Time We All Took The ‘Self’ From Self-Publishing

In 2010 I wrote an article about Lulu, and in the title for the article, I suggested that It May Be The Time For Lulu To Drop The Self From Self-Publishing. At the end of that article I wrote the following as an explanation as to what I meant. On reflection, and in light of the following Lulu Forum posting by author Julie Ann Dawson, which was cross-posted by Emily Veinglory on POD People, I would like to expand on that original article I posted here in January 2010. Having re-read the post again, I think there is a danger in believing I was being somehow entirely supportive of the direction Lulu where taking their marketplace and business as a whole. If anything, I have subsequently being calling for Lulu to get back to the core values of what they are; a DIY self-publishing services company – at least that is how I still see them – but their attempt last year at diving into the Canadian stock market in an effort to raise investment finance may suggest something quite different.

Here is what I wrote at the end of my article in January 2010:

“They [Lulu] already recognise from a standpoint of five years, when you could use the slogan self-publishing, and that in itself was enough to set them apart as a strong flagship in the world of DIY publishing services. A lot has changed in the last year. Yes, the competitors of Lulu like CreateSpace have really caught up, and others like Blurb will also make significant gains this year if my research and understanding is correct. But more significantly, the flagpole itself of self-publishing is steadily moving closer to the monolith that has always been the publishing industry. The adventurous offspring is soon to return home under the protection of the family umbrella we all know to be called publishing.”

Indeed, and that movement and protection under the umbrella of publishing is what Lulu is quickly trying to embrace by expanding their marketplace to include mainstream books for purchase, as well as recently trumpeting the arrival of John Edgar Wideman, presented as the exasperated renegade from the traditional world of publishing. It is this fairytale renegade story of disillusioned author that Lulu wants to sell us. Wideman is among the self-publishing masses – equal in our kinship of self-publishing and its empowerment. For the most part, Lulu still remain in the business of selling self-publishing services, but authors crossing over the self-publishing/publishing divide are what helps Lulu sell their services to the ordinary masses.

Let us pause for a moment and consider what Julie Ann Dawson has cited for her decision to remove her books from Lulu. Incidentally, there is not one thing that follows I do not disagree with…
Julie Ann Dawson on the Lulu Forum:

“So now Lulu is not only selling ebooks by traditionally published authors, but it is also selling print books by traditionally published authors. Now I don’t particularly care about Lulu printing these books themselves. How the books get printed is of no concern to me. But what IS of concern to me is the preferential treatment these books are getting as opposed to OUR BOOKS.

Referencing The Last Song for points:

Preferential pricing: This is a 413 page book, selling for $10.94. Do you know what my cost to print a 413 page book is? $12.76! It costs me almost $2 more to print than this book sells for! And if I went through retail with the book, with NO ROYALTY the book would sell for $19.52. WTF!!!???

Preferential tools: Notice that this book has a “retail” price and a sale price? Well, I have been asking for this FOR YEARS for US, and Lulu has systematically refused, claiming that they couldn’t let us sell the books on Lulu for less than what the book retails for due to contractual agreements with Amazon and other vendors. I think this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt Lulu was LYING.”

Dawson refers to traditionally published authors getting preferential treatment from Lulu, and that rules and limitations imposed on self-published authors, which Lulu previously advised could not be broken, are now being freely broken to woo (my hypothesis) authors with books printed and published by mainstream publishers over to Lulu’s marketplace. This flirtation also extends to wooing experienced authors with a mainstream publishing background to move their latest books to Lulu’s new VIP publishing service.
The example Dawson gives in her forum posting on Lulu is Nicholas SparksThe Last Song. Dawson comments; ‘How the books get printed is of no concern to me.’ Well, actually, it should, because it would explain why your 413 page book retails at $19.52 and Sparks’ book retails at $10.94. Lulu have a deal with Ingram as their ‘available’ distributor for POD books, but The Last Song is published by mainstream publisher Grand Central Publishing, and you can bet your bottom dollar it ain’t being printed POD, but rather sourced from printed stock Ingram hold in a warehouse for Grand Central. And that will be likewise for all books from mainstream publishers Lulu has in its marketplace. So, yes,  we can go on comparing apples with oranges, but they will always be uniquely apples and oranges.
Looking at the deal John Edgar Wideman did with Lulu; if any author believes, like the multitude of authors who sign up with Lulu each day, that Wideman somehow decided one evening over a coffee, ‘ah fuck it, I’ll sign up with Lulu and self-publish my next book’, they are being naive – deeply naive. Wideman was negotiating with Lulu and using their VIP services. From an article I wrote on Wideman’s publication with Lulu:

