AOSA: Working with Lulu

Lots of people have asked us how it is working with Lulu. I’ve published three books with Lulu now, and the fact that I’ll continue to use them and recommend them speaks for itself. However, that path is not without potholes.

The Lows

Technical Difficulties

We had a couple of technical problems with Lulu, both of which were more problems with the arcanery of the printing process than with Lulu per se.

The first problem was with a “corrupt font table” in the PDF. I learned about the problem when I got an email from Lulu Support out of the blue telling me that the AOSA I had “errors that are preventing the project from printing”, and that the status of the book had been changed to “Available Only to Me”. (Note that I got the email some time after I uploaded the book and made it public — I wasn’t notified immediately on upload.)

I contacted tech support and they were kind enough to send me the PDF inspection report (“We don’t typically provide this much information (as it’s somewhat technical), but based on the subject of your project, we hope that it is useful for you.”) and it turned out the problem was with the Microsoft Cambria font. It was news to me that that was even in the book, because I certainly didn’t use it, but it turns out that any font used in an EPS or PDF diagram in turn becomes part of the book’s PDF. Once I changed the diagram, the problem went away.

The second technical issue wasn’t so easy to resolve. The first proof of AOSA II had a few blank pages, so I contacted Lulu Support and they said it was a problem with unsupported transparencies. Their suggested fix was to save the file as PostScript and then redistill it with Adobe Distiller, which is part of Acrobat.

I ignored that and tried to remove all the transparencies from all the diagrams, but there were so many files from so many sources that it was extremely hard, if not impossible. (And I didn’t even know if it would fix the problem.) I looked around for tools to strip transparency from PDFs, but none of them worked. There’s even a built-in PDF flattening capability on OS X, but it didn’t work either.

The “fix” was to buy Adobe Acrobat, which I did, and once I followed Lulu’s suggested workflow the file was accepted.

Again, neither of those problems were with Lulu per se, but with the limitations of the printing process (and Adobe’s stranglehold on the industry). Lulu uses different printers all over the world, so to ensure a consistent result they make sure that source files are as solid as possible.

Usability Issues

The Lulu website has a few usability problems which drive me nuts. For example, when you’re creating a “Marketing Image” for a PDF, the upload dialog says “Your picture should be about 536 pixels wide and 697 pixels tall”, but when you upload a picture that’s a little smaller the error message says the image should be at least 536 pixels wide and 697 pixels tall.

Little things like that, that more usability testing would uncover.

Another thing: a few months ago the PDF for AOSA I disappeared off the Lulu website. It turned out they changed the PDF distribution system, so that instead of selling your PDF as an addendum to an existing project, you have to create a new project to distribute it. They said they emailed everyone about it, and maybe they did, but it must have gone into my spam folder because I don’t tend to ignore email.

Lulu doesn’t send books to P.O. boxes, which isn’t a problem for most people but for the rest it’s a big problem.

The worst thing about Lulu, though, is with the extended distribution system. When you choose extended distribution for your book (that is, for it to be sold through Amazon.com) it has to conform to a long list of format requirements. Which is fine, whatever, I’m sure it has something to do with self-published books looking/acting like “real books”. However, in order to move through the process of getting your book distributed, you have to order a copy of the book and then declare that it meets the requirements (presumably once you have the printed book in your grubby hands).

Which is all very well, except that once you have your book in the extended distribution process, it’s all-too-easy to click on something which sends the book right back to the beginning of the process. If you edit the author name (even if you don’t change it but just open the edit page) or I don’t even know what else, the system demands that you buy a new copy of your book and reconfirm that it meets the requirements. Even if you haven’t uploaded a new file and nothing has changed! It doesn’t make sense, and I have started to develop a phobia about clicking anywhere near a project which is in extended distribution, for fear of waking the dragon.

The Highs

Those are the things that bother me about Lulu. These are the things that redeem them:

I love their tech support. Every time I’ve had a problem I have had the full, patient and committed assistance of their tech support department to help me resolve it. They send me reports, they explain their printing process, they refund orders when there’s a printing glitch. The tech support isn’t incredibly fast, but once a particular member of staff is assigned to your problem, that is who works with you until it’s resolved, so you don’t have to explain things over and over.

Honestly, even with the usability problems I mentioned above, the website is pretty easy to use. There are wizards to walk you through things and the explanatory text keeps it unstressful most of the time. It’s not a flawless experience, like Freshbooks, but it’s pretty good.

And I love the final product. I’ve been delighted with the quality of the books: the paper is thick and bright, the colours on the cover are true. There is nothing more satisfying than holding your beautiful, finished book in your hand.

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One Comment on “AOSA: Working with Lulu”

  1. Andy Trus says:

    Hi Amy,

    Thank you so much for writing about your experiences with Lulu! We’re so happy that despite a few inconveniences, you were able to achieve your goals of holding your book in your hand. I’d love to talk with you in more detail about your experiences with publishing at Lulu and learning of ways to improve the experience. If you’re interested, please feel free to reach out to me at survey@lulu.com.

    Kind Regards,

    Andy Trus
    Lulu Product Manager of User Experience


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