27 February 2008

Overnight Prints: Special Offer on Business Cards

From now until 18 March 2008, OvernightPrints.com has a special offer for 100 FREE business cards. These are high quality, full-color offset business cards printed on 15pt premium cardstock AND they don't add anything to your card. No advertising their services, no URL, no nothing, just pay shipping and you get the free cards.

The offer code is 100FREE. Just place the code in the cart at checkout to receive the free business cards.

24 February 2008

Why the Big Post Dump?

You may have notice that there are lots of new posts that are in fact old posts. The reason for that is I generally write 3-4 posts on the weekend and then set them for a future date without posting them. Unfortunately, Blogger doesn't have a time system where you can post in the future, so I have to remember to come back and make the post active and I simply forgot.

As a result there are about 5-6 new posts from the last 2 weeks and a couple more still in cold storage. I'm working on a system to remedy this problem, but until then catch up on reading.

23 February 2008

Back-ups the L Jamal Way

Regular back-ups are probably the one thing that most computer users just don't do. For a comic book creator of any type, back-ups should be one of the most important things that you do and they should happen as often as possible.

I do back-ups on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
Daily - I back-up all my important drives. This includes mainly my work files and email.
Weekly - I archive the files that I completed during that week and back them up to CD and upload them to my storage web site.
Monthly - I back-up everything.

I don't have some fancy back-up program or anything like that. What I have is computer that I bought off of eBay for $100. I then bought a really large hard drive (at least 350 GB) and installed it into the computer. This computer serves as my file server.

I'm a Windows user, so I then wrote a simple DOS batch file that copies the mission critical drives to my file server on a daily basis. On a monthly basis, that same machine simply copies all the hard drives from my other 3 computers to my 4th computer. That's it. Done.

In addition to my file server I also utilize my web space. Web space has become extremely cheap and if you're like most people, you don't use more than 10-15% of the space that your web host allocates to you. I've signed up for what my web host (www.hostexellence.com) calls the Unlimited Business Account. For about $200/year, I get unlimited web space and I have decided to use some of that space as storage. So as I finish projects, I RAR then into a single file and I upload them to a special storage account on my hosted machine. This includes my self-published work as well as other work. I store my self published work permanently. All other work get deleted once it's 2-3 months old. This is what I call my off-site storage.

My off site storage takes up about 2.5 GB.
Most of this takes place late at night or other times when I'm not actively using my machine and if you're really clever, you can schedule all this to occur without you needing to be present AND have it email you when it's completed. I don't go to those extreme ends, but I've lost enough email and have had to redo enough work to know that you just can't ever back-up enough.

18 February 2008

Comic Book and Shipping Supplies

As I've said before every self-publisher will end up shipping products. If you're going to ship product then you're going to need comic book and shipping supplies. If you need them, then you're going to need a source to buy them. Ideally, you want to find wholesale sources for these items, but you may not being buying at a high enough level to qualify for wholesale purchases.

Here's my list of places to look.

Comic Bags and Boards
For comic book supplies like bags and boards, I always go to my local comic book shop first. Comic book stores don't usually make a huge amount of profit on the sell of these items, but most always have some in stock. If you're buying more than 1 or 2 sets of bags and boards at a time, then talk to the store manager/ owner to see if they will give you a better discount. Explain to then that you use them to ship the comics you produce and not only will you likely get a discount on the supplies, but you may also get a new direct customer. Even without a discount, your local comic book store is the ideal place because these items are heavy and you save in shipping costs.

Other sources for bags and boards include eGerber.com, BagsUnlimited.com and any online comic book store. If you are doing a standard sized comic book, I suggest purchasing Silver Age bags and boards.

Other Bags and Boards
All my original art and print sales leave my presence in bags and board.

The board isn't really a board, but just a slighly thicker sheet of paper. A online search will net you a good source at a good price.

My bags are slightly larger than 11" x 17" and have an adhesive strip to seal the bag. My source is clearbags.com.

My envelopes are 9" x 12" manila (or white) catalog envelopes. You can find these almost anywhere. I suggest buying in quantity of at least 100 or 250. Sets of 20-25 take up much less space, but cost about 2-3 times more than the larger quantities. My current set came from OfficeDepot.com.

