The marketplace for bad poetry, purple prose and the occasional artistic treasure has never been so vibrant, thanks to Web sites that let budding Hemingways, Plaths and Steichens reach their tiny yet adoring publics.
Bad experiences with the mainstream publishing, filmmaking and recording industries led entrepreneurs to launch the self-publishing sites Blurb.com, CreateSpace.com and Lulu.com in hopes of sparing other artists the agony of rejection.
Less than 20 bucks, and a couple of hours online, gets users a softcover copy of their memoirs, cookbook, photo album or Great American Novel, and lets them offer their literary progeny for sale worldwide. Prices increase with the number of pages and options for color and hardcovers.
Dictionary.com defines a lulu as any remarkable or outstanding person or thing, and Bob Young felt he had just that when he started Lulu.com in 2003.
Young, co-founder and former CEO of Linux distributor Red Hat Inc, had been searching for a second act when a bad experience with his memoir opened a new entrepreneurial path.
The book, Under the Radar, sold about 20,000 copies, but netted Young just $2,311 after costs were deducted.
Realizing that authors with small audiences probably failed to get published at all, Young set out to help bring those works to the ultimate marketplace -- the Web.
Lulu.com may be the world's biggest publisher of bad poetry, but it also connects sometimes small fan bases with works they couldn't find in bookstores, he said.
The site's tools help users lay out their creations as everything from comics to cookbooks, and travel guides to paperbacks at no charge. The books are stored on Lulu's servers and printed as they are ordered.
Success stories include a San Diego biology professor who sells thousands of copies each year of a textbook about local animals; a guide to Austrian tax accounting rules for English speakers and a book on how to spot fake antique Rolex watches.
Even small sales volumes net some authors a tidy sum. The Rolex author sells only about 1,000 copies each year at $49.95 each, but pockets about $30,000 in proceeds, Young said.
That's 12 times what I made on a book that sold 20,000 copies, he said. We are empowering a whole new generation of authors who could not have been in business... without Lulu.
Eileen Gittins launched Blurb.com in 2006 out of personal pain after trying to self-publish a photographic tribute to entrepreneurs with whom she had worked.
An amateur photographer, Gittins wanted to publish just 50 high-quality books of her photos as gifts but couldn't find a site that let her to design what she wanted.
The big gap that I saw in the marketplace was for highly visual content (from) people who may never write a manuscript. There are 10 times, 20 times that number who just have a blog, recipes, poems, photographs...they want to publish, she said.
With design options ranging from bookstore quality to expandable, affordable options and bookmakers available for hire, Blurb.com attracts a preponderance of works by visual artists from around the world, including architects, fashion designers and photographers.
The site also has enjoyed growing traffic from businesses, marketers and professional organizations opting to circulate their messages with slick, custom books rather than brochures.
Among the best-sellers on Blurb.com was Prefab Green, by architect Michelle Kaufmann, who designed the Sunset magazine Glide House.
But the site's roots are with Internet consumers, who can use its slurper software called BookSmart to grab digital photos and blog copy from the Web and map it into a book.
Even the bad books are great: it's somebody's family, it's their story, it's their poetry, Gittins said. I think people just really appreciate being able to hold a book in their hands.
CreateSpace.com began life as a DVD-on-demand service, CustomFlix.com, whose mission was connecting movie fans with a huge population of independent filmmakers who could not get their works in theaters, spokeswoman Stacey Hurwitz said.
Acquired by Amazon.com Inc in 2005, CreateSpace has broadened its offerings to include back-catalog TV show titles from ABC, CBS, A&E and other major networks, as well as a CD on demand service for musicians and book publishing for the novelist in everyone.
Like Blurb.com and Lulu.com, CreateSpace charges no set-up fees, offers set-up advice and allows the purchase of one book or thousands at a time.
The site's link with Amazon.com gives authors access to millions and millions of people trolling through the ultimate online bookstore, Hurwitz said.