Getting ready to print

Our printer called us this afternoon. They were worried about us because it has been over six months since we printed books with them. The call was to see if they could win back our business. We assured them that we are completely pleased with their services and that we intend to be printing again come the end of February. I shot off a formal request for a bid via email once the call was over. And so the process of printing Resident Mad Scientist begins.

We seem to be chronically behind our intended releases for books. In theory we’re releasing 2-3 books per year. We’ve never yet managed three. Tub of Happiness was solo for it’s year because I had to learn how to do layout to put together the book that followed it. That took time. Teraport Wars shared a release year with Hold on to your Horses, but then Howard had to re-color before he could release Scrapyard. Last year we did put out two books, but one of them was XDM, not a Schlock book.

I feel like finally we have a system down that will work. Finally we have Travis doing the re-coloring so that Howard can focus on bonus materials and cover art. I have high hopes that we can finally maintain that 2-3 Schlock books per year which will allow books in print to catch up with the online archive. This is the brass ring we’ve had our eye on ever since we first printed a book. Every year I do some math and think that we could achieve it in two years if we really work hard. Then we work really hard, but the goal is still about two years away. Life kept throwing us unexpected obstacles and opportunities. Our plans shifted. Looking back, I can see that we’ve walked the right path. We’ve made the right choices. There is nothing to regret. But I still want to grab hold of that brass ring.

I opened up the InDesign file for Resident Mad Scientist which has lain idle for nearly two months. There was no need for me to spend time on it while we were waiting on Travis for the coloring. My attention was needed elsewhere. But the time has come. I need to pour creative energy into this project. I need to find the right margin art. I need to construct footnote boxes. I need to organize and copy edit. It feels good to be picking up these skills again. They are familiar now instead of stressful. I’m looking forward to getting Resident Mad Scientist done.

The year ahead

I’ve been re-reading blog entries from last year and it is making me feel stressed. I did a really good job of catching the chaos of book shipping and convention attendance in words. When I re-read, I remember how it was to scramble to put a book together, to scramble to organize and ship 3000 books. I remember these things and know that I have them ahead of me this year.

Then I stop and remind myself that this year is not last year. Last year was full of new experiments. We printed boxes for sets. We printed a black and white, text-heavy book (XDM X-Treme Dungeon Mastery.) We also did our first re-print. Last year was all about shifting and experimenting. This year will be about stabilizing. We will be busy, but we will be busy with familiar processes rather than new ones. This is good because I got mightily exhausted from hiking up learning curves.

I have a plan for this year. I have attempted to balance the family schedule and the work schedule to make they co-operate. I have scheduled the necessary child-care for the trips I will need to make. (My guilt at leaning on my relatives twice per year so I can attend conventions is a post unto itself.) Our year has spaces in it, which last year did not. But I still worry, because I know how quickly needs and deadlines can shift in crazy ways. I also anticipate, because so much of what we have ahead of us is going to be fun as well as busy.

Eligible for the Hugo: Longshorman of the Apocalypse

The Hugo award for Best Graphic Story was voted into existence for another two years. Howard and I are pleased to see the category survive because it allows Hugo voters to honor those who are putting art with their science fiction and fantasy concepts. We also hope that this will encourage all the Hugo voters to seek out the best graphic stories and enjoy them.

This year Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse is eligible for the award. As we did last year, we are providing the entire book in pdf format for those who can nominate and vote in the Hugo awards. If some downloaded copies end up on the hard drives of non-voting but sci fi loving folks, that’s okay too. We’re happy to make it easier for you to share the Schlock you love.

The file is 42 MB. Get the pdf

My travels this year

It seems strange to me, but I have an “appearance schedule.” Really it amounts to a list of stuff I’m going to get to do this year. Take a look at the list and if you’re near one of the events, feel free to stop by and say hello.

At the end of this month I am going to go visit my parents in the California Bay Area. This trip is primarily for my Grandmother’s 90th birthday, but also for mine and my daughter’s as well.

Feb 11-13 LTUE the Science Fiction symposium on BYU campus in Provo UT. This is an excellent venue for any aspiring writers as it is filled with presentations and panel discussions about the process of writing and getting published. Best of all, it is completely free. Both Howard and I will be presenting along with a host of other amazing professional creators. This one is well worth your time.

