Cooking the Book

I’m having fun shipping out stacks of books with my one-for-me-one-for-? special, and I’m getting a lot of questions about the nuts and bolts of my self-publishing experience.  So here is a look behind the scenes of Overlooked Undertakings.  Warning: contains geeky details.

I love books.  I have always loved books.  I love the way a good book feels, and smells, and opens, and how it beckons from a coffee table.  I embrace the digital age, but I still expect someone’s bookshelf to reflect their character. So when I set out to make a book, I was very particular about it.

I pitched the idea to publishers starting in 2001, but despite a lot of enthusiasm about the work, no one was ready to make the book I wanted.  One publisher wanted to make a teeny-tiny gift book.  Another wanted soft cover.  Another thought it should be cuter, and clearly targeted at kids.  I learned the pitfalls of having a title that is hard to categorize.  Is it Art, or Humor?  Gift, or Children’s?  I had always thought of the wide appeal of my work as a strength, but it was a hurdle to securing retail shelf space.

Field testing

Field testing

I wanted something adults and kids could enjoy equally. I wanted the pages big enough that the objects in the images would be bigger than life.  I wanted full frame images, with nice borders.  I wanted good paper, good color, and a hard cover.  And I wanted it to be affordable.  A $75 museum book did not make sense.

It became clear that if I wanted to do it MY way, I was going to do it MYSELF.  After all, reinventing wheels is one of my favorite hobbies!

The digital vs. traditional press question has changed a lot in the years since I published- but with the options I had, I decided that the best way to meet all of my criteria was traditional printing in as large a quantity as I could stomach.  The bulk of expenses in traditional (4 color) printing come before the first copy is printed: designing the book, creating the separations and plates and going through the press checks.  After all that, the individual books are quite reasonable.  So the more books you print, the bigger your upfront investment, but the less the per-copy cost. This was the Spreadsheet-and-Tums phase of production.

Selecting a printer turned out to be hugely time consuming, and hugely educational.  Different presses had different equipment- some didn’t do hardcover binding, some couldn’t do landscape format, some couldn’t do the dimensions I wanted, and of course the quality and prices ranged all over.  The cheapest printing was in Asia, but that carried other costs.  I wanted to be present for the press-check, I didn’t want the possibility of shipping and customs taking months, and most importantly I wanted to support a domestic printing business if possible.  So I focused on finding a quality printer in the U.S..  It was like tracking an endangered species.  I would hear rumors of a promising company, only to find it had vanished.  Somewhere in the hunt, I got a tip about a place in Canada, and ended up finding my match with Friesens.

Cozy in Canada

Cozy in Canada

I had been drafting the selection and order of images; deciding how much text to include and other design basics, but once I had the printer, then the details had to get set.  Everything involved trade-offs. The sexy matte finish on the cover meant that the books had to be shrink wrapped to avoid scuffs. The varnish on the pages gives them more endurance, but meant that there were longer drying times, and the printing took longer.  One choice I tripped on was the final size. I maximized the size that I could get from the paper sheets, not realizing that I made the book a quarter inch too big for standard envelopes and boxes. What seemed like a fine idea at the time keeps coming back to bite me!

With help from some great designer friends, I wrestled through the fine points of choosing fonts, and font sizes, and weights, and spacing and how big a stroke to put around the images, and what EXACT color should the colored pages and the end pages be.  I started to see details in books that I had never noticed before. It was great to get into involved discussions about the relative merits of placing the titles in line with the bottom of the images, or just a little higher, but definitely NOT at the center of the page.

Up a little. .. Down a smidge...  Over a hair...

Up a little. .. Down a smidge… Over a hair…

With my nose down, and Lynda.com never far away, I managed to prepare the layout in time to be ready for the Winter discount at the printer.  They would put me up, and provide sled dogs, if I would go to Manitoba in March.

The purpose of the trip was to do the “press check”.  That means looking at a sample of each spread (collection of pages) as it comes off the press, making final color adjustments and giving approval before the whole run is printed.  Adjusting one image affects whatever is aligned with it on the sheet, so it’s another tangle of trade-offs!

The press runs 24 hours a day, so I was on-call to come to the plant whenever a new spread was ready.  A couple of times that meant pulling on my snow boots at one in the morning and working until three.

I had been cautioned that pressmen were a gruff and grumbling crowd, and I would have a hard time, as a novice publisher, getting their respect.  My experience couldn’t have been farther from that.  Because of a few scheduling and technical issues, I did not have one pressman shepherding my book through, but instead I worked with six.  They were all extraordinarily skilled, with a deep love of their craft and intimate knowledge of their equipment.  Some were chattier than others, but they all listened, answered questions, and helped me find solutions.

One of the very last choices I had to make was the ribbon color for the top of the binding.  I felt like my ability to make decisions was depleted, but I took a deep breath and remembered that my “thing” is details.  I picked a red ribbon, and I have to say, that of all of the little decisions that I made, that red ribbon makes me happy every time I see the book.  It makes me think of all of the steps, all of they eyes, all of the care, all of the help, and all of the hands that helped me realize this book the way I wanted it to be.

IMG_5039

Of course, the story didn’t end there.  Making the book was just a long first chapter.  The next chapter involved trucks and boxes and more help and more boxes.  The remaining chapters are where it gets really fun, and the story expands to bookshelves and coffee tables and school rooms and  many, many lovely people who have enjoyed and shared the fruit of this effort.

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