Sunday, October 28, 2018

So You Want To Make a Zine: Part II

Although my zine is out, and has been well received thus far, I have had a number of serious misadventures that all could have been avoided. So I though I would share my experience with this for posterity, so that my suffering would not be in vain, and you could avoid the problems I brought on my own head.

The whole problem arose from the following immense miscalculation. I planned on doing a print run of around 200 zines (plus a few more for contributors copies, and so on). I worked out all the kinks in production to my satisfaction. Things were humming along. I had produced around 100 (half) of the zines I was going to sell. I had the product sitting there, it was all ready to go, and I was really itching to share it with people. So I decided to start selling them, figuring that I could just keep producing the remaining zines until I hit my goal of 200. Hahaha. Here are the problems that accrued:

(1) My zine sold very quickly, much faster than I thought it would. So supplies started to get low very quickly. Meanwhile, UPS lost an order of the cardstock I was using to print the cover of my book. Then the paper supplier told me they had run out of it, but found a couple of replacements. They charged me for it...and of course, then UPS finally found my package. So production was delayed and now I've got a lot of cardstock cover paper, more than I need. Not the worst problem but...

(2) In the meantime, my brand new printer broke. Like a catastrophic failure. So I ordered a new one, since it was under warrantee, and got the replacement for free. So production was delayed and I wasted a lot of paper in the process of trying to make the broken printer work. Not the worse problem but...

(3) So I set about using my brand new replacement printer for my brand new printer. It turned out to be a little finicky, to get high quality prints on the paper I'm using for the interior it's requiring me to forgo duplex printing. This make each zine take twice as long to print. That's not the worst problem but...

(4) The pages are coming out skewed, tilted to the side, using the fancy paper I've been making the interior of the zine from. When I try it with ordinary copy paper, it comes out straight. I assume somehow the replacement printer can't handle the fancy paper. I try everything to correct it for a couple of hours. And then it dawns on me. The fancy French Paper Co. ream of 1000 sheets of simple white 100t has been MISCUT, and is not in fact an 8.5x11 rectangle at all, but rather some kind of hideous parallelogram. You can see the skew of the paper sitting on the perfectly square bed of my scanner/printer below. Luckily, they are good people who immediately overnighted me replacement paper. That's not the worst problem but...

(5) All of this slow down in production with my zines was putting me under constant stress, because it was always the case that if I didn't fix the current problem quickly, I would be unable to fill existing orders. Under this stress I raced through things, trying to be as careful as I could, but working feverishly to fill orders. One person has reported to me that the pages were out of order in his zine. I also caught a zine without staples in it just today. So I'm about to send out a quality control email to each purchaser of a physical zine, to ask them to check the page order, stapling etc., and tell me if there is a problem so that I can send them a replacement immediately. The last thing I want is someone out there feeling unsatisfied. I'm trying hard to make a thing of quality, and I want it to arrive in the purchaser's hands exactly as it should be, period, end of story. So please let me know if there's a problem and I will fix it. 

My main reason for wanting to tell this story is that all of this could absolutely have been avoided. Had I merely printed my entire print run before selling, then I could have solved production problems in a leisurely fashion as they arose. I also would have been able to do a quality control test for each zine. In fact, I would recommend not only doing your entire print run before you begin selling a single zine, but also going down an explicit quality control checklist zine by zine, maybe every 5 or 10 zines you produce. Check that each is stapled, has been pressed and trimmed (if that's what you're doing), check that page order is right in each one, check that there are no print nozzle errors (white lines) on each of the major illustrations, etc. It pays to be patient, anal, and very careful. Otherwise you'll constantly be scrambling. I'll never do that again, and you shouldn't either.

Monday, October 15, 2018

At Long Last, Through Ultan's Door Issue 1!

At long last, I present to the waking world issue 1 of my new zine. Go through Ultan's door in this inaugural issue into the Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater, a 30 room dungeon replete with oneiric puddings, delicate shadow puppets, giggling white swine, and much more. This zine contains everything you need to launch a D&D campaign in the Zyan, flying city of the dreamlands. The issue is printed on deluxe paper, and comes with a detachable cover that has a map printed on the interior by Gus L., and a separate card for encounters. Brought to life with stunning art of Huargo and brilliant layout of Matt Hildebrand, it is an object that may itself have come from beyond the veil of sleep.

This is the first of good things. I'm already at work on issue 2. I'll let you know about that soon. In the meantime, you can purchase both print versions and PDFs here.

