[Archive] Producing Custom Note/Sketch Books

First Posted Jan 19, 2020 (Pt 1) & Feb 13/20, 2020 (Pt 2/3)

After spending almost a couple weeks on this compiling everything, I realized that it’s a bit tad long to be a standalone post - so, similar to how I split up my previous production posts, I’ll be putting this one into two: Part 1 will discuss the background, sampling, group ordering, and production; while Part 2 will show the iterative process to create different variation.

Thanks to all those who take the time to read and I hope this will also shed some light on the work, decisions and attention to detail required to manufacture product.

I think in my digital art career, this piece (titled: Productivity) is amongst one of my personal favourite pieces, and also one that people recognize my work by. The reason this drawing came to be was because of my younger self’s desire to make the item that could arguably be my “dream” merch at the time.

Many years and iterations later, it is still one of my favourite things to get produced, though the customization on my end, has become less exciting as life got busier and busier. It has been though, amongst the few things that have been most rewarding to make, because of its utilitarian value, and its ability to inspire and encourage others to create.

This whole post will be about notebooks/sketchbooks. It’ll predominantly be going into its humble beginnings, along with the challenges in navigating the process in its production. I’ve been thinking about making this post throughout the past year and it has been a while since I last did a merch production post.

Fitting timing as well, since I had made some grid notebooks at the end of last year, and will be releasing some sketchbooks onto my store soon (late January). 

Background

Back in mid 2015, I first looked into making notebooks. It wasso veryintimidating. The online marketplace was starting to get populated with independent artist creations and it was exciting to see what was the next big thing/design that would capture the attention of those in the global interwebsphere. I would say it was predominantly work that was fan-based as opposed to original work, but there was a larger group of people who were starting to source outside the regular scope of vendors, and began a possibility of creating a liveable income through investing more into merch and seeing its returns later on.

The scariest part was instead of investing a dollar or two each for a handful of something I wanted to create, I was introduced to the idea of MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) for something that cost significantly higher per piece- pHEW.

But more on that later.

I’ve always been an avid user of bound paper, predominantly for its easy storage. I must admit I am a bit of a romantic towards the feeling of opening a new book with its boundless (despite being bound, see what I did there hah) potential of what the pages could hold, what things could come out of its use. Paper has this really amazing thing of being nothing, but also a potential something at the same time.

A hard cover and bound pages were things I didn’t really have much of a chance to use in my younger years (because they were always sold as a premium, as opposed to wire-bound paper back notebooks), and I loved the feeling of a solid book.

And once being able to afford books that were a lot higher quality, I did something I always wanted to try - draw on both sides of the page. It definitely tickles the completion-ist side of me, but also just looks amazing as spreads, especially in flipping videos.

Making my own custom books was (and still is) exciting. Especially since their production was sparse at cons, and the market, although saturated by brands and companies, were less likely to have designs that were custom and not mass-produced. But the higher investment has always been (and partially still is) hella scary.

Production: Negotiations and Samples

Finding a vendor is never easy. For those who keep asking for the shortcut to find a company to produce their product, I hope that they recognize the work (and sometimes money) that goes into it, and also are appreciative to those who do share. A bit of a tangent, but there’s a reason why a lot of content creators make pretty good passive income with affiliate links, to share without even expecting return is pretty selfless and generous, though shouldn’t be expected as the norm.

But continuing on, my first run-in with notebooks originally started with doing PVC cover slips. The me at the time thought it was already quite a feat since it could have customized covers and it didn’t have a high minimum order quantity (i.e. you could order as few or as many as you want). I ordered around 15, with costs going quite high after shipping and customs.

With this type, I could just order the books as inner paper and swap the cover by getting them printed locally (as a long print essentially). But two downfalls: I personally wasn’t a fan of using them myself, and they didn’t feel substantial in terms of being a highly customized product (since the inner paper was generic and mass produced).

So I sought out for what I really wanted - a customized moleskine (for lack of a better description). And although I normally suggest sampling as not a good route to take (i.e. just go through with production because usually if the interest is there for your product, you will regret having to pay doubly the shipping/customs and have to hold off for your restock before making back costs); sometimes if the item is extremely costly and customized, samples are good.

