Shannon Yarbrough is the founder and lead reviewer of The Lulu Book Review website. The Lulu Book Review site is dedicated to reviews of self-published books published via Lulu, but as Shannon reveals in this interview, changes are in the works to allow titles from Wordclay and CreateSpace as well.
P: When did you first become interested in self-publishing, and why?
SY: In 2000, I became an assistant manager for a bookstore. My love of books spanned back to my childhood, but this was when I first began to formally learn about the book industry itself.
A local author came in one day to introduce himself and to promote his book. I also had a love of writing and dreamed of being an author myself, so I spoke to him and asked if he’d be interested in doing a book signing. Since I was also in charge of a book club at the store, we ended up reading his book and having a nice long discussion between him and the group. He signed a copy of his book to me as follows: “This is the best feeling in the world and I owe it all to you. I can’t wait till you’re signing copies of your own book one day and I’m eagerly standing in line for my copy.”
I asked the author more about the publishing process after the event, and he told me he self-published his book. He used Xlibris. I knew nothing about the world of self-publishing then, but I quickly learned. Three years later in 2003, I self-published my own first book with Xlibris. So, my knowledge of self-publishing grew from there.
P: You currently have three books in print with Lulu; what would you say are the pros and cons of publishing through Lulu?
SY: There are many pros to Lulu. I first discovered Lulu in 2006 and was immediately impressed with their speed and pricing. In one night, within a few hours, I had a 2nd edition of my Xlibris book for sale on Lulu with a new cover and at half the price of the original. I fell in love with their community forums where I connected with other authors like myself, and I spent hours perusing the online book store and reading new authors.
The first book I published originally with Lulu was a collection of my poetry which I put together with images as a gift to some family members. I thought the printing quality and time it took to print and ship was great. I also liked the ability to publish both a hardcover and paperback edition cheaply. The ability to make changes quickly with no financial investment was nice too. In 2008, I purchased an ISBN for my third book with Lulu for just $99.00. This was a big savings compared to the Xlibris investment I made in 2003, even though I had to do all the work myself when publishing with Lulu.
I think the cons vary by project and by author. Some that I have experienced were printing problems. Two orders of my 2008 book arrived with the same damages months apart, tears to the spine and glue smudges on the cover. Although Lulu sent replacements to me, I had problems getting a response from their customer service department the second time because by then, they had discontinued their online chat support. I’ve heard from other authors that response time via email has taken as long as 25 days. Cuts in their staff are probably the issue here. When they had chat support, it was hit or miss for me. Sometimes, they were very helpful and sometimes they were no help at all. The rise of shipping expenses has been a huge issue lately with many Lulu authors, especially international ones.
I, myself, have also not been impressed with the “Published by Lulu” feature. This was free for a while and gave you an ISBN and listed Lulu as the publisher. It took months to get the book loaded to Amazon, only to have it listed as out of print. I think a lot of this had to do with the whole Booksurge ordeal that took place last year, and Lulu has not been completely forthright with information about how they were affected and how it affects these books.
The recent purchase of poetry.com has given them some bad press because of the stigma attached to the business that was running it before. Lulu is also now offering expensive publishing packages like the other subsidy publishers, so they’ve lost a bit of their DIY appeal for me.
P: You are the founder and administrator of The Lulu Book Review. Can you explain what the site is all about, and why you decided to launch it?
SY: The LLBR was created in Spring 2008 as a book review blog strictly for Lulu authors. I had been querying agents and small publishing companies with my most recent book and casually documenting my experiences (and rejections) on my personal blog.
In March, I decided to use Lulu to publish the book myself and wanted to document that experience as well. In searching the Lulu forums for information one day, I kept coming across pleas for reviews. When I clicked on those authors’ books though, no reviews had been posted on their pages. I thought that was so depressing that Lulu authors couldn’t even get their own peers to read their books. And so out of that thought, the Lulu Book Review was formed along with my POD Diary where I documented my own publishing experience as a reference for other authors.
Since then, three other reviewers have joined me. The blog has been solely devoted to Lulu authors and to reviewing Lulu books, but has become a great reference for self-published authors in general. We also cross-post our reviews to both Lulu.com and to Amazon.com for the author.
P: Conventional wisdom states that the majority of self-published books are badly written and poorly formatted. Has this been your experience as a reviewer?
SY: I would honestly say it’s about 50/50. In the beginning, for the most part, books we chose to review were based solely on the opinion of what the reviewer wanted to read and if the preview on Lulu sparked their interest. Then, we started seeing recurring problems that kept turning us off as well. So last November, we posted a list of common mistakes that we often found in Lulu books and sort of adopted that as a set of rules for books we are considering for review.
Formatting and spelling are the usual mistakes we see. Those things don’t necessarily mean the story itself is bad, but it’s hard to devote time to a book when the author hasn’t done their homework when it comes to presentation. Typically, we might give something a chance from the start if we like the preview, despite the basic problems we see, but we usually take into consideration that if we’d give the book anything less than three out of five stars on an Amazon.com review, then we bow out and choose not to review it at all. After all, we want the feel of our reviews to be a positive experience for not just the author, but for our readers as well. Self-publishing gets enough bad reviews on its own as an industry so we don’t want to add to that.
P: Some authors, indie and mainstream alike, are reluctant to post negative book reviews, either out of professional courtesy or fear of retaliation. As an indie author yourself and a booster of the movement, when wearing your "reviewer’s hat," do you ever feel compelled to soften your criticisms when reviewing other indie authors’ work? Have you ever opted not to post a negative review?
SY: We never soften the blows because we don’t really have to. Like I said, when reviewing our policy is that if we start reading a book that has too many grammatical or spelling errors, or is poorly formatted, or we feel that we’d rate it three stars or less out of five, then we don’t review it at all. This is not because we fear retaliation or are worried about the response we might get. It’s simply because, like most indie reviewers on the web, our goal is to promote reading and to promote authors who have put serious effort into making their book the best possible.
So, we always opt not to post a negative review because we don’t write them, and we are honest with the author when we tell them why we’re choosing not to review them. Our reviewers have also been willing to give some helpful tips and suggestions to the author when time allows.
P: The Lulu Book Review offers reviews of Lulu-published books only; do you have any plans to launch any similar sites to review other self-published books?
SY: There are no plans to launch additional sites, but as of June 1st we are branching out to include CreateSpace and WordClay authors. The site, domain, and our name will also be getting a face lift. This was a group decision because all of our reviewers share the same opinions and philosophies about self-publishing. We like what we are doing and we want to reach out to more indie authors.
P: How can authors of Lulu-published books submit their works to you for review?
SY: Authors should visit the blog and post a query on our Pick Me! Tab. They should link to their book and tell us a little about it and tell us why we should review it. We also accept email queries currently at email@example.com.
Shannon Yarbrough is the author of two self-published books, The Other Side of What published with Xlibris in 2003, and Stealing Wishes published with Lulu in 2008. He is also the creator and lead reviewer of The Lulu Book Review.