For larger envelopes, generally a online search and a little research will net you the best prices. The only large size I use is about 12" x 18". Again, buy these in the largest quantity that is useful to you. Most of my prints sell at conventions, so I only buy these in sets of 25. It's been a while since I bought any, so I don't remember my source. However, I found them by doing an online search.

USPS Supplies
USPS will ship Priority and Express Mail supplies to your door at no cost. I don't ship too much via Priority or Express Mail, so I order a one set each of the Flat Rate envelopes and boxes. Once I get down to 5 or so, I place an order to refill my supplies. In a pinch, you can race down to get supplies from your local post office.

You can never have too much tape. For shipping I have invisible tape, clear packing tape, brown packing tape. I even have duct tape and multiple types and dispensers for each and they all get used. If you absolutely can only get one type of tape then get tje clear packing tape as it is the most versatile.

Cardboard Flats/ Pads
I ship almost everything with 1-2 cardboard flats. I fine them essential to protecting the products during shipping. It's much cheaper to ship well once than to replace a damaged shipment. Even if only 1 package out of 100 gets damaged that's easily $15-20 in product and shipping costs. I get 100 flats from Uline for $20 plus shipping.

The extra 25-50¢ per package is worth the extra peace of mind and besides, you pass those cost to the recipient by...

Recouping Packaging Cost
Now that you've purchased all these supplies it's time to recoup that investment. With some products (like prints) the cost is built into the price. All my items ship bagged and boarded, so it's easier (and simpler) to just absorb the cost into the price of the item. I know that 25-30¢ of every sale is the cost of the bag and board. This is ok to me because if I'm shipping an item bagged and boarded that means I'm making the full retail price which is about 100% more than than I make via a distributor.

Of course, there are then the costs of the envelopes, flats, tape (yes the tape). The cost of these items get passed on as the handing fee. I calculate it buy finding the unit cost (including shipping) for each portion of the packaging.
Envelopes: 250 for $25 (including shipping) = 10¢
Cardboard flat: = 100 for $25 (including shipping) = 25¢
Tape (I assume each roll is good for 100 packages and I use 2 different rolls): 100 for $5 = 5¢
That's a total of 40¢ for costs. I then tack a fee for my time to get total a total of $2.

Remember the handling fee is in addition to your shipping cost. I use the handling fee so I always charge the exact shipping costs. Occasionally, the shipping fee that my online store charges is more than the actual shipping costs. When that happens, I either issue a refund or a store discount for the difference. This is just good customer service as it let's the customer know that you care more about being fair to them than making that extra buck and ultimately they return to you again and again.

11 February 2008

Do's and Don'ts of Naming Your Comic and Choosing a URL

Two of the most important things you will do as a publisher are naming your comic and finding a URL for your comic. Here a quick list of dos and don'ts for both.

Dos and Don'ts of Comics Naming
- Do research to discover if anyone else has used a similar title recently. You don't want a title called Wormwood when there's a title called Chronicles of Wormwood. It creates brand confusion and makes is hard for your readers and retailers to find (and order) your book. There are a few online comic book databases that can be helpful. I suggest the Grand Comic-book Database (GCD) or ComicBookDB.com. When in doubt, you can always Google the keywords in your title with comics or comic book to see what out there.

- Do choose a title that evokes the subject matter of the series. Don't call your romance title The Forbidden Zone.

- Don't choose a title that suggests a frequency like Warmageddon Quarterly, Action Comics Weekly, or Omnibus Bi-Monthly. As a self-publisher things will go wrong and things will get delayed and the last thing you want to do is have the title of your book remind your audience that the book is late.

- Don't choose a title that is too long (or too short) as it will create problems when trying to develop a logo. It's much easier to create a logo for Warmageddon than it is for Warmageddon Illustrated or Warmageddon Quarterly.

Dos and Don'ts of Choosing Domains and URLs
- Do choose a domain that is related to your comic. If your comic is called Warmageddon, then www.warmageddon.com is a better domain choice than www.gladiatorbattle.com. Having a title and matching domain helps establish your brand.