Friday, October 5, 2018

So You Want to Make a Zine: Paper Selection and Physical Assembly

So I've been working away on my first zine, Through Ultan's Door, and the first issue is ready for physical assembly. Along the way, I got a lot of good advice from other people about techniques and gear. I then fiddled around with their suggestions, learned about different kinds (weights) of paper, found out about the maddening limitations of various printers, and thought about weird stuff like how you actually staple on the incredibly narrow spine of a folded piece of paper. I thought I'd share the fruits of my experience with you, because you might want to try your hand at the zine game. This is the post I wish I could have read when I was embarking on this. 

Selecting Paper

Suppose that writing, art, and layout are done. You have a PDF ready to print. The first thing you need to think about is what kind of paper you want to use to print the zine. This is obviously true if you're printing at home. But if you're printing at a print shop, you'll still need to select paper from their stock or provide your own. 

Broadly speaking, paper is divided between "paper" and cardstock. Cardstock is the thicker stuff, literally the stock for business cards and wedding invitations. There are three different weighting systems that people use to classify the thickness and sturdiness of paper. The most commonly used in the US is a system that simply puts paper and cardstock on a single spectrum by weight: 20 lbs is normal printing and copier paper, 28 or 32 lbs is what you might print a nice resume or brochure on, and 60 lbs + is cardstock. Another weighting system, used for example by French Paper Co, employs a separate scale for paper and for cardstock. On this system paper is called "text", so there'll be a weight and then the letter "t", and cardstock is called "cover" ("c"). So, for example, on this system 80t might be much less thick than 60c. Confusing, I know, but the link above converts the various measures for you.

This really matters because the weight of paper you use has all kinds of consequences, including aesthetics, price, the viability of trimming your zine, and what your printer is able to handle. The most important thing to say is that you really need to test out different paper weights and types on the printers you intend to use. Luckily, you can usually order single sheet samples of paper pretty cheaply from paper sellers (like $1 a piece). As Nick Kuntz taught me, if you want really fancy paper, the French Paper Co. will send you samples of every single paper style at every single weight they sell for $30 plus shipping. 

You'll get a huge box like this if you do.

People usually use a sturdier cardstock for the zine cover, and lighter paper for the zine interior. If this is your first attempt and you have a limited budget, my advice would definitely be to go with a 20 lb interior and 60 lb cover, both of which you can purchase on Amazon with free delivery if you have prime. 20 lb is normal paper for the interior, and a 60 lb cover is just enough of a difference to give it the feel of a cover. These are the normal, baseline weights for most zines I see.

The first issue of my zine consists largely of the dungeon that lies on the other side of Ultan's door. I really wanted the zine to be usable at the table. So I decided to produce a zine with a detachable cover with a map on the reverse, like old school modules, that could even stand up like a tiny DM's screen. I also decided to include a separate card with the encounter table reproduced on it, so that you could have the map, random encounters, and key all open at the table, running the whole thing straight from the zine.

For this reason, I went with a French Paper Co. 100c cover, which it turns out my inkjet printer can handle printing. (EDIT from future Ben: hahahahaha NO, this broke my printer eventually). It has a very sturdy feel and stands up nicely when opened at the table. In the end, for the interior I went with French Paper Co. 80t "smart white" paper, which is roughly 32 lb interior on nice looking paper because I could. This zine's been three years in the making, and so I want it to be nice. I'd say 32 lb is about the most deluxe you might want to go on the interior paper if you want it to look anything a zine, and still be able to trim it. 

Physical Assembly

If you print at a print shop or at Mixam you can have them assemble your zine for you. But suppose you print it at home, or you get it printed at the print shop, but do the assembly yourself at home. (EDIT from future Ben: I started out with issue 1 printing at home, then switched half way through to printing in a print shop for the remainder of issue 1 and on to issue 2. But for both issues I assembled everything by hand at home.) In that case, once you have your zine printed, you will need to fold it. I find that it's hard to get a really neat fold if you try to fold all the sheets at once, there's a lot of rounding and stress marks on the paper, and it's hard to keep the fold perfectly straight. However, an amazing device called a Score Pad recommended to me by Keith J. Davies solved that problem for me. It comes with a handy little bone folder to score the paper.

You lay the paper or cardstock on the score pad, which has a ruler along the top with tiny little grooves running along each 1/8" marking. You can then run the bone folder lightly along the groove you selected (5 1/2" in my case) to make a light score that doesn't damage the paper. You then can fold it over using the guard rail to the right to make a perfect, neat fold.

If you score it heavily enough, it'll fold immediately over into a perfect fold. But that might damage the paper and cardstock, so I use a second tool to flatten the page. Jarret Crader recommended this next amazing device to me, a Cosmos 4-inch Rubber Brayer Roller. It's a little roller that does the job very quickly and neatly by running it along the front of the spine of the paper like so.

