Monday, December 15, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Lulu

The original Lulu in To Sir, With Love (great movie, by the way)
Actually, the real original Lulu for me was my grandmother on my mother's side, Lucienne Foubert Chamberlin. Born in France in 1897, we called her "Lulu". Not sure if she was named that as a younger woman or whether that was her "grandmother" name. But she was French and slightly crazy. I think my grandfather, an all-American Iowa-born guy was enchanted by her. I wish I had known them together.

But of course I'm referring to Lulu, the print-on-demand publishing house.

For reasons I don't completely remember I first decided to put my new game, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen on Lulu as opposed to RPGNow. It was on Christmas day 2013. It's still there. The first mock-up I got looked amazing. Truth be told, I ordered ten sets to give to friends for the holiday. This was the "private" Zylarthen with many copyright violations. Actually, it was called "Seven Voyages of Xylarthen" (Gygax's original example character) and contained Balrogs, Beholders and all the rest. Actually, the "revised" public version that I released a few days later was, I think, superior. I like the "Z" better than the "X", and my "science-fiction" versions of the non-SRD monsters I think are actually superior (in a certain sense) to the originals. (Okay, that was a moment of serious non-humility.)

But, whether with an "X" or a "Z" the copies looked amazing. The creamy covers were exactly the shade I wanted. The saddle-stitched bindings were precisely right in terms of how they lay flat and were easily flipped through. Though the initial cost was high--$8.50 per volume (with only an average of $1.50 profit for me)--they were, in my view, perfect. I couldn't have imagined how any publisher or printing house (print-on-demand or otherwise) could have done a better job.

However, a few months later I ordered another mock-up set. It looked awful. In the interim, Lulu had changed printing factories and the saddle-stitch looked amateurish and ugly. In hindsight, this was fortuitous for me, as it prompted a switch to perfect binding, which, not only looked pretty good, but allowed me to offer it at a substantially lower price and make more profit per unit. But it taught me a useful lesson about Lulu: you never knew when they would make some change such that the physical product would come out differently. Thus mock-up or sample versions were of limited utility.

With that introduction, here are the pros and cons as I see them. Comments from other Lulu authors or customers would be welcome.

The Pros:
  1. Lulu is easy. They don't vet anything. All they need is a PDF (or two, counting the cover). If you're just a teeny-bit proficient at computers and uploading stuff, etc., you're set. Also, they're pretty expansive about formats and the minimum and maximum number of pages, and so on. If you want to, say, correct a typo or make a minor (or even a major) change in text, you simply delete the current PDF and upload the new one. This takes five or ten minutes. By contrast, I found RPGNow to be much more difficult to deal with on the front end. My initial attempt to upload stuff hung up for some reason, and I couldn't understand why. Also, they wouldn't allow me to do saddle-stitch with the size and page numbers that I desired. An RPGNow staff member contacted me to try to help me (though she made it clear that my requirements wouldn't fit in to their possible templates). She was perfectly helpful and polite. But the point is that on Lulu you didn't have to deal with anyone. You can just do it.
  2. At it's best, Lulu's physical product is great.
  3. Lulu doesn't seem to take too big a cut. I make a fair amount on my $5.95 booklets, for example (no, I won't tell you exactly how much).
  4. Lulu has periodic sales that make things much more attractive to your customers while not lowering your profits by 1 penny. This is a win-win situation for author and customer. I'm not sure what Lulu makes on these offers, but it's their call.
  5. Lulu doesn't censor their stuff and then lie about it, unlike RPGNow. (Oh, sorry. That was a political statement. Ignore if that annoys.)
The Cons:
  1. As implied above, you never know what the physical product is going to look like for your customers. It seems like Lulu is always changing printing factories, etc., or the printing operations are mercurial. The first perfect-bound booklets I ordered were biased towards the top. I considered compensating with the margins on my PDF but then figured that that might skew things in the opposite direction the next time. Sure enough, none of my customers complained about that. I ordered some additional copies for myself during the recent 35% sale. The margin bias was corrected, and the covers had more color. However the interior text looked more faint--almost as if they were trying to save ink. It was good enough, and I think worth the $5.95 price, but not ideal.
  2. Lulu doesn't allow you to bundle. Within a few weeks I will have a combined four-volume PDF of Seven Voyages of Zylarthen available, which I will sell for a price. But Lulu won't allow me to offer that along with, say, the physical booklets.
  3. The "preview" function makes your cover and pages look blurry and amateurish. Or maybe it has something to do with the format that I took advantage of. But still.
  4. RPGNow has a much larger audience, at least for game products. That may not be Lulu's fault, per se, but it still is a factor.
  5. The shipping costs seem too expensive (to me). Lulu seems to make some extra money there. And it varies. I swear that during the 35% off sale, the shipping costs seemed higher.
Look, overall, print-on-demand is positively utopian. I think Lulu is wonderful. I'm just trying to be accurate here.

Again, I'd love to hear any similar/opposed opinions.


  1. I gave Lulu a brief whirl four years ago when I was starting up Sine Nomine, but in the end, it was no contest for me- the OBS sites of DTRPG/RPGNow just move far too much product in comparison, and the prices back then were much cheaper for printing and shipping. Lulu may have improved since then, but even so, so much more RPG product gets sold through OBS than through Lulu that it's hard for the latter to compete. The LS upload process that OBS has isn't as hands-off as Lulu's, but the results are a lot more consistent, which is critical for me. I can't afford to have to wonder if the books I'm selling to people look the same as the proof copy I ordered.

  2. Yeah, OneBookShelf has lower cost printing and a wider reach... but I just pulled the Basic Fantasy Core Rules from their site because they screwed up my covers. Lulu does what I tell them, and the only quality issues I ever saw were early in my time with them and seem to all be resolved now.

    But seriously, my sales on run rings around anything I ever saw on DTRPG. This is, of course, due to the connection. Cover quality is good, interiors a bit less black than but very acceptable.

    It takes me 0 time to activate a new product on Lulu; up to 24 hours on CreateSpace; and FREAKIN' FOREVER on OneBookShelf. And then they screw up my covers. No, sorry, unless they get their head on straight I won't be using them.

  3. That's interesting, Chris- my Lulu sales were only ever a handful compared to my OBS sales, and that seems to be about how it works out for Evil Hat too, from their quarterly reports. Amazon's connection doesn't seem to be giving them as much juice as it is for you. I wonder what the difference is.

  4. My guess is because BFRPG is sold at cost on Amazon, and Prime gives you free shipping.

  5. That would make sense. I didn't think to compare the OBS print price and the CreateSpace print price, but it'd take a pretty stiff difference to cancel out free shipping.

  6. We use Lulu for quick prints of private runs. No wait time involved in an approval process. They do spiral bindings for my GM's copy. Everything else through CreateSpace, cheaper and more ppl shop there.

  7. Lulu sales of BFRPG were never much; they went up a bit, oddly enough, when I added CreateSpace. I suspect that the slowly growing popularity of BFRPG caused some to want hardbacks, which at that time (and once again) were only available through Lulu. And yeah, free shipping on Prime and/or Super Saver is hard to beat.

    OneBookShelf is not making any friends these days...

  8. I've only ever had success selling my Mutant Future adventure module on DriveThruRPG. To this date, I have not been able to sell one unit on Lulu though I advertise just as equally for both. So, for me OneBookShelf is still the way to go just based on my personal experience and success.