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Fit to Print Got an idea for a book or CD? An Internet company is taking publishing to the masses.
By Bill Barol

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Maheesh Jain, Co-founder of CafePress.com, plucks items at random from bins at the company's manufacturing plant in Hayward, Calif. The variety speaks to the breadth, if not the depth, of issues on the minds of CafePress's clients: "You've got your I MISS CLINTON bumper sticker," Jain says, "a random animal picture on a mouse pad ... a 'Dork Goods' T-shirt ..." What really catches his eye, though, is a book called Ten Seconds of Peace: An Everyday Approach to Mindful Living. "I'm really excited about the books," Jain says.

Until recently CafePress specialized in printing and selling the kind of merchandise widely used as conference giveaways. To sell a T-shirt or a coffee mug or a tote bag, clients uploaded an image, and CafePress took it from there, handling all the messy details of shopkeeping like inventory, production, fulfillment, billing, and returns. It basically created a no-risk, hassle-free online store for its clients, who could then direct their customers to the URL. About 600,000 clients have done so, ranging from Esquire magazine to ihateclowns.com.

Now Jain, 30, is trying to build on that foundation by printing books and music CDs--a sort of Internet-based vanity press. If you think you might be the next William Faulkner or Foo Fighters, you send the company electronic files of your work, make a few quick selections, and that's it--you're published. As with T-shirts, there's no minimum order: You can print a single copy of your magnum opus if you want, or 1,000. "We've seen journals, scrapbooks, cookbooks, fiction, nonfiction, technical manuals," Jain says. "The users bring in their creativity. We take care of the rest." Those who print, publish, or record through CafePress are charged a flat rate per item ($13.99 for a T-shirt, $10 for a 100-page paperback) but can charge customers whatever they want and keep the difference. As ideas go, this one might just prove Andy Warhol wrong--it's not that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, but that anyone can be an author for 15 bucks.

A few years ago Jain and his business partner, Fred Durham, 32, were looking for a printing-related venture. They saw what had happened to the retail sign business. Things like banners and lawn signs had long been printed by a labor-intensive manual process, but by 1999, Jain recalls, "the whole industry had gone digital," which reduced costs and turnaround times. The two started to wonder if the technology couldn't be applied to other products.

In August 1999 they set up shop in Durham's garage, selling T-shirts, mouse pads, and two types of mugs. They wanted the process to be easy and risk-free for users, and so far that's worked. "They make it pretty idiot-proof," says writer-illustrator Mark Frauenfelder, a founder of a weblog called boingboing and an early customer. "I just went through the steps and ended up with a decent-looking shop. It's pretty smart." In three years boingboing has made just $269 on 104 orders, but Frauenfelder, like a lot of people who sell things on CafePress.com, isn't in it to get rich. "I like the idea that people are wearing T-shirts with my illustrations on them," he says. "The money isn't important."

The money is important, however, for Jain. He doesn't release a lot of financials for privately held CafePress but says that it's been profitable for two years. Revenue more than doubled in 2002 and is projected to double again this year. The company now sells about 60 items. Three venture capital firms have invested $1.2 million.

The speed and flexibility of the CafePress system has made it a reflection of what's going on in the world (or at least, what might look good on a T-shirt). The California gubernatorial recall campaign was particularly good for CafePress; one candidate, a female software engineer named Georgy Russell, raised part of her $3,500 filing fee by selling "Georgy for Governor" goods, most notably a thong. Jain hopes to leverage that quick response in the company's music and book operations, which launched this summer and will be vigorously promoted in 2004. For would-be authors, CafePress Publishing offers a wide variety of formats and bindings, at prices from 3 to 5 cents a page and a flat binding fee of $4 to $7. (By comparison, competing self-publisher iUniverse charges $199 for its most basic service.)

The music option isn't quite such an obvious bargain: It costs $8.99 a disc, vs. about $3 at a traditional duplicator. But Jain defends the price, noting, "We give artists an online store with audio samples, take care of fulfillment, and manage all customer service." (Of course, he'll also print up T-shirts and other merchandise if you want it.) Jain adds that most duplicators often require large minimum orders--typically 500 CDs--the bulk of which usually end up collecting dust in the garage. At CafePress, Jain says, "nobody's going to get stuck with 500 copies of an item that doesn't sell."

He likens the company's just-in-time production system to one perfected in another industry: PCs. "We're the Dell of T-shirts," he says. And now, maybe, of self-published books and music too.