April 30 – May 2 Penguicon in Troy, Michigan. This is a geeky convention which combines science fiction, fantasy, and computer programming. I really want to come and the only reason I can’t state my attendance as certain is because I have not yet arranged with relatives to take the kids.

May 28 – 30 Conduit in Salt Lake City. I’ll be attending this event solo because Howard will be off at Balticon. It is a solid convention with an incredible pool of proffessionals who will be giving presentations. I’ll probably be on a panel or two, but I’m not sure yet when or what they will be.

June a family vacation.

August 5 – 8 GenCon Indianapolis. Howard and I intend to run a booth along with Tracy Hickman. It should be a crazy/busy time. I’ll have a pair of my kids along for the adventure. We’re all looking forward to it.

And that is probably more than enough for one year. Howard has further events in September and November, but I’ll be waving him off and staying home.

A Running Start on the New Year

I made a list of the things I want to get done this month. It was enough stuff for two months. I looked at the list and felt a deep desire to get some of it done quickly, to knock it out in the first week of the month so that the rest of the month is more relaxed. The desire is familiar. Each week I bury Monday under a list of things that I want to have out of the way for the rest of the week. I looked at my list again and realized that I’ve kind of done the same thing for the year. January is full of things that I want out of the way. I want this year to be a calmer one. I want there to be space for quiet contemplation and family trips.

This front loading of my schedule is partially driven by fear. I don’t know what is going to come along and rearrange the calendar. Last year it was the XDM project. The year before that it was a health issue. Earlier than those were financial reverses, learning new skills, and conventions which could not be missed. Our schedule has not been predictable for a long time. I combat the fear by tracking upcoming events farther out in the future. I’m endlessly grateful when other people give me lengthy advance notice about events for which we’ll need to plan. I also try to get as much done as fast as I can because it theoretically makes more space.

Only it doesn’t really. Small businesses and families both provide an endless stream of time filling tasks. It is not possible for me to get it all done. I will never be done. I run myself ragged trying to create spaces and often as not the spaces are filled up before I get there. If I want this year to be calmer and more peaceful, I have to start now. Now is part of this year too. I need to begin as I intend to continue. I need to carve out spaces of time to feel peaceful and joyful. If I can do that in each individual day, then this year will be what I want it to be.

I still have my list. I still intend to get most of it done by the end of the month. But I will not treat this month like a mad dash toward completion. It will be a quick paced run with time to look up and around at the scenery.

The Writing on the Calendar on the Wall

My calendar is three feet by four feet and it hangs on the kitchen wall. All of the months are laid out in a grid; each with its own square foot of space. This is where I write the family schedule in multi-colored inks, one color per person. I spend a lot of time standing in front of the calendar. It allows me to quickly review a week, or a month, or a year, as I’m planning ahead to see what will fit, and what will not fit, into our lives. Each day gets about a square inch of space. It is common for the entire inch to be filled with a rainbow of notations about what is to happen that day.

Today I ventured out into the snow covered wilds to fetch the calendar for next year. Upon my return, I sat down with the pens and noted all the scheduled events of which I am currently aware. It used to be that a new calendar stayed mostly empty, only filling up as each month drew near. It was like a wave of scheduled events which rolled across the blank squares. It doesn’t work that way anymore. The wave is still there, but the empty is not. I have events scheduled through November of next year. Our path for the next year is set, complete with wayposts and planned respites. All of it is waiting for the wave of little events to roll through and fill up the gaps.

From now until that mythical day when we’re not so busy, I will be working rear guard action. I must defend the white spaces on the calendar. Because those blank days are not empty days. They are days which are full of the mundane things which don’t get written on calendars. I have to leave time for us to do laundry, and read stories, and clean house, and go to the park, and sit still. There has to be time for the boring stuff, which is the important stuff that we remember best.

I will not always be able to keep spaces empty. I can already see a couple of months that are going to be insanely busy. That happens. That is why it is all the more important to defend the spaces that I can defend. Defending the spaces means not volunteering for things even though I have the skills to get them done. It means telling people no. It means setting aside some of my shiny ideas indefinitely. It means making choices about the activities in which we choose to participate. Turning down an obviously good thing so that I can keep a day empty feels backward, but I have to do it.

My new calendar is on the wall now. In two more days it will be this year’s calendar and the adventure will begin.

Managing an irregular income

Our income does not arrive in regular checks made out to the same amount. The bulk of what we make in a year will arrive in the month surrounding a book release. All the money arrives and sits in a big pile in our bank account. It is our reserve and for awhile we feel rich. But then the months pass by and the reserve dwindles. We still have bills to pay and we tighten our belts until the next book release.

