In 1994 Bob Young founded Red Hat, the popular Linux distribution vendor, in his wife's sewing closet. Now, the entrepreneur is giving others a chance to create a successful business in the same do-it-yourself way -- by self-publishing their creative projects through his new venture, Lulu
Young formed Lulu in 2002 out of the same philosophy that inspired him to start Red Hat, he said. He saw a need in the marketplace for an alternative to an existing way of doing things, and so he set out to give customers a new option.
At the time he founded Red Hat, "the big issue [in the marketplace] was who was going to restrain Microsoft from owning the future of the computer industry," Young said. He offered Red Hat Linux as an alternative to running Windows on low-end servers, and it has been extremely successful.
When Young was ready to launch a new venture, it was during the same time the recording industry began suing consumers for downloading songs without paying for them, and this gave him the idea for Lulu.
"I looked at the publishing [market] in general," he said. "I thought if they are going to be that defensive in the face of technological changes on the Internet, there had to be an opportunity for business men to use the Internet to provide a better service."
To give artists more control over their own content, Lulu allows them to self-publish their works -- such as books, digital music or movies -- without having to go through a publishing company, Young said. To do this, Lulu takes advantage of several aspects of the contemporary Internet which many refer to as its Web 2.0 phase. Those aspects include online auctions, community development and industry-standard technology that allow users to trade files and photos over the Web.
It is these evolutionary features of Web 2.0 that allow Lulu to deliver a relatively easy self-publishing service to customers, Young said. To get something published, an author, for example, uploads a digital file of the work to the Web site, and uses tools on the site to design the layout of the book. Lulu then has hard copies of the book created, and fulfills orders for the book via its online marketplace.
Lulu does not charge customers for uploading and publishing a project, and the authors retain all the rights of whatever they publish, Young said. However, if the author sells the book on Lulu's marketplace or wants to purchase it themselves, the company gets 20 percent of the profit made once the cost of printing the work is deducted, while the author takes home 80 percent of that difference.
Melinda Roberts, who published "Mommy Confidential: Adventures from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood" on Lulu, raved about the benefits of self-publishing, and said she was happy to skip tricky navigation of the publishing industry to get her book on the market.
"The business model puts total control into the hands of the author," she said. "You can print something just for yourself, just this once, or you can go whole hog and publish it to the world. ...Lulu.com allows authors to publish on their own terms, in their own time, for free. No one, including the author, pays a dime until a book is purchased. If that's not freedom of the press, I don't know what is."
Of course, the self-publishing aspect of Lulu also means there are probably a lot of books on the site that editors in the corporate publishing business would scoff at. Young said that's just fine with him, as long as the site provides a service and a marketplace everyone can use.
"Yeah, we have a lot of crappy books out there," he said. "In a free market, there is a lot of crappy stuff on sale on the streets of New York, [for example]." The important thing, Young said, is that the consumer -- not corporate publishers -- gets to decide if a book is worth reading or not.