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Hello, I’m Oliver (aka SuitCase.) Visit the comic I help make, dig around my old website, tweet at me, ask me stuff on the BCB blog or email me.

Printing a Book is Hard

This is the introduction to a series of posts about making Bittersweet Candy Bowl Volume One. Please read: part one, part two and part three.

The more I try my hand at making BCB a serious media venture, the more I have realised how naïve it is to assume the internet is a world-flattening, democratising force of the universe. Maybe it’s simple to tweet or tumbl your ideas, and to that point, it’s true.

But publishing a webcomic on the web requires all sorts of technical, marketing and business expertise. Producing and selling merchandise based on what you publish is a busier endeavour, where creativity gives way to the consideration of minimum orders and materials science and the whims of the marketplace. Going alone may cut out the publisher, distributor, or middleman, but you end up spending so much time trying to learn about the process of doing things, you may as well be filtering your work through somebody who knows.

Self-publishing a book is the best example of this phenomenon so far. Once again, Veronica and I were forced to become jacks-of-all-trades, learning about and working within the constraints of printed books. Here is an unordered list of things that I, personally, now understand that I did not understand before:

  • Adobe InDesign
  • Bowker and the ISBN system
  • Appropriate margins and gutters
  • Customer order fulfilment services
  • Selling on Amazon.com
  • Barcode legibility
  • Paypal CSV transaction export
  • Basic file operations through shell scripting
  • International freight
  • Endleaves
  • The black-and-white end of working with a CMYK colour process
  • Paper weight
  • Mail Merge in Microsoft Word
  • Sending bulk email and managing a mailing list.

These were all critical skills used in the process of producing this:

Bittersweet Candy Bowl, Volume One

A book remarkable in that it is 600 pages long, contains comics drawn on pages with 8 different paper aspect ratios, required hundreds of hours of Veronica’s time to both completely replace chapters and read and edit every single damn line of dialogue, took three (or more?) proofreaders to find any remaining errors, and was mostly originally drawn on a medium that doesn’t even look good on the web, let alone print (lead pencil on lined paper).

It could have been a 100 page thing on Lulu. But we kind of went all out. I know certain webcomic artists have the same struggles in coming to terms with InDesign’s interface quirks and mulling over print-on-demand and offset printing and so on. But I feel like we tackled just about every problem we could with this project, and even if we didn’t it sure felt like it.

And guess what — after spending countless hours preparing it, it was the most expensive thing we’ve ever had to pour money into!

A table of all the different costs that went into the book's production

Almost $13,000! You can buy three Volkswagen Beetles for that. And these are mostly sunk costs. I mean, we did get 9 extra ISBNs, and a neat image alignment script, and some leftover Sharpies. And 18,943 airline miles.

Still, not a whole lot left over, besides 1600 books to sell. (How we got to that quantity is another story.) And while $8 per book against a list price of $49 isn’t a bad tradeoff, let’s not get too hasty and assume we’ll sell every book we made!

I think in the old days, once you had a publisher, they would give you a template to draw on and you would use that template and they would do everything else. And if not for the vague feeling that some day this is all going to be useful, I can see many hundreds of hours worth of value in a company that deals with this technical crap for you.

But that’s not how it went. We did it alone. And I want to try and expand on some of what I learnt at least for our curious readers, if not fellow artists and writers and people-who-help-artists-and-writers.

And.. uh.. I still haven’t started on the details and already this is a long post. For structure’s sake, I will do a few separate posts on how the book came together, because otherwise I’m going to lose you in dense walls of text.

Next time, we’ll talk about how Veronica and I prepared the content for print. (Then we’ll get to distribution. Then we’ll do money.)

  1. su-itca-se posted this