My first interaction with this vendor (who I have used for the past five years) was getting as much information as possible. I find if you’re talking to a vendor whose english isn’t the strongest, you should put your specifications in short sentences, or in a point-form format.

What I found was that there was a minimum of 500 books per order, but the price per unit wasn’t too bad. However there was no way I could carry around 500 of the same book cover and hope to sell them all (or even afford the cost of all of them combined). The size and weight difference in books meant that the costs were pretty overwhelming at the time. Rather than talking in the 10s, at most 100s, we were now speaking in terms of 1000s in terms of totals.

So I asked - would it be possible, in exchange of a higher cost, keep the inner paper the same but change the cover design? That way I could get other friends to join “slots” and help fulfill the order quantity.

Affirmative.

I scrambled to get together a cover, and asked a friend if she wanted to join in too to make a sample. So I sent them two files, one of which was mine:

I had my first run-in with a problem almost right away. There wasn’t much of a way to send files to China, since they had so many web hosting sites blocked.

In the end, I had compressed my file further and found a workaround by sending it as an attachment in the messenger. Email wasn’t a viable option because back then, the emails would also get blocked and would not arrive to the vendor.

The sample arrived approximately a week and a half later..!

I wish I could say that the sample was all I needed to confirm and it was full steam ahead. But it wasn’t. I had some issues with the sample we got, and wanted to fix before I opened it up to others to figure out how to get these made as product we could sell in the near future.

There was around 2 more rounds of samples and back and forth before it came close to what I would comfortably be relatively happy with to use myself.

The reply was that China doesn’t really quite like to take back their samples (because the cost would pile up and if its not satisfactory, I’m assuming they would rather remake than to take back the previous stock). 

The cost of each round of samples was (to my memory) 100USD + shipping. Expensive, and it quite literally emptied out my account at the time haha (being still a student and a hobbyist for the most part). I could barely scrape by to make the larger order, and had to wait till after a couple conventions before I was stable enough to humour the idea of spending a lot more on making the larger order.

(Finally!) Hosting a Group Order

Once I was comfortable enough with accepting it as a product I would make myself, I reached out to other friends and asked if they would be interested in joining. I will be making a post in the near future about things to consider while hosting a group order, but for now, this post will be information specific to creating these notebooks. 

At the time of hosting this order, there was no template. These were all the specs that were given and each person had to work from that (other sizes have different file sizes).

In a nutshell, notebooks have a bit of a weird template that you need to consider. This is because there is a lot of fold-over that will be covered by the inner cover paper and thus the design of the notebook should be understood that the center of the front/back cover lies closer towards the spine rather than being in the center of what appears to be right or left. Similarly, depending on how you’d like your book to flip, you’d also need to ensure that the front cover is to the right of the spine because the cover will fold over to the back.

Rather confusing. So I decided that instead of  passing on this message in hopes that everyone would be able to understand and follow these specifications, I decided to work with the vendor and draft up a to-scale template, reaching the borders of the page.

I also wanted to see what customizations that would be possible; i.e. could each design slot (25 books per design x 20 designs) be able to have their own colour of ribbon and band?

The verdict was that it would be better to have ribbon colours for every 2 designs (i.e. every 50 books. Totally doable.

So with those things confirmed and while every participant was working on their designs to meet the submission deadline, the files would then get sent to the vendor via smaller PDF files (which thankfully was figured out early in the process as to not delay), and/or using a file sending service that would also be possible to receive in China.

Production

Notebooks in such quantity take quite a while to produce. And it takes even longer when there are errors and quality checks find errors and there needs to be new decisions made and/or changes.

On average, production takes around 2-3 months:

  • 1 week to gather quote, decide on paper specs, prepare order google sheet
  • 1 week to confirm interested participants and collect payment
  • 3 weeks to prepare designs (whilst inner paper packs are being prepared)
  • 1 week for file submissions/formatting and colour checks/photos/confirmation
  • 2-4 weeks to finish production (depending on busy-ness of vendor and whether there is a rush deadline to meet a convention date)
  • 1-2 weeks for shipping, depending on time of year

However I knew that should I come to make more books in the future, there would be rush deadlines. So I decided to ask and sort out a solution: if payment and files were sent by a certain date, how long would production be to meet a not-far-off deadline?