One of the things I do to manage the money is keep separate accounts for the family and the business. The reserve sits in the business accounts and gets transferred to the family by means of small regular paychecks. This allows me to manage the family budget the same way I did when Howard still worked for a big corporation. At least in theory. The actuality is that when the business accounts begin to run low, we go longer between paychecks and the paychecks get smaller. Sometimes we even pull money from our home equity to cover bills for the last month or two prior to a book launch. That money gets paid back as soon as the next book launches.

We are currently at the lean end of our income cycle. Last year we launched a single Schlock book and then invested money into inventory in the form of XDM books, a reprint of Under New Management, and slipcases to make boxed sets. The inventory investment was necessary, but it diminished our reserve more quickly than usual. Since last August we’ve been about two months from having to borrow money to pay bills.

I did the accounting this morning and we are still about two months from having to borrow money to pay bills. This is largely due to additional advertising revenue. However all the scrambling we did during the Fall definitely helped. It also helps that Schlock fans were generous and bought the things we scrambled to make. Christmas sales went well.

Now Christmas sales are largely finished and advertising revenue always takes a nose dive in January. However, the end is in sight. Travis is hammering away at the coloring for the next book. Howard is hammering away at the bonus story. We should be able to send the book to the printer right about the time our reserves run out and we start to borrow. The borrowing makes us nervous, but the truth is that our home equity and our IRA accounts represent an enormous reserve in themselves. We stock them up when the money flows freely so that we can draw on them when things are tighter. If we are depleting a couple months of the year and accumulating the rest, then we’re still in good shape.

We really are very fortunate to get to do what we are doing.

Holiday Shipping, Business, and Family

Yesterday was the US postal service’s busiest shipping day of the year. We here at Chez Tayler have been doing our part to add to the load. I’ve been shipping out 5-15 packages per day for the last week or so. This is not a surprise to us. In fact we’ve kind of been counting on it this year to help us make the ends meet until we can release the next Schlock book. In another week I’ll be able to do the math and see how much gap is left. I’ll also do the math to see how Christmas spending added to the gap.

I enjoy the Holiday shipping. It has a cheerful urgency to it. I love looking at the invoices and seeing when the billing address is different from the shipping address. Then I know what I’m sending is a gift. It is a gift to us as well. Every package we send is a gift to us from the Schlock readers out there who enjoy the comic enough to spend money. I sometimes wish I could thank them all. I put a Thank You post card into each order, but it hardly seems like enough.

Things do not always go smoothly. People email me with questions. This year I’ve had multiple inquiries about merchandise for which we’ve run out of stock. That makes me sad because I know the other person is disappointed. I am much happier when the problem is one I can solve by sending out a replacement or filling a special request. I know that the time will come when we are too busy to manage special requests, but that day has not yet arrived. The more I interact with customers, the more impressed I am with Schlock readers. They are courteous, patient, and understanding of our human errors. I even had one guy who replied with startlement that I was the one to answer his email personally. This amused me because I realized he did not know how small our operation really is.

Today I had to assemble more boxed sets to fill out the orders. Six year old Patch sat with me as I slid books into boxes. He’d wanted to help slide books into sleeves, but sometimes the books require coaxing to slide into place. Instead I handed him the note cards which are included in each set. As I finished each box, he would slide card into place. Then he lined the sets up very carefully. Eight year old Gleek was the one who helped with the shrink wrapping. She likes to run the heat gun which makes the plastic fit tightly over the sets. Then we cleared all of it off the kitchen table so that dinner and homework could take place.

As I restocked the shipping table in the unfinished storage room, I pondered once again the cottage industry we are running. In some ways what we have is the re-invention of the family farm. We have busy seasons and slow seasons. My kids measure their lives by these business seasons as much as they do by the seasonal weather outside. They remember the times that Mom and Dad are distracted and pushing to send a book off to print. They like book shipping because it provides work they get paid to do. Shipping season is also celebrated for the treat foods we eat because Mom and Dad are too busy to cook. Convention season is frequently hectic and often involves over night stays with friends and relatives. In our lives, business and family are all tied up together. I like it that way even if it is chaotic at times.

I sometimes wonder how my kids will look back on our family life. Will they consider it as an ideal to live up to, or will they take from it things that they do not want to replicate? I hope they’ll do both. For now we have orders to ship.

