Monday of shipping week

Returning to a school routine after five days of break was easier than I expected. Everyone rolled out of bed as usual and the morning proceeded as normal. My work day was far from normal. It was all focused on preparing for invoice sorting, which is hours of shuffling papers around until they are sorted by shipping method, contents, and alphabetized by last name. I’ve gotten really good at alphabetizing over the last few years. As usual, Janci and I had many moments where we pondered things like: should we sort for sketches before or after sorting for shipping method? The general shape of this process stays the same from release to release, but there are six months in between when the details fall out of our brains. There is also the fact that each release brings some new and interesting challenge for which we must adjust. This time there were four different categories of sketched options: sketched calendars, sketched TBB reprints, sketched reprint bundles, and sketched emperor bundles. Mostly the various merchandise did not add too much complexity, the only thing which kept throwing me off was mugs. I had to add in a sort where I went through the flat rate box invoices to make sure that the ordered items would indeed fit into a flat rate box.

If most of the above paragraph read like gibberish to you, then you have a good feel for the state of my brain when the invoice sorting was done. I was exhausted by all the thinking. Then I had to go back through all the piles and guesstimate the numbers of boxes we’ll need in all the various types. We’ve got 770 packages which will go into 5 types of mailing boxes and envelopes. In the end I made an educated guess on the high side. We’ll use the boxes eventually, I’m sure.

It is a good thing I had Howard pick up frozen pizza from the grocery store this morning. That was dinner. Now I need to muster the energy to make the kids turn off Phineas and Ferb to do homework. They are not going to be pleased with the switch.

I’ll Think About Christmas Later

Last year I was in charge of our church Christmas party. This was a dinner for 300 people with decorations and a program. I had a committee whose help was invaluable, but I did not spread out the work nearly as much as I should have. The party was declared a success by all those who attended. I’m glad they told me, because I was far too frazzled to be able to tell if any of it was working. This year I’ve been assigned to order and prepare 120 lbs of ham to be served as the main course. (This is 14 whole hams.) In comparison to last year, this sounds easy. Oh I’ll still be part of the set up and clean up crew. I’ll still be busy all day long on the day of the party (Dec 10). I suspect that my skills and knowledge will be thoroughly tapped to help resolve crises. An event this size always has a crisis of some kind, no matter how well the committee plans. Already we are all glad for the notes I took last year. I wish I’d taken more. I’m going to be quite tired when the party is done, but there is a chance that I’ll actually be able to experience some of the party rather than running it the entire time.

It would seem that this Christmas season will be easier than the last, but life doesn’t tend to lower the difficulty rating. If the party were all, that would be easy. However I’m also the Scout advancement chair and I’ve been informed that we will be holding a Scout court of honor three days before the Christmas party (Dec 7). It is my job to do all the reports and paperwork in advance of this event. It is also my job to organize a Board of Review for the scouts who are advancing (On Dec 4). These arrangements are not all that difficult, in theory. I’ve never done them before and experience tells me that any job I’ve never done before will present me with unforeseen complications. Naturally I’m feeling a little stressed about it because part of my brain is trying to foresee those complications and prevent them. Only to foresee the unforeseeable is a bit of a paradox. Whee.

This is not all. One day prior to the Boards of Review which are mine to arrange, we’ll be hosting a shipping party to send out the calendars (Dec 3). That day will be completely consumed by the shipping of packages. We’ll be hosting this event in our house since Dragon’s Keep is unavailable on Saturday. This will require a smaller volunteer crew, longer hours, and a complete cleaning of my house in advance of the event. The two days prior to the shipping event (Dec 1 & 2) will be consumed by printing postage and the aforementioned housecleaning. The days prior to that will be focused on helping Howard do all the necessary sketching. Monday November 28 will be the day that Janci and I sort all the invoices, figure out what sorts of boxes we need and then place the order. Before that I need to go into the store reports and make sure I have enough dice sets, Emperor Bundles, and magnet sets assembled. If not, then we’ll be using our Thanksgiving weekend to make more. I’ve run lots of shipping events. It is routine, more or less. Of course each one presents it’s very own unforeseen challenges. (See earlier note on the unforeseen.)