The vendor had suggested that while it took time for us to create our designs, we could streamline the process by sending partial payment to confirm the order to produce the inner paper first as every book would have the same inner paper. The designs would then be sent at a later date for the rest of the procedure to continue.

I agreed it would work best. 

This isn’t even all the options, a mere % of the total number of colours. However, it was misleading to think that these were all the options that were available. If we were to choose a colour that was not readily available, then we would have to pay for the extra reel and in accommodation, they would also send us the remainder of the reel.. which.. what would you possibly do with once in your hands, other than potentially.. wrapping your orders with it. It’s not quite economical and creates a bit of waste.

To do customization of this degree would be lovely but it isn’t the highest degree of customization that I was particularly interested in. And it was a tad infeasible since this was for a group order of multiple participants rather than a handful. So to keep timelines in order and to streamline the process, I had asked the vendor if colours could be chosen and photos of their current stock would be sent so I can compare and confirm with participants before proceeding with the finalization of the production.

There was a slew of problems with files. It would take another week or two of going back and forth with participants to fix their files, confirmation of the colours of their chosen bands, and also to confirm that the printing was to their liking (i.e. how bright, etc). I often ask for photos of the printing before they continue the final production.

The Iterative Process

Notebooks are fun.

The most exciting part of owning a journal/notebook is seeing the different cover potentials and have those as a custom item that has meaning and value to you as the user. However being on the other end of being able to choose elements from the size, paper quality, printing, and also colours in the small things; I’ve run samples on different paper qualities, tested with different paper materials and colours, along with single colour prints, customized the ribbons and bands - wowie, that’s been fun.

For full disclosure, here are all the custom orders I have run up until this point, many shared with other friends/mutuals joining the group run (post on group ordering TBD). Some runs have run up costs than others, but each and every one helping to scratch an itch of something I saw at a bookstore, novelty store, online, etc. or for an idea that just popped into my head one day and rather than letting it pass - what if I made it come to fruition?

  • Summer 2015 (80gsm ivory colour, dotted A5
  • Spring 2016 (80gsm ivory colour, cross grid A5
  • Summer 2016 (80gsm ivory colour, cross grid A5)
  • Spring 2017 (180gsm white art paper, blank A5 wide) 
  • Summer 2017 (180gsm white art paper, blank Square) 
  • Fall 2017 (180gsm white art paper, blank A5 wide) 
  • Spring 2018 (180gsm white art paper, blank Square) 
  • Summer 2018 (180gsm white art paper, blank A5 wide Exposed Spine) 
  • Fall 2018 (180gsm white art paper, grid A5 wide Exposed Spine) 
  • Summer 2019 (180gsm white art paper, blank Square) 
  • Fall 2019 (180gsm white art paper, grid A5 wide) 
  • Winter 2019 (180gsm white art paper, blank A5 wide) 

I have never done lined journals. I have heard some at conventions express that they would prefer them over grid or blank, but online, very rarely so - possibly in the future I may explore that facet later on, but that might be in a long while.

Notebooks

The start of this journey was with making notebooks. The classic ivory 80gsm paper has some bleed through, but with the stronger inner paper (usually 100~110gsm), it is likened to the quality of moleskines and other journals that are meant to jot down ideas and act as the canvas for your ongoing ideas.

Looking through the list, it’s clear I have only been going for stronger and thicker paper stock (80gsm ~ 160gsm), to clear out the bleedthrough. Admittedly though, being a user of fountain pens and now exploring other journal facets, I have come to have a liking for thinner paper (again, possibly in the future haha).

The first iterations of grid were simple - dot grid. The same as field notes, word, moleskines- they were cool, but for some reason I wanted to try something that was different.

