Making An Art Book
By Neil Blevins
Created On: June 21st 2018

This post is about the making of "The Story Of Inc", my first book. The full "making of" story would be a book in itself, but this post will mostly focus on the details that you might find helpful if you ever decided to make your own book. While it will touch briefly on the creative side of the project, it will focus mostly on the organizational and business side of things, in the hopes that telling my story will help others who've decided to take the plunge. You might have plenty of creative ideas, but may not know all the mechanics of making the book itself. I hope that reading this will give you a window into the process.

1) Inspiration

So you're an artist, and you've decided to make your own art book. Fantastic! That's exactly what I decided to do in the middle of 2013. I had worked for close to 2.5 years on the Pixar film "The Good Dinosaur", the film had just stalled, and I watched 2.5 years of my work disappear in a flash as we started the film all over again from scratch. It was a turbulent time, a sad time, a stressful time, and I decided that I needed a new personal project, something of my own to take away the sting of my work situation.

Over the years, almost all of my personal artwork were little one off paintings, none of them particularly connected with each other. I decided it was time to do a larger work, a set of interconnected places and characters. I had loved series like
The Transformers and Goldorak (the french translation of Grendizer) as a child, and now it was time to make my own universe to tell stories in.

Making a film, even a short film, was a tremendous undertaking, so inspired by other books such as Steambot's "Exodyssey", Doug Chiang's "Robota" and Alec Gillis's "Worlds", I decided to make a scifi book that fused story with paintings.

Looking over my past paintings, I decided I would take one of them and expand it out into a larger story. The painting I ended up choosing was of a man and his robot, walking through a brutally hot coral desert. It already seemed to have a narrative buried in there: who were these two? what was their relationship? where were they headed? Pretty soon I constructed a little narrative forming.

I decided to loosely base the relationship of the two main characters off of the Manga Lone Wolf and Cub, another inspiring story. It seemed to fit the bill of the initial painting of two characters wandering the barren wasteland.

2) Reference

I then went about gathering tons of reference. I watched films (for example, the film Lawrence Of Arabia), I started collecting directories of imagery from favorite artists and real photos that could inform the story I wanted to tell.

But even more importantly, I decided to travel to a location to take reference photography, which I could use for 3d textures and for matte paintings as well as inspiration. As well as desert, I also wanted large and strange rock formations, so the closest location to California where I could get all that was Utah. A family vacation was planned, and we went off to visit 3 National Parks and 2 state parks. We took approximately 5000 photographs of ground, soil, rock, dirt, caverns, and canyons.

Since the desert in my story had been underwater at one point, there would be giant alien coral forms left behind. So I bought dozens of pieces of coral from ebay, and took tons of photos, again, for reference, and to use for textures and matte painting.

3) Setting Up The Team And Project

While doing a book all on your own may have a sort of artistic romance to it, there are many advantages to working with a team.
I started with bringing my friend Bill Zahn on board. While I do environments, robots and vehicles, I rarely do humans, and Bill was an amazing character artist I met at Blur 20 years ago, and have since worked with at Pixar. Bill had spent the last several years writing screenplays, so he seemed like the perfect person to help hash out the story as well. I told him the ideas I had, he said "That's cool, but maybe we could do this instead". He took many of the elements of my original story and changed things around, improving my original idea immensely.  Then our friend Stephan Bugaj came on board to help shape the story. After that, I decided to start adding some more friends to help with the art. My old buddy from Blur Jeremy Cook was next. The newest version of the story had a pirate spaceship, and Jeremy seemed like a perfect match for the job. Now that more people were coming on board, it was time to start getting everyone organized, and set up legal documents.

My greatest thanks go out to all of the wonderful people who helped make this book possible. A team effort made it easier and much more fun! You all rock!

4) The Story

Our goal was to make a concept art book for a film that doesn't exist. And after poking at the story, we came up with this basic description:

"Inc is a scifi story that centers around a man and his robot trying to survive on an almost waterless desert planet. Their lives change dramatically when they come across a giant alien artifact that provides plentiful water, and a society that guards the resource and is not interested in sharing with outsiders."