“…but fellow Lulu authors (myself included) who might be quick to trump the line ‘Hell, yeh, I’m published by the same publisher as John Edgar Wideman’ might pause for a little reflection before they go dancing on the streets. This is the first release for Lulu by an author using their VIP service, specifically set up to attract established authors like Wideman. As the Animal Farm Literary Adage might go:

All authors are equal, just some are more equal than others!

If you think Lulu see all their authors in the same light; think again. This is akin to DellArte Press authors (Harlequin’s self-publishing service) thinking they are operating in the same field of publishing dreams as all of Harlequin’s traditionally contracted authors. The Lulu VIP program offers everything to try and lure an established author to the lulu brand, every turn of the drive shaft and spark from the Lulu engine—pre-production and post-publication—is being directed towards the sale of the author’s book. It is notable that the press release to go with the book was not released by Wideman, but Lulu themselves. While Lulu right now needs Wideman more than he needs them, there is no doubt in my mind; the experimental nature of Wideman’s Briefs made it a difficult sell to Houghton Mifflin, and as the author freely points out, he is no writer of literary blockbusters.”

There is a dichotomy at the heart of this discussion, and it can lead us to make an inaccurate assumption about self-publishing and mainstream publishing. Lulu has taken a step closer to the traditional world of publishing by taking on the wider marketplace, and the traditional world of publishing has begun to re-evaluate its own publishing models and taken a step closer to embracing some of the components of the self-publishing fraternity. Some might say never the twain shall meet, but it is discussions like this which come from the inevitable collision and consummation of all publishing into one entity. We are seeing the Lulu marketplace as a platform where self-published author collides with traditional author. The glare of the headlights shows us that an author is an author and a published book is a published book. It is just that some authors and their books are more equal than others. There is nothing new in this – it has being going on in the traditional world of publishing for decades.  
This is also one of the reasons why I believe self-published authors should be careful not to be so quick to adopt labels like ‘indie author’ or ‘indie publishing’ when so many authors happily label themselves with these convenient monikers as badges of honor when actually they have little experience or knowledge of what it is they perceive themselves to be independent of; in abhorrence of; or dislike. I have pointed out before the label of ‘indie’ is a complete misnomer, Faber and Canongate are strictly ‘indies’, but they puch way above their weight in the publishing industry.
It seems to me that what this whole discussion is simply here to remind us of the fact that self-publishing is still publishing a book in essence, and now that self-publishing is broadly accepted as it is; it is still reluctantly part of the whole publishing industry. Self-published authors must realize and accept that they shelter under the same umbrella of the book buyer, book reader and industry. They must accept that in any form of aspiration, commerce or even faith, there comes an ordained hierarchy whether it is perceived or imposed.

No publisher or agent, in their heart of hearts, believes all their authors are equal. They may humanly treat them as equals, but as business people they will not act equally and accordingly.

Whether the above is accepted or not, self-publishing affords the author the latitude of not accepting any compromise – that is – total control, but that comes at a price, and a greater price than the ones Lulu or CreateSpace charge if self-publishing is truly to be executed properly. More importantly, it also comes with a responsibility and presents the author with The Publishing Road Less Traveled. Complain as we may, we are all in this together.

It is time we all took the self from self-publishing.

How many are really up for that journey?

[This article is a reposting and originally appeared in April 2010]

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