Assembling Schlock boxed sets

Today was our day to finish assembling boxed sets in preparation for Monday’s shipping. It was also the day that the contractor arrived to deconstruct Howard’s office, but that is a tale for a different post. It did make for a chaotic day with boxes of books being shuffled around at the same time that large rolls of carpet and broken sheet rock were being hauled out. As with last time, the book assembly line began with Howard signing books.

This time all of the kids were home and they all wanted to help. They were particularly excited about helping once they realized that mom was willing to pay by the hour. I carried boxes in from the garage. Kiki helped un-box books and shuffle piles around. Gleek helped Janci slide books into boxes. Patch and Link pulled slipcases out of boxes and gathered up the garbage that Kiki and I were throwing around.

The quantity of garbage was pretty impressive before we were done.

Then Gleek, Patch, Link and I had to head out for swimming lessons. We left Howard, Kiki, and Janci working. They finished off all the book signing. We returned with lunch and the work shifted over into shrink wrapping. Both the shrink wrapping and set assembly were complicated by the fact that we were working on the sketched box sets. This means that each boxed set included a sketched Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance. We had to make sure that the outside of the box sets indicated which sketch was included inside. Post-it notes were very useful in helping us keep track. We used a wrapper to surround the boxes with plastic an seal the plastic. Then a heat gun is used to shrink the plastic to fit.

The heat gun was unquestionably the coolest part of the process. The kids all wanted a turn, except Link who was more interested in the game he was creating on the floor of his bedroom. Kiki and Gleek traded off for awhile. Then Patch took a turn. We supervised pretty carefully, but Patch still burned his finger. Kiki took over the wrapping while Howard and I helped Patch. Gleek was then queen of the heat gun and got really good and making the plastic beautiful and smooth.

Howard took a turn with the heat gun too. Here he takes aim at Schlock, who is taking aim at something else.

It was 4 pm before the work was done, a solid 7 hour day. At one point Kiki looked around and said “This really puts meaning into the term Family Business.” And it does. Having the kids working was sometimes helpful and often chaotic. I spent as much time hovering as I did working, but I think it was really good for the kids to be a part of this process. Now they can look at box sets and know that they had a part in making that shiny shrink wrapped package.

Photographs of Shipping Preparations

Every time we do a shipping, I grab a camera and snap some pictures. Then when I review the pictures later I realize that they don’t really capture everything that is going on. What we really need is someone who can take photographs rather than snap pictures. Unfortunately we’re all much to busy to do more than grab the camera for a moment. But the pictures do capture some of the experience.

These are the fiddly-bit pin cards that the kids assembled on Monday afternoon. They put together over 800 of these.

The books arrive in a lift-gate truck. You can see a pallet descending on the lift gate to the left side of this picture. You can also see that our garage is completely full of pallets of books. The pallets that are outside in this image were later moved down the road to our storage unit. They contain the inventory that will fill orders over the next year.

Here is our garage full of books from another angle. You can see that we’ve opened a couple of boxes to check the contents.

I did not get any pictures of us stamping books for sketch editions. I didn’t think of grabbing the camera until we were done with that. However I did get several pictures of signing for box set assembly. You can see the piles of empty boxes accumulating. Hidden behind the counter is a large pile of crumpled packing paper.

This is the best shot I’ve got which gives an idea of the work space. Boxes are brought in from the garage (out of the frame to the left) and unloaded onto the counter. They are then stacked for Howard to sign. The signed books are then moved to the table. On the table they are either stamped for sketching, or as shown in this photo, inserted into boxed sets. The empty boxes are thrown into all the corners of the room to be cleaned up later. Some of them are used for re-boxing books to transport them to Dragon’s Keep.

Here is the growing stack of box sets. We assembled 110 sets today. We need to do about 190 more. After this picture was taken, we set up for shrink wrapping the box sets. I don’t have any pictures of that. I was too busy.

We worked hard all morning. 950 books were signed and stamped for sketching. 550 books were signed and assembled into box sets. We’ll have to do more box set assembly and signing, but that won’t happen until Monday. Tomorrow needs to be spent on normal business stuff and convention preparation. It was satisfying to process 1500 books so quickly. Of course it is a little strange to realize that all that work did not reduce the quantity of stuff in my garage. We just rearranged it. Still, it is a good start.