On top of all of that, we’re cooking pies and rolls for Thanksgiving dinner, one son needs a hair cut, three children need new pants, the leaves need to be raked, there are non-calendar orders to be shipped daily, three pallets of books need to be relocated from our garage to the storage unit, the kids are going to want to put up the Christmas tree, and I want to put up the shelving in the garage so that the food storage can be moved out of my office.

When I line it up, all of it fits. In theory. If I’m working at top efficiency. But if I seem flaky or distracted in the next three weeks, now you know why.

Warehouse Day

My teenage boy and two boys borrowed from a neighbor were my minions this morning. The four of us moved three and a half pallets of books from my garage to our storage unit. Each pallet held 56 boxes of books. Each box held 22 books. Each book weighed one pound. Doing the math, we come up with approximately 3800 pounds of books moved this morning. I rejoice that my van survived hauling all of that in only four loads. I drove slowly, particularly down the hill. All that mass made it hard to stop quickly. This is one of the final steps to finishing off a Schlock shipping.

This year I decided to take the warehousing even further. We hauled all the empty pallets and pallet tops back from the storage unit where they’ve been taking up space. We also hauled out several large bags of paper and plastic garbage. At the moment we have 6 spare pallets and 24 pallet tops. Hopefully some kind soul from the Provo freecycle community will be delighted to have them and will haul them away for me. Right now they’re “decorating” a corner of our driveway and adding an air of class to the house.

The other warehousing I have to do in the wake of a shipping day is to find places for all the extra shipping supplies to belong. I also have to rearrange my storage room to make space for another book. Then there are the last few orders which required extra help to get out the door. Those are all done now. The storage room is mostly rearranged. I just have to find the energy to carry stacks of boxes and rolls of packing paper down the stairs. I’m hoping for a burst of energy later this evening. At the moment I just want to sit for awhile.

Shipping Day: Emperor Pius Dei

At the beginning of the shipping day we scramble to explain process to an ever-growing group of volunteers. twenty people stand and wait for me and Janci to sort out what we are doing. We have to pull out our dusty memories of what worked last time and make them fit over the physical changes in the store space since the last time we shipped. We have to assess quickly and assign jobs. Everyone is kind and patient. They are glad to be there, but I feel frazzled.

In the middle of the shipping day we have five tables with 4-5 workers at each. They’re working fast and smoothly. The book boxes are beginning to empty. The stacks of packages near the back door grow. Janci and I have time to stand back for a minute and agree that everything is going well. Two of my volunteers brought their toddler sons. These little boys walk with their dads, grabbing stray papers and putting them into the trash. I would not have expected it to work, but it does and they are adorable. Another volunteer has her infant bundled to her chest and reaches around to apply labels. Everyone is working and talking and laughing. I take some pictures and tweet our progress.

Later in the shipping day, we have begun to run out of things. The lists of invoices and labels have gotten shorter. People are asking for new lists much more often. There are more questions. The orders are more complicated. I scramble to help find missing books which have the Elf sketch, resorting to having Howard draw new ones. I stare at the tall stack of Ebbirnoth sketched books and know that the stack is tall because somewhere I made a mistake. I think I just counted wrong, but I look at the packages stacked by the door and wonder if these Ebbirnoths should go in there. But we don’t have a matching scarcity of something else to balance the extra Ebbirnoths, so I must have counted wrong.

At the end of the shipping day, we run out of labels and lists. I tell the volunteers that their job is to sit and wait for the sandwiches to arrive. They must eat the sandwiches because my kids would rather eat pizza than left over sandwiches. The food arrives and so do two new volunteers. There is nothing left for them to do. I tell them this and they look a little disappointed. I point them to the sandwiches and to the table of give away items, saying they earned them by showing up. I hope that is enough to make up for their trouble in coming. Howard sits down and draws a little sketch for each volunteer. He draws in all the books that they bring to him.