We decided the book would have 3 parts, Illustrated Novel, World Of, Making Of.
Now it was time to write the story. Bill, Stephan, and I started designing the narrative. While maybe some writers just sit down and write, we are more used to film production, where you get together and write a short synopsis for each scene to the story. Then we'd discuss what needs to happen: What is the heart of the story? What do the characters want? What are their motivations? What are their flaws? How would they react in their world? Then we'd revise the scenes. And we revised them again, and again, until we had the skeleton of a story. Then we divided up the writing work:
As we developed the project, we decided on a few guidelines.

5) The Artwork

I designed and built the Robot "Inc" for the project.

Bill, as a great human character artist, designed and built the human Landis.

Most of the artists used a workflow that involved 2d painting, 3d, and photomanipulation. A set of guidelines sort of evolved. If the character or set appears in lots of images, make a 3d model. If it will only appear in a few images, hand paint or photobash in 2d. Use whatever technique gets you the best looking image the quickest. It didn't matter how you got there.

Since this was a book, and the final result would be 2d images, we used simple rigging systems to help pose 3d characters. The rigs got us a long way, but they weren't perfect. We painted out interpenetrating joints, and other problems, in 2d.

Wow, the rigging job on that elbow is horrible! No problem, just paint it away on the final 2d painting.

Then I got together a list of all the major elements we needed to design and then paint for the story. This is the list I came up with:
As mentioned in part 3, the work was divided up among various artists. For the most part, we tried to give an entire category in the list above to a single artist. In the end, I created 309 images for the project. The total amount of artwork created by all the artists including my work was 526 images. And 225 images ended up in the final book.

Art By Jeremy Vickery

Art By Jeremy Cook

Art By Mohammad Modarres

Art By Christina Davis

6) Publishers

While all this was going on, we started talking to 5 different publishers. Several didn't want to publish the project, but offered us great advice.

In the end, we decided to go with publisher X (name withheld, you'll see why in a minute). At first, everything seemed to be going great. There were issues and disagreements, but they seemed pretty small in the grand scheme of things. But as we continued to work with them over the course of 2 years, we slowly started to realize that Publisher X was not as enthusiastic about the project as we'd hoped. We figured out that publishing our book was something they kinda felt compelled to do, as opposed to being excited about it, and it showed in how they handled our project.

A publishing deal is like a marriage. Don't get married with someone who thinks you're just okay. Get married to the person who loves and understands you. That doesn't mean refuse to compromise, though. Publishers have lots of great ideas. I know you believe that all of your ideas are pure genius, but trust me, they aren't. It's good to have an objective, outside view to make your project stronger. But at a certain point, if you don't see eye to eye on the big things, it's time to move on.

This is the first place that having a lawyer really helped out. Before signing with a publisher, have your lawyer read over your contract CAREFULLY. Having a great contract was what allowed us to pull our book from our publisher when we decided that we were going in different directions. Otherwise, they could have chosen to kept the book, and possibly never released it. In our case, the publisher gave us the book back without a big battle, and we managed to come to a reasonable parting agreement, with our lawyer helping along the way.

If you do decide to go with a publisher, here's a few things to consider.

The publishing timeline:
From handing in materials to landing the book on a bookstore shelf can be anywhere between 6 months to 2 years. So don't expect the process to go quickly. It won't.

And of course, if you decide to self publish, you will have to do all of these things yourself.

We also learned a lot about publishing deals. A standard publishing contract gives you 7% of book's sale price, or 15% of net. So if your book sells for $20 at the bookstore, expect to make about $1.40. $10 goes to whomever is selling the book (the book store, Amazon, etc), and the remaining 43% goes to the publisher for doing all of the things in the list above.

7) Layout

Layout is the process of taking all the text and artwork and placing it on the page. It's not nearly as simple as it may sound. We knew the process wasn't simple, but after we went through it, we became even more respectful of how difficult this job is. What format should be book be? Portrait or landscape? We went with landscape because this was an art book for a movie that didn't exist, we wanted it to feel cinematic, which meant a landscape format like a widescreen film. And how large should the book be? We decided to do a book approximately the same size as the Pixar "Art of" books.

