- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

LONDON - Rejection is always difficult to take. Most budding authors know the feeling only too well. Nick Alexander, 41, is one of them. He spent years being rejected by all the main publishing houses when he was touting his novel, “50 Reasons to Say Goodbye.”

Now, however, the British author has sold more than 1,000 copies of his “chick-lit-style fiction for the gay community” without agonizing over whether the telephone would ring or an acceptance letter would arrive in the mail. He did not have to spend anything on trying to publish the novel himself and is working on his second book.

Mr. Alexander’s success has come courtesy of a new Web site that pledges to publish anything by anyone — however obscure.

Titles such as “How to Cook a Peacock” and “Ten Crochet Dude Dishcloths” have, against all the odds, been published, and read, via an American Web site, www.Lulu.com, which was introduced in Britain last week.

Lulu enables writers to load their work onto the Web site at no cost, and the books are printed individually in paperback each time an order is placed.

There are no minimum print-run costs, and the authors, who set the sale price of their work, receive up to 80 percent of the profit, a far cry from the 7 percent traditionally offered by publishing houses.

The Web site was created by Bob Young, a Canadian technology entrepreneur who once wrote, by his own admission, “a really bad book” about computer software.

To his amazement, the book went on to sell 15,000 copies, but although it generated more than $500,000 in revenue, he received only about $1,800 from his publishers.

“After my book came out, I was so frustrated with the publishing system and how authors seem to have such limited control over their work that I decided to do something about it,” says Mr. Young, 51.

“With Lulu, anyone has the chance to be published and find an audience, however small, regardless of how many publishing houses have rejected their work.’

Mr. Young named the Web site Lulu after an old-fashioned American phrase, “a real Lulu,” that was popular in the 1930s and depicted something or somebody out of the ordinary.

He hopes Lulu will do for publishing what EBay has done for auctioning. An opportunity, then, for aspiring authors to pitch their junk?

“There is no question that there is an awful lot of [expletive] on the site,” Mr. Young says.

But surely it should be the job of readers and not a handful of publishers to decide what is and isn’t worthwhile? After all, didn’t J. K. Rowling have a string of rejections before somebody took a chance on Harry Potter?

Readers, indeed, are deciding in the thousands, with 30,000 books, priced from $5.36 to $77, sold on Lulu last month alone.

Since its inception in 2002, more than 100,000 writers have signed up on the site, and 20,000 of those have published and sold their work.

Prospective book buyers who log onto the site can browse for books on subjects ranging from Christianity to New Age and alternative — and can dip into short extracts of titles that may interest them, or they can read reviews by other readers.

Everything from fairy tales to self-help books is included, but with titles such as “The PinBotz Guide to the Greatest Pinball Machines of the 1980s and 1990s,” Lulu’s visitors are more likely to find niche-busters than blockbusters.

Jim Chevallier, the author of “How to Cook a Peacock” — a translation of a 15th-century French cookery book featuring recipes for peacock, stork and turtle doves — is thrilled to have sold a meager 32 copies of his book, which aspiring medieval chefs can buy for $12.

“It has cost me nothing, and I have made a small profit from something that a conventional publisher wouldn’t have touched” says Mr. Chevallier, a 54-year-old technical writer of computer software manuals.

Drew Emborsky is another proud published author. His masterpiece, “Ten Crochet Dude Dishcloths,” recently made it onto the Lulu list of books “least likely to become a number one bestseller” — the Web site’s antidote to the mainstream best-seller charts.

Mr. Emborsky, from Houston, has so far sold about 60 copies of his crochet pattern book and is optimistic that his exposure on Lulu will lead to bigger and better things.

“By putting my books on Lulu, I can establish a name for myself as a designer, and who knows, maybe a publishing house will offer me a deal?” says Mr. Emborsky, 38.

Commercial success is not elusive to all authors who publish on Lulu, and recent sales figures from the site suggest that the books at the top of its best-seller list have sold in excess of 5,000 copies each.

Since its launch in Britain last week, the site has received about 500 registrations from British writers eager to emulate the success of those in the best-seller list.

However, Jilly Cooper, the author of a number of best-selling novels, including “Riders” and “Class,” believes Lulu will “undoubtedly bring forward an awful lot of rubbish.”

“There may be a few undiscovered Miltons out there,” she says, “but the truth is that although many people long to be published, not everybody has a book in them.”

The publishing industry is also skeptical of Lulu’s claim to be “the future of publishing.”

“When you buy a book from an established publisher, you at least know that someone with literary experience and judgment has sifted through the work and deemed it to be decent,” says Kate Poole, the deputy general-secretary of the Society of Authors.

“A writer may strike gold through Lulu, but they may also win the lottery. Both are equally likely.”

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