Bangalore: In 1993, Bob Young co-founded the company that would eventually become Red Hat—an open-source software firm—and challenged the Microsoft Corp. model by giving away the source code of the software to consumers. A decade later, he founded another start-up—Lulu.com—to upend the traditional publishing model. Lulu helps individuals who want to be authors but can never attract the attention of a Random House or HarperCollins, for a variety of reasons, to publish their books.
At least 5,000 authors have written 750,000 different titles on Lulu, in the process earning the company annual revenues of $40 million (Rs195 crore). On a recent visit to India, Young explained that Lulu acts as a marketplace where content from authors whose work would never be sufficiently popular to get through the traditional channels gets published. Edited excerpts:
In August you tied up with Bangalore-based Weread.com. What was that for?
We have been all along on the authors’ side. We built tools, technology for the authors to publish a book. We had not done as good a job in looking after readers of books from Lulu. That is where this tie-up with Weread (is) effective, practical. Weread is doing to the reader what Lulu has always been to the author.
Valuing freedom: Bob Young says Lulu controls the content it publishes, but is not very strict on that front. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Again, our goal has been go to the marketplace. Readers find a book that they cannot find in the local book store and authors can find a marketplace for their book that they cannot find in the book store.
Lulu is the best example of a rapidly growing marketplace for content which would have never been in the public place, because it would never be sufficiently popular in the first place to get through the traditional publishing channels.
How do you monitor the content from the authors?
We publish the books, (so) we control the content—we are not completely laissez-faire.
We try to be as tolerant, because the authors are publishers and we are not. But we cannot be completely hands-off, because we cannot afford to make our site synonymous with bomb-making or something else. We do manage content, (but) we are not (very) strict on it.
So, a fellow in England has written a layman’s guide to the Boeing 737 airliner and published (it) on Lulu and (it) sells considerably well. But someone would say that (that) is a terrorist manual as (to) how to blow up 737s. And in China they may actually term it as that. Somehow, publishing internal workings of an airliner gives terrorists an advantage that the Chinese government doesn’t want them to have. In the US, India and the UK, yes, terrorists may be able to (mis)use our freedom. But that does not mean that we are going to flush our freedoms down the toilet just to try and protect ourselves from them. So, as a result, on some occasions, it does create a problem. Something someone publishes will get us into trouble.
How much of the books sold on Lulu.com are electronic versions and how much in print?
The volume of sales of electronic versions of the book is identical to what is published in the industry (5:95). In the traditional channels, there are more physical books—it is exactly the same percentage on Lulu.
But electronic versions have relatively seen slower growth in the last five years.
What could be the reason?
The (electronic book) readers are not there. It is more pleasant to read a (physical) book. The printing industry has mastered over 500 years (the art of) how to make reading a pleasure. The original version of the (e)book reader— it had the worst of both ways (worlds). It was an electronic device—occasionally, you had the power go, but you couldn’t search. You had to shift page by page. That is the whole point of computers—you search for a word, and you get it. That is why books would eventually go to (e)readers, once it is pleasant to read (on that device). Up till now, there hasn’t been a reader that anyone would want to curl up in their bed or take on a holiday with (them). But the new Sony reader and even the iPhone is starting to become useful for the purpose of reading books, and the laptops are becoming smaller and lighter.
What about criticism of you being a free software exponent?
I am not a free software exponent, but I am a free market exponent. The reason why Red Hat made perfect sense as a business model is not that technically we gave away our source code, with a licence for anyone to use it. What we were actually doing is giving control to the consumer of the software, instead of the vendor. So, open source was a series of tactics to achieve that end. It is about smooth functioning of the free market. People say open source is a very radical idea, and question whether any other industry can follow the open-source model. My only way is to question that assumption. Only in the software industry, the vendor had control over the way the consumers use the product. Imagine you buy a car, and the dealer who sold you the car had the key to the hood (bonnet) of the car. If your engine starts making a noise, he can say that it is not a bug, but a feature.