After the end of shipping, most of the volunteers are gone. The few that remain help us return the tables to their correct configuration. We pull out a vacuum and clean up the array of potato chip crumbs. My van is full of left over boxes and packing paper. And books. I drive these home and leave them to sit in the hot afternoon. In the cool evening I will get my kids to help me unload. Until then, I sit and try to quiet the fretful thoughts. It all went well. People had a good time. Just over 1000 packages were assembled and shipped in four hours. Once again we broke our own record for fast shipping. I think we can call that a job well done.

Photos and Tweets from the day:
7:45 am: Today is Schlock book shipping day. It is probable that I will tweet as we go. There may be pictures.

7:50 am: Me to @howardtayler : We can start shipping now, I have alerted the medias. (Twitter, Facebook, Google+)

8:30 am: Minions finished loading my van. Babysitters have their instructions. I’m off and running.

10:00 am: The chaos has settled in some. Note to self: next shipping stagger the start times. 30 people waiting for instructions is stressy.

10:30 am: Both the complicated orders tables and the simple orders tables finished Parcel Post simultaneously. Think this means it is going well.

10:30 am: Note to self: Three tables simple orders and two tables complicated is the right balance.

10:40 am: Boxes of postage starting to empty. This is good.

11:00 am: Youngest ever Schlock shipping helper. Three weeks old today. We’ve given her a supervisory position.

11:00 am: This is crazy. We’re going to be done before noon. I credit the record turnout of awesome volunteers.

11:30 am: …and we’re done. New volunteers showed up in time to eat food and visit. Sorry we ran out of work. #sortof

12:30 pm: Mailman brought the small truck. He’s going to have to make a second trip.

1:30 pm: With the work all done, @howardtayler sits around and draws picture for folks.

Shipping and Convention Prep Status Report

We are in the last run up to Emperor Pius Dei shipping. This is the season of our lives when the kids tend to themselves because I am busy. Fortunately for me, they are old enough to do so. Balancing the shipping work with family care used to be a lot harder. Shipping season has also been made tremendously easier by hiring a shipping assistant. She’s been helping me for four shipping events now.

Today will be bundle assembly. We’ll be putting together Emperor Bundles and shrink wrapping them. This will make our lives worlds easier on the shipping day because the volunteers will be able to grab a single wrapped bundle rather than 7 individual books. Bundle assembly involves hefting around boxes of books, rearranging the contents, and then hefting the boxes again. Next week I need to round up some strapping young men, hopefully with a truck, to help me shift three pallets of books from our garage over to the storage unit. Then Howard will be able to park in the garage again.

After all that is done, and the odds-and-ends of shipping is cleared away, I’ll ship Howard off to GenCon and dig in to the serious preparations for WorldCon. We’re going to be playing tetris with two vehicles, 8 passengers, luggage, and booth supplies. Fun.

Books Arrived, Work Begins

Books arrived. We shifted 1500 lbs of them into the house. Howard and Travis signed them. Kiki and I stamped them. Then we recruited some teenage boys to shift them all back out and down to Dragon’s Keep. Howard can commence with sketching tomorrow.

Lots of lovely people emailed me to volunteer for the book shipping day. I have the volunteers I need. I am too tired to make more words right now, so I give you some pictures of today’s work.

Counting and Inventory Ordering

A few years ago I wrote up a series of posts which walked through my process for preparing the mass mailing of new Schlock books. You can find the posts by clicking my “shipping” category or just clicking this text. I still run the shipping preparations in essentially the same manner, except that I now have an assistant who comes in and helps me with most of the steps. In fact I often refer to those posts to help me keep track of how everything is supposed to proceed. I’m currently inhabiting both the sorting and inventory preparation stages. This means that most of the sketched editions are sorted, but the orders without sketches are not. The books have not yet arrived, so we can not dive into doing the actual sketching. But there is inventory preparation which does not involve books.