I do this process for the cover and every page of the zine, stacking up the finished pages until I have a complete booklet. Next comes stapling. I tried two techniques. Many folks recommended the Bostitch booklet stapler to me.

But I found it really hard to use so as to get a perfect staple right on the crease of the spine. This matters, because if it's not on the spine, then the pages of the zine don't turn properly towards either the front or the back. The technique I hit upon instead uses the more traditional longarm stapler. I'm using the Swingline model. It comes with a ruler and a guide. I calibrate the ruler precisely to the right distance and then line the zine up with the Score Pad as a rail to keep it straight. After stapling the top, I just rotate the zine and do the bottom. Although it's not 100% fool proof, I've found it works pretty well to deliver almost perfect staples even for someone clumsy like me.

The next step, which Jacob Hurst recommended to me, is to press the zines down under a weight in order to get the whole thing compressed into a really neat looking zine. His recommendation was putting fives zines, alternating front and back, between two pieces of cardboard, and then putting a cinder block on top of that. Since I'm an academic I don't have any cinderblocks, but I do have some excessively heavy books.

I knew the Complete Oxford Encyclopedia would come in handy one day.

Once you have your neatly pressed zines, the next and final step is to trim them. When you fold a whole bunch of paper over, the thickness of each sheet pushes the next sheet forward, so that the sheets closer to the middle stick out. This is not very neat or pretty looking.

So the final step, at least for perfectionist is to trim the zine. First it's worth saying that not everyone trims their zines. If you're cool with a ragged edge that screams DIY, that's great, you're done. But if not, and you want that neat trimmed edge, things might get complicated. Most affordable paper trimmers are not capable of handling the thickness of your zine. 

Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door were each 36 interior page zines (big but not so big), that's 9 sheets doubled over, for a total of 18 sheets you have to trim through. That's a lot of sheets to shear clean through without error. And it's even worse if you're using a heavier paper weight, like I am. Most cheap paper guillotine trimmers can handle 15 sheets. So you would have either really force it, leaving a bit of a ragged edge, or trim half of the zine at a time, which may leave it looking uneven. Another thing you should know is that you really need to get a trimmer that has a clamp to hold the zine steady, or you might get an uneven cut. 

You can get a heavy duty paper trimmer with a clamp for around $110. That means that for a lot folks on a lower budget, trimming might end up being too pricey. One solution is that even if you print at home I've heard you can bring your zines to a print shop and have them trim them for you, so you might want to look into doing that.

Since I'm planning on doing this for a long while, following Gabor Lux's suggestion, my major capital investment was a very fancy paper trimmer. So meet the Terminator of office trimmers, the Dahle 564 Paper Guillotine, capable of handling 40 sheets, with a handy clamp. It even has a laser to show you exactly where you'll be cutting.

Here it is in action. Did I mention it has a laser?

Be careful when you use a paper guillotine. The pricey ones all come with guards, but it's still very easy to cut yourself on them. And for goodness sakes, don't leave it where a child could get at it. Here's a before and after on the trimming. It makes a big difference.

And here's a pic of the finished product. It shows the map on the interior cover, the key, and the encounter card (propped up) all in action.

Now I just need to make 200 or so of these things. Not counting the time spent in the press when yo can be folding other zines, it takes me 4 minutes and 7 seconds to assemble each zine. With about another minute to stuff and hand-label the envelope, that's roughly 5 minutes a zine. So I guess that's 16.5 hours of zine assembly. See you guys in a couple of weeks.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Reviews: Echoes of Fomalhaut

This is a review of the first issue of Gabor Lux's zine, Echoes of Fomalhaut. For those of you who don't know him, under the moniker Melan, Lux was a valuable contributor to early OSR conversations. He has exquisite taste if you like swords and sorcery running towards the weird. To get the flavor his imagination and bursting creativity, check out this thread about his creation of the undercity of Khosura. He has an English language blog primarily dedicated to reviewing old school modules. You can see a great recent interview with him on False Machine here. And now he has launched a zine.

While I have more nuanced things to say below, the basic message is: it's packed to the gills with fantastic stuff. It has the spirit of the best early Judge's Guild stuff and a quirky sword & sorcery flavor. If you like that sort of thing you would be a fool not to buy it. You can get print versions of the first two issues here and PDFs here. I gather the third issue is on the way soon.

The first issue has a random table of merchants, a section on house rules about morale, a massive selections of philtres and dusts, and no less than 3 adventures, including one, Beware The Beekeeper, with 49 numbered areas! Furthermore, the first issue comes with a large, folded player's map of an unnamed city, printed on nice vellum. Talk about value for your buck.

