Sunday, May 3, 2009

Companies I Love: Lulu

This is the first installment of the Companies I Love Series. "Companies I Love" posts describe why innovative companies and business practices make us all better off, and therefore why they deserve our love. "Companies I Love" is featured every Sunday on this blog.

Textbooks are notoriously expensive. Most textbooks in economics cost somewhere between $100 to $150 new. For the average college student, this expense is inexcusable: annually, it amounts to about a thousand dollars in school expenses that schools are reluctant to point out. A thousand dollars in hidden cost is no small potatoes.

Some might say that this is just the way of the market. Textbooks cost money. Everyone has to deal with it because that's just the way it is. Nevertheless, if I'm paying for something, I like to figure out why it costs so much money. Does it really cost $150 for a thousand sheets of paper, some cardboard, some glue and some ink?

First off, this is a naive view of the costs of textbook publishing. Raw materials are not the biggest cost associated with publishing the textbook. At some point, the writer has to write the book, reviewers have to read it, the editor has to edit it, the illustrator has to illustrate it, and so on. There are many tasks that go into creating a textbook. Each task must be rewarded or the book's quality suffers.

This rationalizes high textbook prices. On the other hand, this explanation does not explain why publishing textbooks in this manner is the preferred way to get knowledge from experts' brains into students' minds. We also have not given a good reason why this process produces the best textbook for the money. To be fair to the subject, we should consider alternatives.

How about free? This sounds absurd, but this is what Wikipedia is doing. On top of being free, Wikipedia is becoming reliable. For most topics, Wikipedia produces more reliable results than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite the fact that it is free, it is not organized the right way to be a good textbook: a set of Wikipedia articles is not a perfect substitute for a good, bound, indexed reference on the shelf. There's just something about a table of contents.

If Wikipedia can supplant Britannica, it cannot be that hard to produce reliable textbooks. The Wikipedia experience tells us that a decentralized review process works, so why rely on a textbook publishing company? One lingering answer to this question is that the textbook company is the best outlet for actually selling the book. They're marketing experts. They've got the market cornered and it is hard to compete with that.

There's something that just feels wrong about this. Many students are about as poor as they will be in life when they are in college. At this pivotal moment in their life, textbook publishers think that it is a good idea to charge them more for a book. I understand the profit motive, but it just seems wrong. In the classroom, we want students to have a good textbook experience. Moreover, we want them to actually get the book. Yet, textbook prices are so high that some people don't even buy required textbooks. That just makes me want to write my own textbook. In fact, I did.

This brings me to today's Company I Love: Lulu. Lulu is an on-demand publisher. Indeed, on-demand publishing is the simple way to publish your own book. If you have a book idea, here's what you can do to get it out there:
  1. Write the book (you can write it in MS Word if you want though I wouldn't recommend it)
  2. Upload the file with your book to Lulu
  3. Design a cover using Lulu's interface
  4. Set the price
  5. Publish
It really is that simple. Simple might not be the perfect word for this process. You are, after all, writing a book. But, Lulu really is publishing simplified. Once you publish your book, Lulu can give your book an ISBN and can list your book on Amazon for a nominal fee, but Lulu's interest is in selling loads of your books, so they don't charge much for this marketing. Lulu makes most of its money by taking a mere 20 percent of the price above printing cost. This means that the more books you sell, the more money both you and Lulu make. It is an ideal partnership.

If you don't want to pay the marketing fees, you can still publish and sell your book on the Lulu Marketplace. They give you a webpage called your storefront, and they make your book searchable in their database (which makes it pop up on Google searches as well). This is what I did with my textbook. You can link to it here.

There are many other considerations for writing a book. How do you write it well? How can you format it? Would anyone want to read it? Once you've solved these problems, Lulu is a great place to go for publishing. They're also a good resource in guiding you through the publishing process. And, as you will see on my textbook page, $25 is much less than $150!

Which companies do you love? If you have ideas for Companies I Love, please let me know. It could never hurt to have more suggestions!

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