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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Accounting

UPDATE: Crud, I forgot an important bit, so I am sticking it in now. If you read this already a) you're quick and b) skip down to the UPDATED BIT note below to read the updated bit.

As attentive readers will know, I did a book sale.

This is the story of how it went and what I learned. There is a pretty detailed accounting of the money spent, earned, and to be donated, at the bottom of these remarks.

I made a book, which you can now buy here, even if you're outside the US and Canada! It's arguably a kind of silly book, but I prefer to think of it as "fun." It's an apologia for local, neighborhood, non-gallery, art. It's amusing. It's inexpensive.

It began as a project to put up humorous signs around my neighborhood, which I intended to photograph for no particular reason. This project grew and rearranged its shape over a few months as people interacted with the signs, and talked to me about it a little. One neighbor, searching for the word "guerrilla" used instead the word "vigilante" to describe the project, hence the name of the book.

At some point I took this formless, goofy, semi-prank and thought it through. It became clear to me that I had been, in fact, making a little statement about Art as a local practice. Let's not get carried away, mostly I was goofing off and making stupid jokes, but somewhere under there, propping it up, was (and is) my notion that we ought to do more art-like stuff for our friends and neighbors.

And so I made a book about it, about that. It's mostly jokes, but a little bit conceptual art.

At this point, or somewhere near here, I decided to try to make it "real" in some sense. I would commission an essay and make an honest effort to sell the thing. I would promote it, do a pre-sale, have some books printed, ship them out, and do the whole thing soup-to-nuts, just like a real boy. So I did that.

Jonathan Blaustein agreed to write me an essay, for which I paid him (because I am a real boy, and this is a real book, damn it.) I made a video and made a fundraiser, just like a real boy.

I sold 37 books, which is nearly twice as many as I thought I might, and a bit more than 1/3 as many as I aimed at. This is, to my mind, a victory. I aimed small, ok? I don't know many people, I have zilch for social media following, and lots of people don't like me at all. You can and should do better, because people like you and you have more followers than I do. Yes, really, you do. You have no idea.

What did I learn?

First of all, kickstarter is the natural choice for these things, and probably would have served me technically quite a bit better. I did not use it, because I was structuring the thing kind of as a charitable fundraiser (although at least morally it was and is a book sale and not a charitable fundraiser.) Kickstarter does not allow charitable fundraisers, and rather than fuss with the details I selected another platform. Tim V of Leicaphilia sold a book via gofundme, and so I chose that one.

Then I started emailing people. Jonathan impressed upon me that you have to sell, you have to reach out and ask people one by one to buy. He's right, I think. It's easy to think "ooo, there's a book I could buy" but you're pretty unlikely to go actually buy one without some trigger. A polite email saying "please buy my book" can be that trigger. So I emailed a bunch of people. I don't know very many people, though, so I didn't actually send that many emails out.


One person I emailed was Kirk Tuck, who actually does have followers, and a bunch of them. Kirk not only agreed to buy a book, but wrote about my book sale on his blog! Holy crap! It was awesome. About half of my sales are by way of Kirk, I estimate, or were at least encouraged by his endorsement. We know some of the same people, in the sense that everyone I know also knows Kirk, and he knows roughly a million more people as well.

Anyway, huge thanks to Kirk for making this thing go. This, I suspect, is how it goes, though. You know some people, and they also know people. If you hit one or two of your more popular friends, it can snowball, and this is (maybe) normal.

After that I confess I kind of stopped pushing. I could have probably emailed another half dozen people, or followed up here and there with this person or that one, but I had sold 30+ books and was starting to worry about order fulfillment and plus which I was pretty tired of direct selling and Christmas was coming up fast. So I mostly knocked off. I mighta sold 40 books if I'd kept at it!

Because I was under the impression that shipping to Canada would be pretty cheap, and I knew I could ship Media Mail in the USA, I restricted the pre-sale to US and Canada. This was, in a way, stupid. Shipping to Canada is pretty expensive, pretty much the same price as shipping to Europe. Still, I avoided the silliness of printing in Seattle, shipping to me, and then re-shipping across the ocean. I am pretty sure that if you, in Europe, buy one from blurb, they'll print it in Europe and ship it from there, which is much more sensible. I hope they do anyway.

I did correctly research mailers, and priced them at "about a buck each" and I priced books correctly at "maybe 8 or 9 bucks each" and US postage of "around 3 bucks" so that worked out well. I padded the price a bit because I knew Canada wasn't going to give me Media Rate for sure.