The table of merchants is wonderful. There are a total of 100 million possible combinations. Many results are themselves excellent adventure seeds, e.g. "A distracted judge pursued by a mummy is selling titles to a kingdom" or "a dull prostitute is selling snakes to ruin a competitor". Others are just very flavorful, e.g. "A paranoid vagrant is selling a shave, now on sale!" The next time I run the City State of the Invincible Overlord, I am absolutely using this table. The philtres and dusts are useful and flavorful as well. For example: "Dust of the Radiant Sun (400gp): a golden granule resembling finely crushed glass, the particles of this dust can be hurled into the air, where they stay afloat and become pinpoints of searing heat. Passing through a field of particles does 3d8 damage. The dust settles in 1d6 hours." Woah, how cool is that?

The biggest dungeon in the zine is Beware the Beekeeper. It is set in the Singing Caverns, so called because of the sound the winds make blowing through the three cave mouth entrances. It has a strong British Fighting Fantasy aesthetic. For example, one of the cave mouths into the dungeon is blocked by a door with three faces that can all be rotated for different effects. When I read the passage I just hear in my head, "If you twist the angry face, turn to page 243. If you twist the sleepy face, turn to page 12. If you twist the sad face, turn to 131. If you wish to retrace your steps and try another cave mouth, turn to page 44." On the first level, there are the chambers of a mad druid (the Beekeeper) accompanied by swarms of bees, a tavern run by orcs complete with menu options, and on a lower level, a bandit layer and some forgotten antique bathes. The dungeon is full of nice little touches, like this piece of treasure: "A discarded piece of brass hammered into the crude likeness of a fish is magical, and will make for a spear +2 if mounted on a shaft." I ran if for my son and his friends just the other day and it was fun.

This image by Russ Nicholson does not appear in the zine. But shouldn't it?

The zine contains two other adventure locales. The first is the Red Mound, a wonderful little adventure locale, with only a few places to visit, but each containing further adventure seeds. There's a potent but cursed sword, a hidden portal to someplace perilous, and a forgotten god whom one can serve. I like the idea of this kind of adventure locale, where it provides a series of flavorful hooks and seeds to be further developed by the DM. It would be a neat recurring feature in a zine, maybe called "Seeds of Adventure".

The last adventure, The Mysterious Manor,  is a bridge to the setting introduced in issue 2 of the zine. In fact, there are many bits and pieces of it that you won't know the full import of until you read that later issue. For this reason, I actually recommend reading it after you have read issue 2. My view is that this adventure, while containing some excellent material, is not quite as gripping as the other two. A pirate's gang of humanoid baddies have holed up in a mansion over the haunted crypts of an ancient family, the Bonifaces. The pirate's gang part is interesting, because Lux's humanoids have more varied and nuanced motivations than typical orcs, so negotiations or subterfuge will possible and prudent. Their cultist pirate boss is certainly cool. But still the upper levels didn't grab me especially, nor did the mystery of the haunting on the lower level. I had a little trouble imagining why a party would poke around here long enough to uncover the mystery, nor did the denouement seem as compelling as it might. Given how much other great stuff there is in the zine, this near miss is not a serious complaint.

A more serious if churlish complaint about the zine is that it has too much stuff in it. At certain point, through no fault of the material, it all blended together in my mind. This was abetted by the fact that the first issue is really committed to its zinish-ness: the type is tiny and uses a standard font; the layout is utilitarian; there is some decent (but not inspiring) new art, but not much, mixed with public domain images; and the maps, while pleasing in their design, and having a certain charm in execution, also look kind of scrawled.

The walls of tiny text, unmediated by principles of graphic design, eventually induce a sort of trance state that Lux works hard against with his quirky and delicious imagination. It's also true that the adventure locales in the first issue have nothing to do with one another, or with a common theme, and this also makes it hard to hold the whole thing in your head at once. It's hard to complain when someone is clearly focused on giving you as much usable and flavorful content as they possibly can without getting hung up on further distractions. But I wish Lux cared a little bit more about conveying his vision through artwork and layout.

The second issue suffers somewhat less from this problem, not because it's shorter--it's longer!--but because it is centrally focused on presenting a setting, and one city in that setting, Gont: Nest of Spies. So it has a kind of unity to it that focuses the mind. And Gont is a great city that channels the City State of the Invincible Overlord to excellent effect. But in the interest of actually having this review see the light of day, I'll have to save my thoughts about issue 2 for another time. In the meantime, buy this truly excellent zine now!