The Alice at R’lyeh Report, part 1

I always intended to do a write up on the experience of self-publishing Alice at R’lyeh, and as it’s down to its last baker’s dozen or so copies (and as I haven’t blogged for a while), now’s the time. (And if you want to buy a copy, get one while you still can!)

Previously, my only self-publishing experience was with Baleful Head, a zine I brought out in 1997 (with a lot of helpful advice, encouragement and Quark expertise, not to mention articles & artwork, from Garen). It lasted a single issue, then slouched onto the web before breathing its last. Nowadays, its subject — long, critical reviews of fantasy books, films, etc. — is much more suited to a blog. (Which I’d start if I had the time! You can read some of my Baleful Head articles in the misc section of this website.) Alice at R’lyeh, however, was quite a different kind of project, and this time I ended up doing the whole process — including illustrations, design & layout, and getting it printed — myself, which meant a whole batch of firsts for me.

The first first was deciding to publish it — a poem, no less — at all. That sort of crept up on me, as did the writing of the thing. Five minutes before I started Alice at R’lyeh, I had no intention of penning a 35-stanza mini-nonsense-epic about Lewis Carroll’s Alice (or, really, my version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, because mine is slightly older, and slightly less Victorian) ending up in H P Lovecraft’s R’lyeh. It’s only because I happened to be near my computer with nothing to do when the first two lines popped into my head that I wrote it at all. Even then, I just thought, “This might be fun. I might get ten lines out of this.” Little did I know that my available writing time for the next ten days would be spent furiously trying to bend four-line aabb-rhymed nonsense stanzas to my increasingly tested will, while piling my desk with propped-open copies of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and Others, S T Joshi’s Lovecraft: A Life, and Alice W Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease (which alerted me to Lewis Carroll’s inveterate letter-writing, the first tenuous link between Carroll and Lovecraft I came up with), among other books. (Not to mention a good deal of web-searching. Who would have thought “vigintillion” has a different magnitude to English and American mathematicians? And which would the American Anglophile Lovecraft have meant when he used it to describe Cthulhu’s age?)

The illustrations weren’t planned either. It was only because I thought, “I wonder what my version of Alice would look like”, and tried out a few sketches, and actually came up with something I liked, that I went any further in that direction. (Also when I realised the key to drawing Lovecraft, which had up to then eluded me, is just how stern he looks in his more famous photographs. So much so that when you actually see a photo of him smiling, it sort of takes you aback.) Once I’d come up with an Alice and a Lovecraft, I realised there was nothing for it but to try a few illustrations for my poem. And perhaps a cover. And, once I’d done a cover, there was no excuse for it. The thought that had been niggling around in the back of my mind just had to come out and niggle in the forefront, too: I might as well try and publish the damn thing.

So, I completed the illustrations and coloured them. (Giving up on the idea of trying to represent the “wrong angles” of R’lyeh with a bit of Escher-like visual trickery. I always get ideas much bigger than my abilities.) This was the first time I’d ever worked seriously at drawing, with the aim of producing a real, proper, final product, and so the first time I’ve ever done version after version till I got it right. Once I’d coloured them (in Photoshop — the illos were done using pencil, brush-pen and tracing paper, but coloured entirely on computer), I produced some postcard-sized versions and had them printed out via Moo.com, to get an idea of what they’d look like. (Plus, I have to admit, as a little treat for having finished them.)

My first unnecessary expense! One of many!

Then came the bit I knew I’d have real difficulty with — producing a print-ready PDF. This was something OS X’s print-to-PDF function was going to be wildly inadequate for. What I needed was a program which would give me control over the dpi of images, and the embedding of fonts and so on. (This is about as far as my knowledge of PDF preparations goes — I know enough to know how little I know.) What I needed was a small-scale DTP program, or so I thought. It was only when I started searching the web for a likely candidate that I realised small-scale DTP programs are pretty much a dying breed. Nowadays, it seems, you’ve got either a bunch of very easy-to-use, consumer-oriented lightweights, like Apple’s Pages (or some even worse shareware ones I won’t name), which don’t give you anything like the sort of control you need to produce a print-ready PDF, or you have to stump up for Adobe Acrobat, which in current money is, as Tony Hancock would say, very nearly an armful. An added difficulty was that, looking at printer’s websites, a lot of them were very fussy about what sort of PDFs they’d take — some insisted on only having PDFs generated by Acrobat, or they wouldn’t take responsibility for the results. Others insisted on charging a look-over fee to check your PDF, simply to reject it if it wasn’t right. I didn’t mind paying a bit extra for some guidance, but I was beginning to feel this was one of those situations where the step from amateur to professional was about a mile high, and likely to end in expense and embarrassment for a stumbling dilettante like myself.