My initial plan was actually to try to sell 20 books. The rule of thumb for kickstarter is "have 1/3 of your sales in your pocket before you open" and I felt like I could definitely count on 6 or 7 sales. Jonathan shamed me into upping that, and I am glad he did. So I opened with a goal of 100 books, at $15 each.

There was an option to buy in for a dollar plus a local donation which, to my surprise, nobody took. I wanted to be accessible even to people who feel like they have no spare money, but maybe I didn't reach anyone like that. Many people donated more than the minimum, which option gofundme kind of encourages.

GoFundMe turned out to be a bit of a pain in the ass. Since it's not really a "buy stuff" platform, there is no default way for people to put in shipping information. You have to persuade them to send it to you separately, which was a surprising amount of work. About 1/3 of buyers didn't send me an address initially. About 2/3 of those responded to a global "hey, if you ain't, send me" update, and the rest I had to bother individually. Also, it allows anyone to contribute any amount, so "reward tiers" are hard to implement, have to be done informally, and have to be dealt with in the same ad hoc was shipping addresses are handled.

Someone donates $50. Do they want three books, or are they just generous? I am glad I didn't offer optional prints or whatever, because that would have been a mess to sort out. I think kickstarter just solves all these problems, but it is unambiguously a commerce platform.

Having raised the money, then the fun began.

I had a crappy spreadsheet I was using to keep track of my direct mail campaign, and I simply re-tasked that to keep track of orders. Just add a few columns! It'll be fine! It wasn't fine.

You really need to have a proper order tracking system. Direct mail campaigns are separate, although you should also track those carefully.

For orders you need to keep track of: who ordered, what they ordered, how much they paid, do you have their address, what is their address, have you packed their shit, have you mailed their shit. At least.

You could do this with index cards, or a proper order tracking system, or a well designed spreadsheet. What you can't do is use a terrible ad hoc spreadsheet that you're adjusting as new things turn up, and where you populate rows somewhat randomly. You gotta be on top of this shit. 37 books in 33 orders pretty much did me in and I felt at all times as if I was on the verge of losing track of it all. It's possible that I did lose track of it all, but at the same time quite a few people will be receiving books of some sort so I guess that's good, right?

ULINE makes an incredible array of products for shipping things, and sells them very cost effectively. They also ship insanely fast. They have a fulfillment center just a few miles from me, I don't know if that's luck or if they are in fact absolutely everywhere.

Blurb was probably a decent choice for printing on this scale, especially since my need for quality was very low. This thing is just a trade book, so one step up from newsprint. It's fine for what it is. With a higher quality book, I would probably have spent more on packing materials, maybe gotten a larger mailer and some sort of padded insert. This thing is just a paperback, so I folded a bit of paper over the cover and packed it in the mailer and called it good.

I sure hope I don't have to replace everyone's book because I fucked up the packing.

Mailing shit sucks.

Get return address labels, at least. You will get tired of hand-writing your own address.

If you're going to shift more than a few dozen books, I highly recommend figuring out how your order tracking system, whatever you're using, can produce addressee labels as well. Hand writing this crap is error prone and painful. Avoid it if at all possible.

An ideal system has the buyer enter their address (and a good sales platform ought to be able to validate addresses to some degree, as well. Like, does the zip code match the city?) and that typed-in (validated) address is simply carried through and printed on a label. You stick on your return address label and the to-address label, done and done. Seriously, you can invest a LOT of work here and it'll be 100% worth it if you're shifting even 50 orders.

If you're shifting more than 100 books, talk to your post office about how you can automate more of this. Walking 100 packages over and working with a clerk to mail them one-by-one is madness. You can probably work with the post office to, I dunno, print magic barcodes or something that let you just dump off a pallet of packages. Figure it out, even if it's hard, it's gonna be worth it. Hand mailing 100 packages is a lot of work even with pre-printed address labels.

The money:

Firstly I am deleting all up-front costs (camera, computer, test books, cost of posters, cost of thumbtacks, fee for essay writing, etc etc) from consideration. Those are all out of my pocket. My cost to play the game. Depending on where you draw the line, I am eating a considerable cost here, and that is absolutely OK. This is a mission I believe in, and which gives me great pleasure.

My goal here was emphatically not to make money. In the first place, nobody makes any money at these things, and in the second place it felt like "making money" would take money away from artists who might actually need the money. Accordingly, I priced my book at my best estimate of cost, and as we shall see I pretty much nailed it.

