Project Postmortem: The Charles Williams Library
I’ve been working for about four years on a long-term side project: publishing nice, collector’s editions of the novels of Charles Williams. This was… well really not that long of a project, as my side projects can go. But it was long! (My tweets as cuneiform tablet service is about as long, my other fake advocacy projects (Break the US into smaller nations! ) have ‘run’ for decades now.)
I’ve been a part of the Charles Williams Society for a few years. When I wanted to recommend or gift one of his novels to someone, the only options are old used editions, or new paperbacks that were really embarassing. Cheaply made, print-on-demand, ugly covers. There wasn’t any edition that you could confidently hand someone and say, ‘Here, look! This is a serious work of art that’s worth your consideration!’
So I made them. Here’s how it happened.
My general idea was: let’s print one novel, and use sales from that to fund printing the next, and so on. I don’t need to make money from this, as long as we get the costs covered. I gave the idea a 30% chance of succeeding, and this idea… more or less worked!
The Charles Williams Society graciously funded printing the first novel. That funded The Place of the Lion, one of Williams’ most accessible works. It’s a fast-paced novel where weird, gigantic ‘Platonic Ideals’ appear in the English countryside. The titular Lion represents Strength and Power. OK, so this gives you a flavor here, that these novels are not that accessible. But still: I had a book to design!
I interviewed a dozen printers, I did hundreds of page layout tests, and I’ve got a drawer full of book cloth samples. I really wanted to find a format that worked for my ideal printing, and one that I could stick to for seven novels. I’m not a book designer by trade, but I do a lot of design work with Brand New Box, and I was involved in some printing and book-making projects in China, so I had some familiarity - and a lot of opinions - about what the right solution would look like.
I also taught myself what I needed in InDesign. My familiarity with other Adobe products helped here, but YouTube really does have everything you need to know.
I also thought that I could sell this to about half of the Society members. That was wrong! It turned out that barely any of them were actual customers. I attribute this to two big things I missed:
I found out that the Society didn’t have email addresses for most members! The average age of a society member was… very high. High enough to plausibly not use email at all! The best we had were postal mailing addresses, which may not have been updated for 20-40 years. In retrospect, I probably should have sent snail mail to advertise this project, but I hated the idea of paying $0.80 USD for every letter.
Many members simply said ‘I already have nice copies of these’. They were right, but they bought them when nice copies were in print… in the 1960s! It’s been a long time since new nice copies were available.
But anyway: I got the first title done. I really liked it; it was everything I wanted in a ‘nice’ copy of Williams.
Well, everything I wanted except a couple of embarrassing typos! After this one I committed to using outside copyeditors. I tried a few that I found thru online task sites like Freelancer and Fiverr, but the last few books were done by a great grad student here at KU.
Anyway, I now had cases of books on my doorstep, and needed to move them! I made a little website, which I still really like, and sold them one by one. It mostly worked, and I spent a lot of time putting books into envelopes and going to the post office. But I knew that going in; I don’t really mind this fulfillment part.
I funneled all sales into a separate bank account for this project, and just waited until it got close to doing another run. It took a while, but it did get there.
So, with some cash on hand, I negotiated the rights for the other novels and paid a per-copy fee up front for the other six novels. The rights were totally non-exclusive, and only for the exact text of the novels with no additions or deletions. It would have been nice to argue for a new forward or something, in retrospect.
Then, the scheme more or less just worked as planned! Each book’s sales funneled into the next. I did end up ‘loaning’ the project some personal money to get across the finish line, but just because I was impatient to complete it.
Some other takeaway lessons learned:
Get a real proofreader! I should have known this from the beginning, but I was feeling bootstrappy and thought I could do it all myself. Many thanks to Lucia for her help!
Buy your book cloth in one lot! One of the subsequent printings had a slight tonal change in the gray book cloth. I hated that! But it’s a natural variation in dye lots, and with my printings being years apart, it’s totally reasonable that the cloth vendor could have that change. After that, I pre-bought all my book cloth, which the printers graciously stored for me.
Test your foil stamping! We had a bunch of problems midway through with one of the foil stampings looking pretty rough. I had picked out seven colors of foil from a single foil product line, but apparently some of those colors stamped better than others. It wasn’t the color, but the actual substrate of the foil was different, and that never would have been obvious from the sample card.
Each title runs with 1 PMS spot color and black on the interiors, including a full-bleed spot PMS endsheet, and the foil stampings on the case were planned to match those. But I had to change my color choices to adapt to this, which meant the whole palette of the project had to change.
Seven titles X cases of books = a lot of floor space! A couple of years ago I started partnering with Merchtable, who is a client of BNB, for their ecommerce and shipping/fulfillment solutions. That’s been great! Now my basement is not full of books, and they send out all the orders.
Wholesale! I should have pursued this more aggressively, in fact I still should. A few wonderful specialist shops retail the book, and they’ve sold as many together as I have directly. They’re great, and I of course am over the MOON seeing the books in stores.
SO: should I publish any more books? No way! It’s way too much work! But I love this project still, and I’m really happy with the output, and I have one more book project idea in mind that I just can’t shake! So… maybe?