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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 Spring.me or email me.

Preparing a Book is Hard

This is the first part of a series of posts about making Bittersweet Candy Bowl Volume One. You may also wish to read the introduction to this series.

Preparing this book was a terrible ordeal.

We were faced with a number of problems in getting this book ready for print. If you’re not familiar with the offset printing process, essentially all you have to do is send three PDF files to your printing company: the cover, the endleaves and the interior. Specify how to build the book, pay them, have them delivered, and you’re done.

Three PDF files. But a lot of work goes into making them. Some of the problems I had were ordinary for people in the position of making their first book: having to learn Adobe InDesign (a print layout program, basically the only game in town these days), learning how to adapt to the printer’s templates and margin guidelines, and knowing which materials to specify you wanted the book made with.

Other problems I ran into, however, were more unique:

Original scan compared to the final product

You see, the majority of this book’s comic pages were written on blue lined paper, in pencil. (It was a tradition Veronica kept for a while because BCB was basically just something for a handful of deviantART people to read, and the exercise paper was readily available.) I had to make each page look fine in print, a considerable task given that unfiltered pencil looks horrible in print and lined paper looks horrible anywhere.

The process began something like 3 years ago, when I got Veronica an Epson Perfection 4870, a giant high-quality scanner, and on one long night we put it to great use. I set it to automatically scan the glass every 20 seconds while Veronica sat beside it, feeding the machine page after page from her notebooks, until it was all done. We had uniform, high quality scans of all her work.

These were the updated scans that soon went into her new site. But they weren’t just used as-is, oh no. I spent a very long time working on the exact right Photoshop action to make the pencil look more inky, and the blue and red lines go away as much as possible. The result?

A comparison of panels as they were refined

Not bad, right? The second picture is after processing in Photoshop, and the last picture is from the physical book. Turns out those faded grey lines are a little better defined in print than I would have liked, and this is one of the more obvious examples where they remained even after filtering. I still feel like I did the best job I could, though, having tested dozens of files with a strange set of actions that adjusted levels, replaced colours, selected and separated layers of grey from black, all the while trying to fade the lines without messing with the shading. That was hours of work, but so long ago I barely remember.

If you have a copy of the book (and have read it), you might notice the first 15 chapters or so don’t have the lines. The first image in this blog post is free of line residue, for instance. This is because Veronica manually erased them. The process took forever, so I told her to give up on it pretty early on, especially because I was pretty certain the printing process would make them invisible anyway. (Whoops!)

She did a lot of other time-intensive work, even once she gave up on cleaning the lines. We’ve been promoting the fact that there have been a lot of dialogue changes in Volume One, and that’s something you might notice throughout the book if you pay close attention. We came up with a Photoshop brush that mimicked the darkened pencil from the original scans, and Veronica erased and tweaked and removed various bits of dialogue across hundreds of pages. She also changed the art in certain places (just look above at Augustus’ smile, as an example.) This work alone took about a month, in-between her other projects.

So, after a lot of automatic and manual work, the revision of the old pages was complete. Next came file management. (How exciting.)

We had to run the filters on hundreds of pages across many ordered subdirectories. Then Veronica had to move them on and off her laptop, so she could do the editing away from home (our gigantic comic archive directory usually resides on my iMac.) You can get a feel for the organisation I adopted from this screenshot:

A Finder window, showing all the folders for each chapter

Needless to say, when I realised that the only efficient way to get the 500ish comic pages into InDesign was by pointing it to a folder full of files like 001.psd, 002.psd, etc and running the Image Catalog script (thanks Webcomics.com!), I was kind of upset at the idea of having to pull each folder out of this structure, rename each page, and so on. I wanted the computer to do that.

So I had to go to IRC, pretend I was earnestly learning how to shell script, and beg for the help that resulted in this little thing:

#! /bin/sh
n=1;
for dir in */600dpi-Photoshopped/;
do cp -- separator.psd /Volumes/My\ Book/Book\ Design/targetdir/"$((n++)).psd";
for file in "$dir"/*;
do cp -- "$file" /Volumes/My\ Book/Book\ Design/targetdir/"$((n++)).psd";
done

done

I ran the above 10+ times when making the book, as I needed all the page files uniform for InDesign even though we both kept tweaking the original files and making the old consolidated folder obsolete. I include this dull sidenote because I found that managing files, even after enlisting the help of a magical shell script, took hours and hours of my time. It’s just one of the things you don’t necessarily expect, but was critical to the whole process.

Finally, I had an InDesign document to build.

A screenshot of InDesign as I worked on the book.