I promised to give a thorough accounting of the money, and to donate profits (if any) to a local Arts charity. I still have to mail 4 books, 3 to Canada and 1 US, so I am estimating that cost. Here we go:

Mailers from ULINE: 100 mailers, total cost $112.41
Books from Blurb: 50 books, total cost $418.63
Postage: $238 (estimated, but within $5)

Per books cost is $1.12 + $8.37 + $6.43 = $15.92

Now, I botched the packaging on a few packages to Canada (wound up half an ounce over 8 ounces, and paid almost $10 each for the privilege — trimming the box down slightly saved me a bunch of money on later shipments) and a couple of these are really personal sales, so I am making a command decision to cover $60 of the postage out of my "own pocket" here. This reduces the postage to $178:

Per books cost is $1.12 + $8.37 + 4.81 = $14.30

This is pretty much the number I was shooting for, maybe a dollar high. Anyways, lots of people donated lots of extra money. Total costs as accounted above comes out to $529. Money raised through the gofundme was $860, of which $825.06 was transferred to me. This yields a "profit" of $296.06 which I feel pretty damned good about.

Notes: I did not count minor packing materials (tape, paper), nor did I "charge" for the 60+ mailers and extra books I now possess. Those are mine to keep! The US buyers subsidized the Canadian ones more than I intended, because I didn't really have a handle on how insanely expensive it is to mail things to addresses that are literally 30 miles from my front door. I hope nobody feels bad about that. It's all going to charity anyways and, honestly, I can't get that mad about giving the post office money. GoFundMe takes a pretty big bite, so don't feel obligated to "tip" them when they beg. They made $35 from this campaign.

Shortly I will be making a donation of $296.06 to Allied Arts of Whatcom County, huzzah.

Thank you one and all, and I hope all of you enjoy the book! Except you, David. You refused to order no matter how loudly I yelled, so you don't get to enjoy the book, you get to suffer in abject misery!


  1. This is all painfully familiar from an unexpected "success" selling a couple of prints from an exhibition a few years ago, although it seems you were spared having to deal with a time- and patience-consuming minority of lunatics, liars, and late payers. Dealing with the "fulfilment" of 100 prints became my job for six months...

    But, 37 copies?? Frankly, that is a self-publishing bonanza! I have never sold more than 10 copies, and more usually none at all. I'm going straight to Blurb to get in on this runaway bestseller!

    N.B. check the small print of my latest blog post: there's a secret message for you...


    1. Indeed! 37 is a number I feel very good about. Thank you!

      Those are some outstanding skulls. Good find. You should buy a couple.

  2. Maybe this exercise will lead to something, but the skulls are a better bet, as objects and subjects.

  3. In the dark ages, when I worked for a dotcom in finance, we got pretty good at mass mailing using word and excel, using auto filled fields populated from a spreadsheet.

  4. 37 is 37 more than I've ever sold. In fact 1 would be more than I've ever sold, except to myself...

    I'm not sure how many more sales you may have got from including Europe directly. I don't think USPS Surface is particularly exorbitant. Personally I strongly dislike Blurb for their ludicrous "shipping costs", which usually, as in this case, more than double the cost of the book. I was and remain very torn, but I'm really not into pandering to such corporate greed.

    1. It's possible they're not actually printing in Europe? Or maybe they print in the UK which, as you know, is now a vassal state of the exiled Trump government of the USA?

      Man, that would suck. I have 10 copies left, perhaps I should offer some to Europeans. I could probably ship you one for.. uh. about $25 without losing money.

      Yes, the shipping for me would be about $15-16, and the rest is a hair under $10. If you want to go that way, let me know.

      Will accept a $25 donation (equivalent) to any arts group local to you in lieu of actual payment!

    2. The copy I ordered from Blurb UK cost £11.15 with "shipping and handling" £6.99 inc. VAT. I think they're printed in the Netherlands?

      That doesn't strike me as excessive, though it's not exactly cheap. What *is* annoying is when they multiply the same shipping charge by the number of copies you buy!!


    3. Guess it's my fault for living in The World's Most Expensive Country (tm). I think I am served by Blurb Netherlands. I suspect Blurb UK is also a doppelganger of Blurb NL. Either way they're a bunch of shysters...

      Andrew I'd be happy to go with whatever deal you propose - I can also pay you direct by PayPal. Since it is going to charity by all means round up to $30.