It's Lulu

by Quinn

Kevin Carson’s Mutualist blog included an interesting post a little while ago comparing the innovative Pull Economy with the more traditional Push Economy. In his post he quotes this David Bollier article which explains the difference between the two:

Briefly put, a “push economy” – the familiar industry model of mass production – is based on anticipating consumer demand and then making sure that needed resources are brought together at the right place, at the right time, for the right people. A company in the “push” model forecasts demand, specifies in advance the necessary inputs, regiments production procedures, and then pushes the final product into the marketplace and the culture, using standardized distribution channels and marketing.

By contrast, a “pull economy” – the kind that appears to be materializing in online environments – is based on open, flexible production platforms that use networking technologies to orchestrate a broad range of resources. Instead of producing standardized products for mass markets, companies use pull techniques to assemble products in customized ways to serve local or specialized needs, usually in a rapid or on-the-fly process.

Instead of companies pushing their products at us (in pursuit of their own strategic or competitive advantages), the networked environment radically empowers individuals, and communities of like-minded individuals, to pull the products and services that they want, on their own terms and time requirements. For example, small groups of people with unusual niche interests – say, extreme skateboarders or opera buffs – can now aggregate their consumer demand and successfully induce businesses to serve their specialized interests. In the process, many corporations are having to radically re-organize themselves in order to serve the emerging “pull” market demand.

If I’ve understood the concept correctly – and I’m not wholly convinced that I have – then it certainly seems a far more efficient and effective way of providing goods and services. An apt example of the pull economy could be Lulu, a self-publishing website I have recently “discovered”.

Traditionally, if you wanted to publish your own book you were faced with a dilemma; approach a printers and either organise a short print run which would involve a high unit cost per book, or go for a longer print run which would mean a lower marginal cost but a larger overall bill. As you had to “push” your book out onto an uncertain marketplace it could be difficult to know what to do; far easier, perhaps, to do nothing.

With Lulu, however, you can design the cover and format of your book, upload it to Lulu for free, and then it can sit online indefinitely until someone wants to buy a copy; only then is it printed (or the manuscript itself can just be downloaded). The price is not far off what you would expect to pay for a book in the shops, and the author gets to keep 80% of the profits of each sale, such as they are. As a result many books can now be published that would probably never have seen the light of day before. Some could even become minor hits, although I imagine that this is more likely to happen to niche non-fiction books rather than to “Just Another Novel” by A.N. Other.

This is fine as far as it goes for self-publishing, but it could also show the way forward for more general book publishing in the future. For as long as people like me enjoy browsing in bookshops then I imagine there will always be a need for long print runs in order to fill up all those shelves in the stores; but on the face of it I can see no reason why a company like Amazon will in future need to hold any stock at all if technology is able to allow each book to be printed on demand as and when a customer orders it. In addition, theoretically no book need ever be out of print again, indeed the very term “out of print” could become an anachronism; just so long as they are held on file somewhere ready to be printed then all books, no matter how old or obscure, could be available whenever a potential customer wants to buy a copy.

But for me perhaps the best thing about Lulu is that this may be the best only way that the yellowed manuscript of my novel, currently gathering dust in my loft along with numerous rejection letters from literary agents, will ever get printed and bound and placed on a bookshelf; even if it is just a vanity copy squeezed into my own bookcase between Philip Roth and William Trevor.