- Do use a generic name over a totally unrelated name. For Warmageddon, it would be better to use gladiatorbattle.com than webandprintcomix.com. gladiatorbattle.com gives you a better idea of the content of the site than the latter and you want to convey as much information about your project with as few words as possible.

- Don't choose a really long domain name. www.thisisthegreatestcomicbookintheworld.com is too long and when it appears in print material no one will type it.

- Don't use slashes. When typing most will not go beyond the first slash. If you have www.ljamal.com/warmageddon then most will type in www.ljamal.com.

- Do use subdomains to redirect to slash URLs. If your web site is www.zudacomics.com/node/250/ then using thomas.ljamal.com is a more memorable URL that also includes branding.

- Don't use the dubs. Most web hosts automatically assume that www.ljamal.com and ljamal.com point to the same web site. If your web host does not than any good web host should be able to correct the problem with a short phone call. Dubs just make your URL longer without any added benefit.

- Do use .com. I never suggest owing a .net, .biz, or .anything but .com. If you are using any top level domain (TLD) other than .com, you ARE sending someone traffic.

- Don't use hypens (dashes) unless they are part of your logo and even then you should own the hyphenless domain. It's okay for Chik-Fil-A to own chik-fil-a.com because the dashes are part of their logo and that increases brand awareness. However, they also own chikfila.com. Don't go out and buy agent-of-chaos.com because agentofchaos.com because at some point some is going to ask you what your domain name is and then you're stuck saying agent dash of dash chaos dot com.

- Do avoid beginning the domain with the, a, or an. If you must own the a,the or an domain then also get the domain without the articles. Local gourmet market place, A Southern Season, owns asouthernseason.com and southernseason.com.

- Do use initial caps to separate domain names with multiple words. LongBox.com rather than longbox.com. DigitalWebbing.com and not digitalwebbing.com. The initial caps help the eye identify the words quicker which means the end user is more like to remember the URL.
It doesn't always help a lot (that's why we have other rules). thisisthegreatestcomicbookintheworld.com is still difficult to read as ThisIsTheGreatestComicBookInTheWorld.com.

Shipping and Packaging: the Basics

As a self-publisher, even with a distributor, you will be involved in shipping most of your product all around the country and the world. Here are some keys to making your shipping life easier.

Use USPS and PayPal.com Shipping Center
I use PayPal for all my shipping needs. I ship almost exclusively via the United States Postal Service (USPS). The USPS only allows packages up to 70 pounds, so if you ship heavier packages, you will need to split them. Most of my packages are less than 10 pounds, so I bought an 11 pound scale from OfficeDepot ($30). This saves me from going to the post office unless I'm dropping off stuff or shipping internationally.

I use PayPal.com because I already had a PayPal account and PayPal allows you to ship via all the USPS methods (including Media Mail) AND it make it easy to search for shipments AND it stores the Delivery Confirmation Number AND allows you to purchase insurance. PayPal is your own shipping center and unlike Stamps.com or Pitney-Bowes, PayPal doesn't charge you a monthly fee for using the service.

NOTE: USPS does not have point-to-point tracking. They can tell that the package was delivered, but not allow you to dependably locate the package. If you need point-to-point tracking, then I recommend UPS or Fed-Ex.

Non-USPS Shipping
If you want to ship via other shippers, then I suggest signing up for an account online. This will allow you to get cheaper pricing and give you access to everything you need for shipping (including local drop off points). When using Fed-Ex, you should know that all Fed-Ex locations do not have all shipping methods (like Fed-Ex Ground) available.

If you have to have tracking from the shipping point to the delivery point (for items like original art), then I suggest UPS or Fed-Ex.

Shipping to your distributor
When shipping to your distributor
- Count and recount the quantities
- Never ship more than they ordered. They (especially Diamond) will only pay you for what you ordered. Any extra will be sold with no benefit to you.
- Package your items well to protect against normal shipping wear and tear.
- Don't use excessive packing material. I suggest crumpled newspaper and not peanuts. Most cities have free local papers. Feel free to use them and save yourself some packaging costs.
- Include a PO/ Bill with the shipment. Make sure that your distributor knows who, when and what when it comes to payment. There should be no confusion.
- Include a list of contents. Always note what's in the box and the quantity.