As we worked on the paintings and text, I made a rough layout to get an idea what parts of the story need more illustrations, and what size illustrations we needed. I did my rough layout in Photoshop, which is almost certainly not the right software to use, but I'm familiar with it, and this was a rough layout, so it didn't need all the bells and whistles of professional page layout software.

The final professional layout is almost always done in Adobe InDesign. Most printing places want it that way, and ours was no exception.

A professional layout, if the publisher doesn't do it in house, will cost between $3000-5000. Anything lower, you're not getting a good job. So if someone says "I can do it for $1000", walk away.  Don't be stingy on the layout. The layout is just as important if not more important than the artwork itself.

Once we had a first draft of the professional layout, I went to Kinkos to photocopy the book at the correct size. It doesn't matter if the quality sucks. This is to verify that this is in fact the right size of book, and that the page layout feels good.

Also, take a look at the 2nd or 3rd page of most books, which contains all the book info such as ISBN number, Edition, Library Of Congress Number, etc. Use that as reference for your own page of credits and book information.

8) Kickstarting

After we left our publisher, we decided we'd print and distribute the book ourselves (we also did a major revision to the layout of the book, paying for a professional layout artist to do the fixes, thanks Paul!). We needed money to do it, so we decided to put the book on Kickstarter. Doing a successful Kickstarting campaign is a whole topic unto itself. If you're interested in the subject, there's tons of websites to offer advice. I'll give you a few tips that we learned from our Kickstarter.

We actually ended up doing 2 Kickstarters. The first lasted 3 days, and then we received a cease and desist letter from a well known company that claimed the robot in the book looked too similar to theirs. This is where a lawyer saved our butts a second time. We discussed the case, and the lawyer told us that we'd certainly win in court. However, going to court would likely cost between $15,000-$20,000. We really didn't want to spend that kind of money, so we went back and redesigned the robot, and re-inserted him into the paintings. While I'll always have fond memories of the original design, many people like the new design better, and over time the new design has become the character, even more so than the original (at least to me). Then we did a new, second, Kickstarter, which was a huge success! We made $11,640 of out $10,000 goal!

For ideas on how to perhaps set up your own book kickstarter, feel free to check ours out:

9) Registering

Once you have your book, and its getting close to final layout, it's time to registered your book. These rules may differ in other countries, but here's the two things you need to do in the USA.

10) Printing

Rule #1 of printing: the more books you print, the lower the cost of printing each book. This can be huge. For example, printing 1000 books can be $8 a book. 1500 books? $6.60 a book. 3000 books? $5 a book. So decide on how many books you want to print, and keep the number as big as possible so each book is as inexpensive as possible. We went with a print run of 1000 books. 3000 books is a pretty common print run for a book published by a publisher.

Next, you need to decide where to print your book. While it's nice to print everything locally, the price difference between that and printing in China can be substantial. The advantage of local printing is that it costs a lot less to ship the books to you. The downside is that our research showed that to print the book locally would be $15 a book, and it could be as low as $3-5 per book if printed in China. So we ended up printing the books in China and shipping them to the USA. There are plenty of websites out there that can give you an estimate on how much it would be to print and ship your book from China, just give them the number of books you want, number of pages, etc, and they'll give you a full quote. This number is helpful when deciding how much money you need from your kickstarter, and how much to sell the book for.

Next, it's time to choose your printer. We went with On The Mark printing after a friend recommended them. They were great, they really care about quality, they had amazing communication, and they put up with all of our annoying questions.

The printer will need the book layout from your layout artist, also the cover for the book, which they will likely give you a template for. Then they will print a proof.

There are a number of ways to print a book. The main two are Offset Printing (giant printing presses), and Digital Printing (not too different from using a standard office printer). The Digital Printing books will be cheaper, but for art, the colors aren't nearly as nice. For our first proof, we did a proof with the Digital Printer (even though the final book would be printed with Offset Printing), and the results looked really desaturated. So we paid a little extra and did a proof using a process much closer to the final Offset Printing process, and that proof turned out great. And it was almost identical to the final printed book. So I'd recommend going Offset Printing, and also, even though it's a few hundred dollars more, go with the Offset Printing proof.

