When Randy Breeden's church group asked him to design a cookbook with recipes they'd shared through the years, he figured he'd head to a copy machine and put it together himself.
That was before he met Lulu.
That's Lulu.com, an Internet-based publishing operation that prints books cheaper and in smaller quantities - and allowing lower standards - than the big-time publishing houses would.
"Online publishing really puts the ability of doing your own book, without any risk or cost to the author," says Breeden, a Lawrence resident who is a graphic designer at Johnson County Community College. "For anyone who has dreams of becoming a published author, online publishing is a dream come true."
The rise of sites such at Lulu.com also has blurred the lines of what it means to be a "published author." Once a major literary feat, getting a book published now might be as simple as uploading a few PDF files and getting a dozen friends and family members to type their credit card numbers into a Web site.
Lulu.com has churned out 236,000 paperbacks since it opened in 2002, and its volume of new paperbacks has risen each month this year, hitting 14,745 in November, the most recent numbers available. Retail giant Amazon.com got into the game this summer, offering on-demand publishing through its CreateSpace, which already allowed filmmakers and musicians burn DVDs and CDs.
The programs are easy for just about anyone to use: Authors select basic options, including the book's size, binding style and paperback or hardcover. After the manuscript is uploaded, users go to a page where they select a font and design the book's cover. Even after a book has been printed, they can fix typos for later printings.
Unlike vanity publishing, in which aspiring authors pay to have their books run on traditional presses, on-demand publishing doesn't have to cost writers a cent.
Publishers produce books only after they're ordered and paid for, which eliminates overruns and the need for warehousing. They charge for printing, or take a cut of sales, and they set up payment systems, online bookstores and marketing tools.
For Breeden, it was a natural fit.
If the roasted cauliflower, hot pepper jelly and crunchy baked chicken recipes were ever going to see print, an Internet publishing house seemed like the place to do it.
With Lulu.com taking care of promotion, collection of orders for books (which cost $10 each), production and shipping, he could print a book without spending hours over a copy machine.
"It was a lot less work than anything I could have done myself, and is much higher quality," Breeden says. "Our goal was to create a cookbook to give to each other in our group and to our friends and relatives. To date, we've sold about 50 copies, and we are talking about doing an updated addition with more recipes."
He's also helping to a design a book about the history of the science department at JCCC, which he also plans to publish through the Internet.
He contrasts that plan to another book that was published several years ago - through traditional means - on the history of the entire community college.
"The college had the book published at considerable cost and has thousands of books sitting in the warehouse waiting to be sold," Breeden says. "Most will probably never be sold."
Blurring the line
But the new breed of books offers a new challenge to retail outlets.
Lisa Eitner, buyer for Oread Books at Kansas University, says she probably doesn't become aware of the majority of local books published over the Internet because they often aren't publicized.
For the books she does want to purchase, the Internet-based firms sometimes don't have policies for selling bulk quantities for retail.
And then there's the need to examine the self-published books more closely than those that have gone though a major publisher.
"There isn't the editor working with the author so much," Eitner says. "Some have processes in place, but oftentimes it's not to the degree you'd find with more established publishers."
With some people early on assuming the Internet would eliminate the need for books, Eitner says the online world has, in fact, led to a proliferation in publishing.
"It's rather ironic," she says. "It has changed the meaning of 'published author.' ... It's graying that line of things that are in print. The term 'vanity press' has been around for years, where someone finds a printer and binder for their book, and it didn't go through any editorial process. This is halfway between that and a publishing house."
Eileen Gittins, founder and CEO of Blurb.com, an on-demand publisher with 11,000 available self-published titles, admits publicity can be a challenge for her authors.
To help authors, Blurb automatically creates banner ads that can be dragged and dropped onto other Web sites.
What makes self-publishing viable is the Internet, which gives writers instant access to audiences that share their same interests, no matter how obscure. Authors also use online communities such as blogs, MySpace.com and others to market their works.
"It used to be, if you created a book about an obscure topic, your audience was limited," Gittins says. "Now, maybe you're part of an online gardening community, and you already have an audience of 5,000 who care deeply about roses."
For most aspiring authors, a book deal with a major publishing house remains the ultimate dream, however. Big companies like Random House Inc. or HarperCollins Publishers can promote authors on a national scale and get titles in major bookstores. Professional editors also polish copy in the traditional publishing world, a step that can transform a manuscript into a best-seller or perhaps a masterpiece.
"The value and cachet of being with a larger house is still something authors value," says Tina Jordan, vice president of the Association of American Publishers.