Shipping to others
Most other shipping you will be doing is direct to the end user. My philosophy for this type of shipping, is to ship once. This means, I attempt to protect the product as well as possible. For this type of shipping I :
- Include a packing list that includes the shipping address and the inventory of each order.
- Bag and board the products. This offers an extra layer of protection to the product and generally protects against water exposure and most shipping damage.
- Use envelopes that are the correct size for your packages. I use 9"x 12" manila catalog envelopes for comics and magazine sized products. For larger products (like prints) I use larger 12.5" x 18.5" envelopes. I also use the Priority Mail Flat Rate envelopes and boxes. I don't use boxes very often, so I don't keep boxes on hand. When I need a box, I visit Wal-mart and pick up one or ship via Priority Mail (I keep Priority Mail supplies on hand). Note that it's illegal to use an unused Priority Mail for anything other than Priority Mail shipping. I try to keep used Priority Mail boxes on hand.
- Secure the bag and boards to a stiff backer. I use 1 or 2 cardboard flats and tape the bag and board into a single unit and then secure that unit to the cardboard flat.
- Wrapping paper can be used. I use kraft wrapping paper to cover previously used box. It's extremely cheap and make for a nice looking package.
- Use peanuts to protect items in boxes. I keep a 18"x18"x18" box filled with peanuts that I get for free. My peanuts come from packages shipped to me and/or from a local company that receives weekly shipments in peanuts. If you find yourself shipping lots of boxes, ask around to local companies and secure their extra packaging peanuts.
- Keep your packaging costs low. My average packaging cost less than $1.

Shipping Original Art
As a former art collector, I am anally retentive about shipping original art. For original art, I:
- Bag and board the art. This will protect against water damage. Be sure to include a packing slip with addresses.
- Sandwiched between foam core. Foam core is light and rigid and yet flexible enough to protect most shipping damage. I get large 3 pack sheets for $10. These are large enough to be folded in half and still have about 2-3 inches of clearance all around the art. The bagged and boarded art is then taped down to the inside of the foam core. This secures the art to the middle of the package.
- I write my shipping address on the inside of the foam core (directly on the foam core).
-Tape all the edges of your foam core sandwich. The tape seals the package making it very water resistant.
- Write the address on the foam core.
- Secure the postage to the foam core.
- I ship via Priority Mail in the US with Delivery Confirmation. Generally even with packaging costs shipping to the US and Canada is less than $10-12.

Shipping Prints
Print shipping is closer to shipping books than shipping original art. I bag and board and then use a cardboard backer and an envelope. This protects the print from normal shipping wear and tear without being excessively expensive. I suggest shipping prints flat.

Shipping Internationally
There is no longer a cheap method to ship internationally. USPS which was the cheapest method (via Surface Mail) now only ships via Air Mail. Without international distribution, the cost of shipping items internationally can often exceed the costs of the item themselves. I recommend checking all shipping options and evaluating the cheapest method.

Shipping Via Priority and Express Mail
The USPS will deliver Priority/ Express Mail supplies direct to your door for free. I make sure that I have ample stock of the Flat Rate envelopes and boxes. This is a great way to reduce packaging costs for Priority/ Express Mail items. Remember that Priority and Express Mail material should only be used for the correct service.

- To avoid writing my address as a return address, I've purchased a self inking stamp. 2 self inking prints from www.iprint.com cost me $29 including shipping.
- Include your web site's URL on all material you send out. I also make a point of including a business card.

04 February 2008

Other Computer Equipment

In addition to the basics that I listed earlier, here is the second tier of my essential computer equipment.

The Stylus/ Graphics Tablet
My stylus/ graphics tablet of choice is generally whatever is the cheapest Wacom tablet available. In past this has been the Graphire and now it's the Bamboo. I have the Bamboo. In addition to being the cheapest, it's also the stylus that is the closest in size to the standard mouse pad. This is important to me because space is always an issue for me. With the Bamboo and/or the smallest Graphire I just switch out my mouse pad for the tablet and there is no loss of space.

