Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Bob Young and his cohorts at are likely to be the toast of New York this week rather than villains at the annual Book Expo America event, an industry that the Raleigh-based self-publishing firm is threatening to disintermediate.

Why would publishers and authors chose to salute founder and owner Young of an enterprise that is doing to publishing what he did to proprietary software at open source kingpin Red Hat? Well, because Lulu is now selling traditional titles.

Some 700,000 of them, in fact, as well as many, many e-books.

Yet in March, Lulu heralded the kind of deal that shook the traditional publishers.

“John Edgar Wideman, a fixture of the American literary establishment and two-time winner of the prestigious Faulkner Award for fiction, has chosen to publish his latest work through Lulu, breaking from the traditional model he has used to successfully publish more than 20 other works,” Lulu proclaimed.

“Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind, will be available exclusively on Lulu.com …” Wideman decided against a traditional publishing contract — and royalty advance — for Briefs because he wanted more control over the publishing process and to develop a more direct connection with his readers. He also wanted to experiment at a time when the publishing industry is undergoing more revolution than evolution.”

And at the recent WWW 2010 Conference in Raleigh, Young called traditional books the “dead tree experience.”

“It’s been 500 years since Gutenberg and the reading on dead trees experience began. [21 years ago] the big advance was orange text – orange ASCII text on black and white screens. Today, for 200 bucks you can buy a device that provides you with full motion video,” he said.

“Extrapolate 20 years into the future – Is it plausible that the pleasurable experience will be reading a book on paper in bed? If you bet on that, I’ll take your money.”

Walk in a Barnes & Noble store and you’ll see a field on which publishers and retailers are fighting beyond self-publishing: Those ever increasingly popular e-readers.

Yet how times change, A month after the Wideman announcement, Lulu moved to embrace traditional publishers – and publishing as Young (who calls himself Lulu’s "Head Dishwasher" set out to build “the world’s largest bookstore.”

“Excited to be at BEA”

So, Lulu sent its team to New York, disintermediation or not.

“We’re very excited to be a part of BEA because it is one of the only times that so many remarkable authors, publishers, businesses, educators, and distributors come together from all over the world to discuss the current trends in the publishing industry and share their passion for books,” Lulu’s “AJ” posted in a Lulu blog on Monday.

Lulu announced April 12 that it would offer “traditionally published titles” to use Young’s blog words through Lulu. And Young says the decision is a win-win-win – a win for those authors such as John Grisham whom Young singles out for praise, a win for Lulu since it’s selling more product, and a win for Lulu’s growing legions of self-published authors whom he says are getting more exposure and, best of all, sales.

Here’s what Young wrote that day – what is proving to be a momentous one:

“Beginning today, you will find more than 700,000 new titles in the Lulu Marketplace, titles as diverse as Harlan Coben’s Caught from the list of New York Times bestsellers to Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. This follows the addition of more than 200,000 traditionally published eBooks that we added in November. In the coming weeks, we’ll add more content through additional partnerships as we make Lulu.com the world’s premier destination for published knowledge, ideas and expression. In effect, we are creating the world’s biggest bookstore.”

Thank the “Long Tail” effect

So far, better than good, Young says.

“The world’s readers are better off now than they were a month ago,” Young

“Why? Because more of them are finding the remarkable works of Lulu authors.”

Young says the additional titles and authors have triggered the following growth trends:

• “Sales of titles by Lulu authors have increased 14% in the days since we added the additional selection compared with the prior period.

• “That’s due, in part, to that fact that readers are spending more time browsing our site. We’ve seen a 25% increase in page views of Lulu content since we added the traditionally published titles.

• “About 50% of these buyers of traditionally published books are completely new to Lulu.

• “This new and expanding audience benefits Lulu authors, because 60% of the customers who bought a traditionally published title also bought a book penned by a Lulu author.”

“The Internet is giving consumers more content choices than ever before, and authors like you can bring your works to your audience more easily than ever before,” Young added, noting the so-called “Long Tail” theory of Chris Anderson. “These converging trends mean that consumers can find books that fit their interests ever more precisely. The result is more total book sales, a growing market that benefits both John Grisham and you.”

Interestingly, Grisham recently agreed to make his titles available through e-books.

“John Grisham sells tens of millions of copies of every book he writes. Seems only fair that he and his publisher, Random House, should be willing to share that success with all of the aspiring writers and next-generation publishers who are using Lulu to bring their knowledge, expertise and remarkable stories to the world,” Young wrote.

“On behalf of all of our authors: Thanks, John.”

Someday, maybe Grisham will get a royalty check from Bob Young and say, "Thank you, o mighty head dishwasher."

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