You can click that one to see the full screenshot.

InDesign is complicated at first, but I guess it’s approachable if you understand traditional Adobe apps. I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to employ this complicated program to make a interior PDF file, but in the course of using it I learned how to set up page templates, manage and reconcile file links in the Links panel, and I even tried to use text styles effectively!

Either way, it’s an important program to learn how to use. I already benefitted from my newfound familiarity with it when I was preparing minicomics, and will certainly use it for all future books we make.

Of course, when you build a complicated InDesign document, you start to get antsy about how it’s gonna feel in the hand. This is where I found the suggested margins and gutter sizes really came into play. I used Lulu, a cheap print-on-demand service for quasi-proof copies.

The three proof copies, the real one, and Mia

(Thank Veronica for the above photo.) Each of these books cost like $25 to make. POD makes for a great deal and while the quality isn’t there, it helps you get a feel for how the real book will work.

That’s another thing I had to learn. The offset printer can’t actually supply anything like this, because their process is basically like turning on a machine that makes a thousand books in one run — you can’t just churn out one copy as practice. Lulu, on the other hand, are using a laser printer and automatic binding machines that can print just one copy for you to look at.

This is where you learn that for a thick book, you need at least a half inch gutter (I’d suggest more!) and that inconsistent page sizes are a pain in the ass to manage.

I guess before I thought about it, I had the idea that you could basically just hit “scale to page size” and print out your whole archive in varying proportions. Then I thought that with some minimal tweaking, Veronica could add extend the edges of each of her pages, and I could have what’s called “full bleed”, where your content extends right to the edge of the page. NO GO.

See, the way it works is like this:

A basic outline of how safe zones and page margins work

You’ve got this safe zone, where you put everything that MUST be printed, and then you have a margin around that which will probably be printed (though the printer might shift around, and cut off one edge), and then you have an area that you must fill but isn’t really printed.

So you have to assume your final trimmed pages could be printed like any of these:

"Jiggly" margins

Any of those are possible if the printer is jiggling the pages around and getting them all wonky. And you are supposed to expect that.

This presents a problem if you want to take pages that weren’t designed for print (those with dialogue and important content going right up to the edge of the image) and extend the edges to fill the (rather large) margin space, because theoretically you could have pages that look like:

Content on jiggly margins

Eek! You can see how it’d go very wrong, especially for grid comics. Plus that extension technique starts to look really weird when you’re doing it an inch or so out on each side, “just in case”.

So we settled on just doing black borders around everything but the safe zone, which I thought was a cop-out solution until I realised basically every webcomic book in existence does it. (Go check, if you have other webcomic books. Nobody thinks about print until they’re 3 years in.)

On a few pages (eg. 410 and 549) I had Veronica fully extend the drawing to the edge for dramatic effect. Anything that felt illustration-ey got that treatment, but for the bulk of pages we just kept the pages contained in a black border. This minimised printing risk and reduced the effort required. I think for the grid comics this also made for a more aesthetically pleasing style.

But this section has a sad footnote: my experience with all the books we received was that despite all the warnings, the printer doesn’t actually jiggle around like they say it does, and you can basically trust the safe zone to actually go right up to the edges of the “probably printed” area on every page. I figure the printers are covering their asses and only guarantee a small safety zone when selling their product, but I would be more adventurous with the next volume. I’m not sure if I want to saddle Veronica (or someone else!) with the effort of extending the edges of all 200-some of her pages to cover the bleed area, though. Perhaps we will outsource.

I kind of glossed over paper size, by the way. Paper size is just as painful to work out.

You have to consider margins, safe zones and gutters when determining the paper size (or “trim size”, so say the professionals). With offset printers, you can actually pick any trim size you want, so I spent a few hours with a piece of paper and spent a few hours making this paper size table, linked to in the previous post.

From that, I was able to determine that we were lucky enough to be able to design the book around an A-series ratio of 1.42:1, which would be very helpful if we wanted our next volumes to be consistent (for New Beginnings and afterwards, all the pages are drawn on A4 paper.) It was quite important that the paper ratio of the majority of the comic pages put in the book be wider than the one I chose for the paper they were going on, because added space on the sides of a page are far less obvious than added space on the top of a page. (You can hide it in the gutter.) My only regret here was for a bunch of pages in Return, where Veronica used these dreadful wide pages that have plagued me ever since she made the chapter.

And yes, I’m aware that the book’s trim size of 9.25 x 6.75 is a 1.48:1 ratio, not a 1.42:1 one like A4. But you forget! Add a gutter on the inside edge. Add your margins. Add a half inch for the page number. Tada! Your safe zone minus page number in a 9.25 x 6.75 book is 1.42:1.