Once you get used to it, you'll finds that the stylus and tablet is a much better pointing device than the mouse. I use my mouse for most of my everyday computing, but when it comes to making comics, I use the stylus for layouts, inks, image editing, lettering, coloring ... just about everything other than writing. Of the optional peripheral equipment, this is the one that I just can't live without.

The approximate cost of a Bamboo is about $90. I recommend that you get it locally rather than online. That way, if you don't find it as useful as I do, you can return it without much effort or loss.

The Printer
I have 2 different types of printers. One is an HP laserjet 6L. The other is an HP Deskjet D1420.

The HP Laserjet 6L is a black and white printer and is no longer being made. You can find refurbished machines on eBay for about $50 (including shipping). I've had one since 1998 (when they were close to $300). It's uses toner rather than ink. The toner cartridges costs about $60, but are good for about 2 years of normal usage. It will print anything from postcard (4" x 6") to legal size (8.5" x 14"). This is a parallel port printer and will not print anything much smaller or thicker than a postcard. If you can find one in working condition, it's a very smart purchase.

The HP Deskjet D1420 is a full color printer. It costs between $40-50 and you can find one at Wal-Mart. This is a USB printer and it uses ink cartridges which cost about $14-$18. If you wish to do just black and white priting, then you can purchase the black ink cartridge which I recommend. Just like the Laserjet, this will print sizes from post card to legal sizes. I need to buy new ink cartridges every 4-6 months.

Why 2 different printers?
I use 2 different printers because I print to both regular and glossy paper. I've found that printer that use ink are fairly inexpensive, but the inks stay a long time to dry on glossy stock (like postcards). The toner based print uses heat to fuse the toner to paper. This means that there is no drying period and this is excellent for printing custom messages on the back of postcards.

If I need printing on sizes larger than legal size, I visit my local copy shop (Kinko's). I don't very often need such printing and often when I do it's for some type of merchandise. For me, it's not work the cost and space to have printer to print these larger sizes.

The best thing about these printers, is they take very little space. They are about 18"in width. The Deskjet is about 18" x 6" x 4" when closed (18"x 8" x 6" when fully open). The Laserjet is about 18"x 12"x 9" when closed and 18"x 12" x 12" with paper. If space is a concern for you (as it is for me) then you can get stackable racks and place the Deskjet under the Laserjet.

The Scanner
My scanner is the HP Scanjet 3400C. This is a standard legal sized (8.5"x 14") scanner and cost about $99. I don't really do a lot of scanning, but it is useful for archival scans of business documents (like contracts) as well as scanning art for comic book usage. It can be use to scan and print (like a copy machine) and also has a feature to scan and attach to email. I very rarely use either of the latter uses, but it's nice to know that I can with just a touch of a button. Other than scanning comic book pages, I find myself using the scanner most often in place of a fax machine. Instead of faxing a document, I scan and email it.

Now you're saying, "If comic book pages are larger than you scanner, then how do you scan these large pages?" We'll I either:
1) Go to the local copy shop and shrink the original art down to letter size
2) Scan the page in pieces and then place them together in Photoshop.
Neither solution is ideal, but I scan original art very rarely and quality tabloid sized scanners (11" x17") cost over $1000. (although if you're lucky you can be a A3 Mustek for about $150... if you can find it and it's still in working condition).

Stylus ... scanner ... printer... those are the additional peripherals that you need.

02 February 2008

POD: ComixPress.com

Comixpress.com was the first Print on Demand printers dedicated solely to comic books. They currently offer saddle-stitching and perfect binding in color and black and white.

My first experience with them was back in 2004 and the very first job, I had them do was a simple 8-paged black and white book with a full color cover. Since POD was new to comics, these 8 pages were designed to run ComixPress through the paces. I had received the sampler that they sent out and production quality wasn't what I expected. I suspected that some of the production problems were due to pre-press and not actual printing, so I devised this sampler booklet as a test. As it turned out, I was right. The problem that I had with the sampler all turned out to be pre-press problems and the sampler looked much better than I expected AND I received 10 copies of the sampler within 2 weeks of placing the order.