But finally, after much searching, I found what I needed: Scribus. Open-source, pro-level PDF preparation (or pro-enough for me), and what was more, exactly in my price range. It was free! It doesn’t have a Mac-consistent interface, but I knew I could put up with its peculiarities considering the price. The best thing was, it meant I’d be able to use what fonts I wanted (I wanted the interior typography to look good, not just the title on the cover), and I’d be able to insert my illustrations without worrying that they’d come out all jpegged when it was finally printed. (I’d previously done some experimenting, for a different project, with images inserted into a PDF produced by a word-processor, and printed via Lulu.com. The results were unpredictable, and not to be relied upon.) (And embedding the fonts properly became even more important once I’d fallen in love with the Novella font, which I’d already bought from MyFonts.com. My second expense!)

So I had the booklet as a PDF. Next step — the big step, as far as I was concerned — was finding a printer. There are a lot of them out there, and I spent a couple of weekends reading every detail on every printer’s site I could find. There was a lot of advice on PDF preparation, and I tried to follow it all. (Basically, it came down to what I was expecting anyway — embed fonts, and ensure artwork is of sufficient dpi. The actual dpi required varied from site to site, so I went with 600dpi, which met or exceeded most printers’ minimum requirement. The one thing I hadn’t accounted for was leaving a bleed around the pages, but fortunately Scribus had an easy way of adding this to the whole document in one go.) The prices varied, but generally were reasonable. I could get 100 16-page booklets for a little over £100, so I knew it was within my price range.

So, I had my PDF, scoured over for every possible error, and I had a list of possible printers. Still I hesitated. Why? Simply because the printer’s websites, however much they said “no job too small”, all looked so professional, so businesslike, that my little artistic soul withered in front of them. Here I was, trying to get, gods!, a poem — and my poem, at that — professionally printed. However I might slant it, it was vanity press stuff. Oh, the shame of it! There was nothing to stop each and every printer, when applied to for a quote, from phoning me up and laughing down the line at my temerity, not to mention my prosody. Or perhaps just telling me I couldn’t distill a PDF for toffee (I’m still not sure what PDF distillation is), and that I should take my pathetic efforts to the nearest corner shop photocopier, which was what they deserved.

All right, maybe an exaggeration, but this was pretty much what I was feeling as I timorously prepared to ask for my first quote.

I (rather stupidly) spent some time in that first quote-request pointing out that this was my first go at preparing a PDF for professional printing, and would of course expect the quote to include whatever fee they charged for checking my PDF for possible errors. I then humbly asked what it would cost for 100 A5 16 page booklets, black & white interior, full colour cover.

That first printer didn’t even deign to reply. Maybe I just came across as too amateur. Still, it was sort of crushing.

So, for my next quote request, I dropped the meekness (and all mention of this being my first PDF — damn it, I’d checked the thing over a hundred times) and was as businesslike as possible. And the next printer I contacted ended up being the one I went with (The Digital Printers.co.uk). They said quite clearly on their website that they didn’t believe in charging merely for a quick look-over of source PDFs. Plus, they were in Reading, the town where I was born — always a point in anyone’s favour, as far as I’m concerned. And from there, it went smoothly. I got the quote, uploaded my PDF, got an email back suggesting a lamination for the covers, okayed that, and then, a week later, I had my box of Alice at R’lyeh booklets.

That moment — receiving your actual finished, physical copies, tangy with the scent of fresh ink and peppered with paper-dust — is the first heaven of self-publishing. Rather unfortunately, the first two copies I took out to examine were duds. There proved to be a couple of faults with the Alice booklet. In some cases, the cover laminate was peeling. (In none of them was it perfect.) In some, the interior ink seemed to have got stuck to that of another page, and had come off, leaving the text ghosted with a reverse image of another page. But fortunately, the first two copies I examined were the exceptions. The printer had printed slightly more than the 100 copies I’d asked for, and though there were still enough faults I deemed unsellable to push the saleable total to just under 100, I nevertheless had close enough to what I’d wanted, and could lapse back into heaven again. (Perhaps if I’d contacted the printer I might have got them to produce a few more, but I was just pleased to have the booklet at last.)

So, I’d done all that work of writing, illustrating, putting together the booklet and getting it printed. What now? Surely it should get easy from now on?

Not by a long chalk! Now, the hard work began. Because now, I had to get people to buy it!

And I was going to write about that part of the whole process here, but there’s enough to say about that for a whole ‘nother entry, so it’ll have to wait till next time.

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