In my years-ago post I didn’t mention this other inventory preparation, probably because books were the only merchandise we had at the time. Since then we’ve added magnets, stickers, prints, miniatures, and Writing Excuses CDs. We don’t have t-shirts this time, but other times we have. This means I have to comb through the ordering data and make sure that we have adequate quantities of all of these items for shipping day. This year we’re good on magnets, but the painted miniatures and stickers will need to be ordered. I have to do that asap so that we can get them back in less than two weeks. Merchandise is not the only inventory we need. Shipping supplies are required. This morning I calculated exactly how many of each type of box we will need to fill all the orders. The shipping day fails if we run out of boxes. Several times we’ve had to make an emergency run for additional strapping tape. Keeping track of all of it should feel overwhelming I suppose. It used to, but this is my 8th book shipping event. I’m no longer completely terrified that I’ll get everything wrong. Instead I’m just a little stressed that I might forget something which will be annoying to fix.

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.

The process of Printing

We’ve now shepherded 6 books through the printing process and we’re halfway through a seventh. By this time it is all very familiar to us, although each project presents its own variations. I thought it might be to write out how the process works for us, both as a record, and because others might be interested in knowing how this works. The process will vary depending upon the printer, but this is how things work with Oceanic Graphic Printing.

1. The bid Like many things, printing begins with a bid. This is when we approach a printer with approximate specs for a project and they give us an approximate cost. A good printer will process bids for free. Getting a bid has become very routine for the Schlock books. We essentially say “The same as the last time, only with 96 pages.” This is because we’ve already sorted out exactly what papers and processes to use. Getting a bid on the XDM project was more complicated. We had to select paper and a binding, both of which required several rounds of emails to get answers to questions. Our printer even sent paper samples for us to evaluate.

2. Printing agreement Once we accept a bid, comes the printing agreement. This is the contract that includes all the specifics about the specs of the book and about the payment schedule. At this point our printer will create and ship a “dummy” book. This is an unprinted book with the exact same specs as our project. Having the dummy book is especially nice for us because it allows us to weigh the book and plan for shipping.

3. Shipping files Next we ship files to the production address, and a check to the accounting address. By “files” I mean an electronic copy of the full InDesign files along with all of the necessary images and data. We also have to send a print out of the entire book and cover for comparison purposes.

4. Digital proofs A week or two later we will receive digital proofs. These are pages done with the actual printer on the actual paper. This is our chance to check for color errors. With the Hold on to Your Horses printing, we had to do lots of color correction in the images because the yellows all showed up a sickly lime green on the digital proofs. For that project we had to do a second round of digital proofs (for extra money) to make sure we got it right. Digital proofs have to be sent back, so they can be used for color comparison. For the XDM project, color is not an issue, but we were a little worried about how the grayscaling and printing would look on the more textured paper. Because we have a long-term relationship with our printer, they actually let us do a quick proof test before we shipped the full files. With black-and-white on texture paper, it was actually called a wet proof rather than a digital proof. We have to approve the proofs before the process can proceed.

5. Plotter’s proofs A week or two after approval of the digital proofs, we receive a set of Plotter’s Proofs. This set of proofs is printed in low resolution on cheap paper. However, the pages are all cut and stapled into the sections that they will be bound into in the book. This is a chance to make sure that the pagination is correct. It is also the last chance to spot any errors. Once the plotter’s proofs are approved, the book goes into production.

6. Advance copies It takes 3-4 weeks for all the books to be printed. As soon as they are done, a pre-selected number of them are shipped to us via express mail. The remainder of the books will travel by ship and take an additional month to arrive. We can select any number of advance copies, but we have to pay the shipping costs, so we tend to keep the number low.

7. Books arrive Part of our printing agreement is that the printer gets the books through customs and arranges for them to be shipped directly to our door. We always make sure to clarify that we do not have a loading dock, and therefor the delivery truck will need a liftgate to lower the pallets of books down to our driveway. This is imperative because our book shipments are weighed in tons.

Once the books have all arrived then we have to ship them out to customers, but that is a whole different set of challenges. I wrote about it last year. Adventures in shipping phase 1.