding writers, photographers and musicians - who might normally be rejected by the mainstream outlets - the chance to get their works published.

Sales issue

Many works are rejected by regular publishers because they do not think many copies of a title will be sold, and the cost for them of going into production cannot be justified.

"Authors are rejected not because the book is terrible but because the publisher thinks the book will not sell enough," says Mr Young.

'What is a Lulu?'
Not only a Scottish pop singer, but also an American 1930s slang term for a 'remarkable person, object or idea'

But Mr Young's website - called Lulu - allows authors to upload their manuscripts onto the site, where they can be printed off and sold individually as and when wanted.

The same principal applies to other creative works that can be loaded onto the Lulu site, such as music, photos, calendars, and videos.

Changes online

Furthermore, whereas normally the novelist or artist will get a 10% royalty of sales, with the Lulu model the creator gets 80% of sales takings and the website just 20%.

"Our income model is almost the complete opposite of regular publishers'. We provide the market and the only time you pay is when you sell a copy of your book. You don't pay anything unless you sell.

Books in the Lulu Top 100
How To Start A Wedding Planning Business
Finding The CAN In Cancer
The End Of The Oil Age
Luciferian Witchcraft
Rangefinder Photography
The Ultimate Tattoo Guide
Acting For Idiots

"Also, with mainstream publishers - should you be successful in them taking on your book - then they own the copyright and you can't make any changes to your book without their permission.

"We allow our people to go in and change their books.

"With our system there is no reason why authors should live in a regime that leaves them powerless in the face of publishers."

Xerox machines

Mr Young insists he is not against traditional publishing, but says it works best "for the likes of JK Rowling and John Grisham" and that publishers are not working outside a very narrow band.

The Lulu website sells books, photos, music and calendars
Lulu: Claims to be better than beating your face on a desk

"Very few new books, music or photos are seeing the light of day."

Mr Young decided to launch Lulu after being left with thousands of unsold copies of his own book Under the Radar, about the Red Hat, open source, and Linux phenomena.

In fact Mr Young has built his office desk and chair out of unsold copies of his book to remind him of his miserable time as an author.

Under his revolutionary system, when authors are happy with their text it is "published" on Lulu, where it can be downloaded either electronically as a PDF file, on DVD, or as a conventional book.

Lulu facts
Sells 30,000 books a month
Publishes in excess of 25,000 titles
Revenues growing 19% month-on-month
Sales of $1m in 2004
Hoping for $5m sales in 2005

A printing plant in Rochester, New York, is filled with the latest in Xerox copiers.

"They are like gigantic office laser printers which can switch from printing one document to another, " says Mr Young.

"Page paper and cover paper go in at different slots and the machine does the sizing, cutting and glueing, and out pops a book at the other end."

Niche titles

The fact that one book can be printed off at a time eliminates the need for a minimum print-run to achieve profit, or indeed the danger of huge piles of remaindered copies being left unsold.

Richard Brown's Specialist Watch Report
Specialist Watch Report: A must-have for Rolex collectors

The Lulu site is home to works aimed at niche markets, such as Richard Brown's Replica Watch Report, on how to spot a fake Patek Philippe or Rolex watch.

"He would be lucky to sell 1,000 copies a year and struggle to get a publishing contract," says Mr Young.

"But if he sells 1,000 copies with us at $49.95 a time he is going to earn much more than if he did get a publishing deal."

Mr Young, who also owns a football team in his home town of Hamilton, is in the UK looking to find companies who will print off books from his website.

At present "hard copies" of books have to be shipped from the US.

"We hope to launch our European site in about six months, and think it will be a successful venture."

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