I first started looking into self-publishing for my children’s book The Mouse Who Howled at the Moon five years ago.
There were so many platforms out there—and so many options—that it was confusing knowing where to start at first.
That was when I discovered Lulu.
What is Lulu?
Lulu is a self-publishing power house. It provides print-on-demand services, as well a huge variety of marketing, editing, cover design, and other options.
It is a US-based company, with the typical US customer service (which is definitely a bonus when something goes wrong) and you can cherry pick which of their services you use.
So far I have nine books uploaded to the website, and have used the print-on-demand and distribution services.
Why use Lulu?
People often ask me why I use Lulu to print my author copies when all my books are available through other platforms. Lulu is not the cheapest option.
It also means that my books have two or more different ISBNs for the same format. This can make it harder for a reader to find the right version. (Although if I wasn’t too cheap to buy my own ISBNs rather than using the free ones this wouldn’t be a problem!)
The biggest advantage to using Lulu is that they offer expanded distribution using their free ISBN numbers, while other platforms don’t. This means that if I have approved the proofs anyone can walk into any book shop and request a copy.
With many other platforms they specifically ban any sales that don’t come directly through them. This is a huge problem for any author that wants their books to be widely available.
Of course it’s totally possible that nobody will ever request one of my books from a ‘real’ book shop, but it’s nice to know that they can.
How much does it cost?
I’ve heard lots of people complaining that Lulu is more expensive than other platforms to print copies.
I haven’t used any of the other options for print on demand—mostly because I was sceptical about the quality of the books having seen some printed by other authors—so it’s difficult to comment on this. However there are ways to make Lulu cheaper, which helps—a lot!
The first thing to remember is not to order anything at full price! Once you get signed up Lulu will send you regular emails. You can delete most of them but don’t unsubscribe to the mailing list.
Every few days they will send you a little gem with a discount code. This ranges from 15% or free shipping to 30% off plus free shipping. If you can wait for the right offer you can save a small fortune.
You also don’t need to order a huge number of books to get bulk order discounts
The example below is with one of the less generous codes and the second band of bulk copy discounts. By ordering a good number of books for an event and using one of the better discount codes I’ve saved nearly 50% on an order.
How does it work?
The good news is that Lulu is really easy to use. Aside from tearing my hair out because my poor typesetting skills often create problems, I have never had any problems with the book creation process.
I should really pay a proper typesetter to set it up to exact parameters, but we established earlier that spending money is not something I do with any great enthusiasm!
Size and paper
The first step in creating a new project is to choose the size and paper for your book. There are lots of options, which can be confusing. The best advice I can give here is to avoid the budget paperbacks. They aren’t good quality so are only suitable for things like school assignments that will never be on sale.
I’ve never ordered hardbacks or colour printed books so I can’t say if those would be any good.
As far as size is concerned this will depend on the project. A friend told me recently that they determined the size of their books by measuring some of their favourites and picking the size that was closest. That sounds as good a way as any to decide to me.
Upload your document
Next step is to upload the document—and then check the document. Never order copies without thoroughly checking the online proof.
Quite apart from problems created by uploading the wrong document altogether (a costly mistake when you order 40 copies without checking!) even tiny alterations in size from your document to the printed document can create unexpected orphans and widows and blank pages.
Check twice, and then check again!
You can upload Microsoft Word documents or PDFs. I tend to use Word documents because they’re easier to alter after checking. You will need a good internet connection as the upload can fail if it takes too long.
Design your cover
Next you create your cover. The cover creator is pretty basic, although there’s been a new version recently with some major improvements. I’ve used it to create some covers and created other covers on other programmes ready to just import.
A ready-made wrap-around cover designed by a professional is by far the best option. (Although I have been too cheap to do this for most of my books—are we sensing a theme here?)
Make sure you give the cover designer the exact measurements—including spine width—or chaos could ensue!
The image below is a cover created entirely using Lulu’s cover creator tools and a couple of pictures I took myself. The effect is fine for the type of book produced, but wouldn’t be great for a fiction book.
Other independent authors have said that the cover does most of the work selling books. Perhaps this is one area where I should stop being quite so cheap and fork out for something decent. Maybe next year!
Once your cover is sorted the last thing to do is add a few details about your book and order the proof copy. Once the proof copy arrives you can then enable the expanded distribution. All you have to do is click the button.
What are the other advantages?
One of my favourite features of Lulu is that you don’t have to make the book publically available through them in order to use the print on demand service. If you want to create a project that will only be given to family and friends, or even only kept by you, then private projects are possible.
I’ve done this with a few books that I wanted to keep certain versions of as limited editions.
It is also really easy to take a book offline so it doesn’t show up on searches. With other platforms this can be really difficult and the best I’ve found with some is that you can make it permanently out of stock. This isn’t helpful if you want to forget a particular version of a book exists altogether!
Any other problems to watch out for?
Multiple platforms mean multiple streams of income to include on tax returns. I don’t find this to be much of a problem, but some people don’t like it.
There are advantages to having everything in one place, but I think the other advantages of using multiple platforms outweigh this.
How good are the printed copies?
Occasional poor printing is the biggest problem I’ve had with Lulu. On several occasions I have had to complain and get replacements sent out. This happens often enough to mention, but not often enough to put me off. Around one order in four has had some kind of issue.
The good news is that replacements have always been sent out fast and with no quibbles. You do have to order books well in advance of actually needing them though, just in case.
The most common problem is badly trimmed books. White lines on the cover where the picture hasn’t been positioned correctly, misshapen books with wonky edges and interior content moved off-centre are all problems I have had with various batches of books. For some reason they are less reliable with the slimmer books.
Overall it is the customer service and expanded distribution that keep me coming back to Lulu. The badly printed books find homes at schools in disadvantaged areas, or with my neighbour’s kids.
Whether or not it is the right platform for you to use depends on your aims for your book, and the budget you have available.