(Do you see how this could take an arts/law student more than a few hours to figure out.)

At some point I returned to automation, when it came to the task of aligning each comic in the centre of each page’s safe zone. InDesign’s inbuilt align tools are pretty miserable. So, I took to Freelancer.com, put up a request for someone who knew how to script the program, and a wonderful person wrote an AppleScript program for me that allowed me to align each image on each page to the top centre of each page’s safe zone. Cost me $100. Run the script, apply a black background, and done!

Of course, there was a lot more tweaking after that. It was a pain converting colour images (some of the incentive comics were colour) to black and white without wrecking them, but I was pretty pleased how the conversion did turn out. But at a certain point, the interior was done. I used my printer’s suggested PDF settings, and hit export. (I did this three times, actually.. I had some yellow (Y ink, as in CMYK) in my grey colours that took me a while to identify and replace with a K-only shade. Whoops!)

Oh, and remember how I mentioned “the endleaves”? There’s this whole process where there are four pages of endleaves on either side of a hardcover book, where page one is glued face down to the hardcover, page two is typically a pattern (I told the printer to print the cat faces pattern in blue, for a 20c-per-book charge!) and pages 3 and 4 are kind of like the first page of the book. So I had to shift some of the interior onto those pages.

Finally, we had the cover, which is the most simple thing to work out. Sure, you have margins and bleeds, but it’s just one wrap-around thing. The printer tells you how thick it’ll be, so I designed this:

The cover of the book

The illustration on the cover came about after a lot of deliberation. In the end, I think it’s pretty attractive, though perhaps not as marketable as it could be. But this book is largely for fans, so I don’t feel too bad about it. The barcode is a real ISBN with price information, and it took me some time to confirm that the blue on yellow combination doesn’t confuse barcode scanners. The rest of it was just cribbed from other comic books.. the genre and pricing format adapted from Scott Pilgrim, the synopsis loosely based on a number of comics and novels on our shelves.

And, like that, we were done! The content was produced, arranged, and sent off to the printer. (I skipped the part where Veronica had to draw 25 pages of new comics and 80 chapter title illustrations, by the way. That was a whole lot of work which added a lot to the book and took weeks.)

There were a few other considerations before printing, of course. Specifically, the configuration of the book. From the start, we wanted to make sure the paper we used looked professional. I asked for paper like the type you see in manga books, yellowed and rough, and we ended up with “Abibow #80”, which fit the bill perfectly. Our printer fedexed us a copy of another comic that had the same type of paper, which helped in our decision.

The final book, open.

You can get a feel for the final paper we used in the photo above, if you don’t have a copy of the book.

Picking between hardcover and paperback was a bit more of a last-minute thing. I assumed that the pricing would be like it is on Lulu: if your paperback is $5, it’s $15 with a hardcover. But nope! We were looking at a $2 premium. So we went with it. It made the book more durable, increased its perceived value, and generally allowed it to stand out a bit. It’s not just a thick book, it’s a solidly built one.

In the end, I was quite satisfied with how the book ended up. I do have some regrets, but they’re few. If you truly must know, the flaws I identified in the final work were:

  • David appears way too dark in “Tread Carefully”. What looked good on the screen didn’t look good on paper.
  • The lined paper was a bit more visible than I wanted. I should have had Veronica erase it all.
  • There are two unnecessary black pages at the end, left over because the printer messed up. Remember how I had to move some of the interior to the endleaves? They forgot to reduce the interior page count once those pages were moved, so I ended up with two black pages.
  • The bundles of pages were bound in a way that left the last two pages of the book loosely bound to the spine, and liable to fall out if put under stress.

That’s about it, though, and it’s not too bad! I was really nervous about making a spelling error, or totally misaligning something, or (heaven forbid!) duplicating or moving a page by accident. Yet after double and triple and quadruple checking, all of the errors in the final product were the kind that are almost impossible to predict.

Once it was done, we ended up paying for 1600 copies of the book. It worked out that the quotes were along the lines of $7,000 for 500, $8,000 for 1000, and $8,500 for 1500 books. (And they had 100 overrun, which they make you pay for.) So we have an absurd amount of books in stock, but for not much more than it would have cost for 500 copies. 

So that’s what I have to say about the technical work behind preparing the BCB book for print. In the next post I will discuss what I learnt about distributing hundreds of books around the world. It can get kinda complicated when the books are printed in Canada, your main customer base is the US, and you personally live in Australia.

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