Our printer suggested doing two edition of the book, the regular, and the special edition. The regular has a normal book with dust jacket, the special edition was in black cloth with a shiny gold emblem. We printed 750 regular, 250 special, and sold both as different rewards on the kickstarter.

We also decided to go with using bumper boxes, per our printer's suggestion. These are simple form fitting boxes that really protect the book from damage. It added to the cost of each book, but can really be a life saver, with fewer returns due to damaged books. Also, remember to put a sticker on the outside of the bumper box with your ISBN number, so when they are distributed, they don't need to be opened to confirm it's the correct book.

The Special Edition of the book, in a bumper box:

Finally, once you're sure everything is perfect, flick the switch and the books will be printed and shipped to you in the US.

A tiny warning, since we were bitten by this. Make sure you're not printing your book anytime around Chinese New Year (Jan-Feb). The whole country shuts down for a month and your book won't get printed or shipped until after Chinese New Year is over.

11) Distribution

Now that you have your book, it needs to get distributed. We already had pre sales through Kickstarter, so step 1 was to send the books to the Kickstarter customers who paid for to them. Then we'd do an online store to sell copies of the book (we used Gumroad for our online store), and went to brick and mortar book stores to get the book sold as well. We're also hoping to sell some at future comic conventions.

Rather than ship the books ourselves, we decided to go with Fulfillment by Amazon. All the books are kept in an Amazon warehouse, and when we make a sale, we give Amazon the address to ship to and they do, charging us once a week for the shipping cost for all the books shipped that week. This has a number of advantages.
One of the downsides is it's very complex to set up. Amazon is very picky about how you list and ship the books to their warehouse. But once you've set it up, it takes all of 60 seconds to ship a book, so every time you get a new sale on your online store, just go over to your Amazon sellers account and give them the name and address. We followed this tutorial to set up our Amazon account:

12) Publicity

Now it's time to publicize the book. The Kickstarter was a great first step at publicity, but to keep the book selling...
This is one area that a good publisher can help, if they believe in your book, they can do a lot of marketing, and reach a lot of people that you are unlikely to reach on your own.

Conclusion: The Hard Monetary Reality Of Selling Books

So before we end this little article, here's a little harsh reality for you of how much money you are likely to make.

The average book only sells 3000 copies in its lifetime. If you sell the book for say $28, 3000 books x $28 (160 page book) = $84,000

50% of the sale price of the book goes to the bookstore or online retailer like Amazon. 42.5% goes to the publisher for their editing, layout, printing, marketing, distribution. And you get 7.5% of the cover price (15% net).

So in this example, the Publisher gets $35,700, printing costs approximately $3 a book for $9000, and the publisher gets $26,700.

The artist gets $6,300.

I did the majority of production on our book from Oct 2013 to Sep 2015 = 23 months = 100 weeks x 14 work hours a week = 1400 hours of work. If you add the time spent by the other artists and writers, it's probably double that, or 2800 hours of work to make the book. That's 2800 person hours of work, divided by 52 weeks x 40 hours a week, which means the book took 1.34 person years to produce.

That comes out to making $2.25 an hour. Minimum wage in california is $10 an hour, which = $20,800 a year.

So if I worked on projects like Inc full time, I would make $4700 a year.

What I'm trying to tell you is, while most of us have the dream to work exclusively on our own artistic vision and get paid a living salary for it, that dream is very unlikely. So the next best dream is to find a company or set of freelance projects that you enjoy and can believe in, make enough money off that to live comfortably, and find some time to make your own books on the side. Or else move to a location in the country where your rent is ridiculously low. :)

But don't fear! There are upsides to making a book, even if money isn't one of them. Some of those upsides include:
And finally, a few things we'd do differently next time:
Anyways, while a ton of work, we liked the project enough that we're going to make future books. Hopefully this discussion inspires you to make your own book, and doesn't scare you away from doing it :) Perhaps some of this information will give you a head start in your own project, so you don't have to learn everything through trial and error.

And finally, please consider buying "The Story Of Inc", so we can make more books in the future, and maybe even afford to buy your book you're going to make in the future!

Go here to purchase our book:

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