This piece of news surprised me so much, I had to do a post on it.
Today's Publisher's Lunch included the following: "Lulu.com has worked out a deal with Bowker to give self-publishers who use their service individual ISBNs that are particular to the authors themselves (without having to buy numbers in blocks of ten)."
Lulu's press release had this to say: "ISBNs, or International Standard Book Numbers, are the 13-digit numbers, usually appearing in bar-code format, that publishers and retailers use to facilitate the sales and distribution of books . . . Paula Kurdi, managing editor of the U.S. ISBN Agency, a division of Bowker, notes that this will be the first time the agency has worked with a company to make individual ISBNs accessible to self-publishers:
"Bowker has been the sole distributor of ISBNs in the U.S. since 1968 when the standard was introduced. All participants in the book supply chain are able to communicate and trade electronically and efficiently using the system that officially distributes and manages ISBNs."
Lulu operates a little differently from most companies calling themselves "subsidy presses." I keep being told by their authors that Lulu is "free." This, of course, is ridiculous. Lulu is a for-profit company. Their fees are just structured differently. They exist in a gray area between traditional publishers and vanity presses.
Lulu is much cheaper than the vanity press companies. No matter what they advertise, Lulu is not free. However, they do not charge fees up front. They do charge production costs on all sales and they take a 20% royalty on any sales.
They also provide a list of recommended third party providers for other services that their authors can choose to purchase (and pay for up front), including editing, graphics, and marketing.
I just finished reading Lulu's Member Agreement, and I am absolutely willing to describe Lulu as a subsidy press. Lulu deserves the title "subsidy press." They are taking a risk on the writers who choose their POD services. If the writer does not buy any books, Lulu does not make any money.
At the same time, Lulu is NOT a traditional publishing company. They accept any author who requests their services, they make no warranties as to the quality of the works printed (not published) and they do not offer the returns policies that bookstores are accustomed to receiving from traditional publishers. All of these issues make it extremely unlikely that a bookstore or library will agree to carry a book printed by Lulu (unless, of course, they are accommodating a local writer).
That said, if an writer insists on self-publishing and does not have the money to pay a printing press up front, Lulu would be a reasonable option. You can pay for your copies as you go, buying just as many as you can afford to buy at a time.
Please understand. I am in no way recommending self-publishing at this point in publishing history. I do believe self-publishing is rapidly becoming a viable alternative. However, until the three obstacles I described in my post of September 15, 2006 can be overcome, I believe self-publishing should be limited to specific populations: those writing for sentimental purposes (not commercial purposes), those writing in a niche market for which an audience has already been established, and those writing in a truly new or cross genre that traditional publishers have not yet figured out how to market.
I now plan to differentiate among three groups when I blog: traditional publishers, Lulu as a subsidy press and the vanity presses. If you want to read more about vanity presses, check my posts for 3/23/06 and 3/24/06.