This led me to use ComixPress when I needed to print Warmageddon: The Art of Sengkry Chhour. This was back in October 2004 and I needed the books ready from the Mid-Ohio Con in late November. ComixPress delivered and I was very happy with the results.

Unfortunately some time in 2005, ComixPress became victims of their own success and soon have way more orders than they could fill in a reasonable amount of time. This led to 3-6 month delays between payment, printing and delivery. These delays also extended to email responses and since email is the only means of contacting ComixPress, this meant that you could go for months without hearing a response from ComixPress. This problem was not only in printing, but also in fulfillment of orders placed via their online store. Sometime, in late 2005, I placed an order to refill my W:tAoSC supplies, the results were great when I finally received them 3 months later.

Fast forward to Oct 2006 when both Logan (the gut in charge of ComixPress) and I were both at SPX. Logan and I were back and forth between our 2 tables talking about the past and future of ComixPress. I found out about the launch of the new line of graphic novel services. Logan went into depth about what they do at ComixPress and the reason for the set-up fee. Even though, I have experienced the delays and poor response, I walked away from SPX full up hope for ComixPress and hoping to be able to promote the service.

Sadly, the same problems still plagued Logan and crew at ComixPress through the remainder of 2006 and into 2007. I last spoke with ComixPress in early 2007 in effort to find out about the performance of W:tAoSC and the process for removing books from their store. Their responses were once again delayed (2-3 weeks between responses).

Overall, I think ComixPress offers a great quality product in both color and black and white. They probably have the best quality product between the 2 major online comic PODs (ComixPress and Ka-Blam). ComixPress, however, still struggles with customer service, fulfilment, and delivery.

My advice for those that want to use ComixPress is to follow their guidelines exactly and plan 6-9 months in advance. Doing this will almost guarantee that your printing will be delayed as little as possible. If you can't do that, then you are better off exploring another option.

01 February 2008

Coloring Basics: Flatting

As I mentioned in my first post, I'm a comic book jack of all trades. However, my very first paid comic book position was that of a flatter. I've flatted for John Rauch, Val Staples, Chris Blythe and a couple others. It paid the bills for a short period, but I positively hate it.

Why do I hate it? Mainly because it's not a creative job. Flatting is a production job. As a flatter, it is your job to make the job of the colorist easier by creating a layer of easily selectable color blocks from the lineart. Your job is to make it easy to just select the hand or the face or even the iris or the eyeball. This mind-blowingly dull and tedious job is necessary to allow the colorist to quickly lay down colors and color effects and if need be quickly make changes for the editor.

A flatter changes this:

into this:

so that when put together, it looks like this:

which ultimately becomes this:

Depending on the page and the amount of detail, flatting can take anywhere from 1 - 5 hours. I consider myself to be a fairly slow flatter, so most pages are in the 2-3 hour range. When flatting, I try to get 3 pages done in 8 hours. A good flatting tutorial by Mark Sweeney can be found here.

As a self-publisher, you should not have to worry about the job of a flatter. Most colorists have a flatter (or a team of flatters) that they use for most of their work. Me? I don't use a flatter for most of my work unless I'm under an extreme deadline. As long as the deadline allows me to churn out 1-3 pages a day, I don't need a flatter. However, when I need to get 5 or more pages out a day, that's when I seek out a flatter.

If you do find yourself in need of a flatter, good flatters will cost you about $10-20/page. It should be extremely easy to find a flatter in that price range. The best place to find flatters on short notice is GutterZombie (the colorist message board). Of course, Digital Webbing is a good back-up should you not find someone at GutterZombie.

All images that appear in this post are from MegaStar: Opening Night. MegaStar is copyright Mike Exner, III. This panel was pencilled by Jake Bilbao, inked by Stacie Ponder, flatted by Eagle Gossner, and colored by L. Jamal Walton. The story appeared in Digital Webbing Presents #34. More pages from this story can be found in my online portfolio.