For notebooks: gridded books with 1c printing - the limitations of the printer determined what options were available. The custom printing could only be available in one colour (otherwise costs start to go a lot higher and significantly less feasible as an individual to purchase), and the highest paper quality stock would be 160gsm - very slight bleedthrough when the ink is puddled.

My later iterations explored cross grid (+):

And for a while, I stopped making notebooks, sticking predominantly to sketchbooks. They were relatively less popular, although I did hear from those who did use it that the grids were great guides for bullet journaling and/or doing quick sketches. It was also hard to market them since my own use case for books were predominantly to draw in, however many took it that the only way they could use the book was to draw in.

It wasn’t till I started trying out the exposed spine option that I let myself scratch the grid itch and run iterations again:


Somewhere along the way, my manufacturer started to shrink wrap books as opposed to putting them in resealable sleeves - it makes the product lot more legit, although samples are just unforgiving afterwards haha.

Exposed spines were an option I decided to try, because although the costs were higher than doing the PU Leather print, which could be more machine bound rather than individually produced one by one - there’s a liking to the books and how they laid on the bookshelf. That, and I just thought it looked cool and more environmentally friendly - the cover is essentially compressed backing card with a print, and the spine is sewn with a cloth on top to help protect the signatures.

The costs with this change made each unit more expensive, both in terms of stock and in finances. The price went up 1.5x the previous batch, but also the limitation was that rather than 25 per design, it was now 50 per (which means you have more of the same product). It was possible to do custom printing on the spine, however because everyone’s books would have to have the same design, the costs didn’t make it feasible.

The paper inside was a custom grid paper. Bleeding room off the top for dates/titles/small notes, and a custom grid layout. Oh and at 10% opacity compared to the previous 35% which meant you would be able to see your notes/drawings more readily available as you’re drawing, and it’s easy to remove the lines when scanning.

Having the half grid at the side, and also flipped on the other side means that you start off the pages with a full grid instead of having 1.5 grids when you’re planning out your page. I’m not sure if it matters to most people, but it was something I wanted to control since I was going full custom when making this order.

Sketchbooks

Compared to notebooks, the options and potential with this was so exciting to me because.. well, I love to draw. And to decide each and element that goes into the books I will be carrying around - hell yeah.

My first iterations used 160gsm - a lesson I learned later on was to always ask ask ask for options. I didn’t even know there was thicker paper quality till I asked. The paper was decent and was able to handle some ink, however let’s be real, I’m not a fan of bleedthrough. My personal sketchbooks have been ones where I pack with drawings and I draw on both sides of the pages. They came back with 180gsm, and upon trying out a sample, I immediately loved how it handled ink, my preferred medium at the time.

I have also asked the vendor to make sure that the paper was the same on the inner cover (i.e. the entire construction of the book) so the drawing surfaces for these books are maximized. You can draw all over it and be rest assured it will handle the medium well.

Square Sketchbooks

I’m a bit salty about this, but I really want to address this because time and effort is expensive, but so is R&D (research and design). And I admittedly, it’s such a simple thing to change dimensions, the results become a bit compounded when things becomes more mainstream. I’ve heard other artists who refer to these as a “industry standard”, or the regular size for square notebooks. It was not really the case haha - square sketchbooks were hardly readily available.

The only one I’ve come across in North America which still holds all my favourite elements of being a carry-on sketchbook (with all the “moleskine” elements, for lack of better terminology), is from Handbook Journal Co. which is a much smaller 5.5” x 5.5” with a slightly smaller drawing surface:

They have since become popularized as an option. Copious amounts of square notebooks have been produced and sold by other artists in the alleys, and not really.. understood why it was such a refreshing take to have square notebooks.

Square size, for me.. is a lot easier to frame in my head.

Psychologically, humans, who are tied down by gravity, are more exposed to lines that run across the horizontal plane of field (i.e. changes in X, Y) as opposed to differences that travel up and down (differences in elevation). So rather than framing for a shot that runs vertically, including both the sea and the land, our view tends encompass more of the horizontal.

Though, I have to admit this also coincided with my higher use of instagram - which one affected me first - having a square sketchbook, or posting pretty pictures on ig? The higher use of the phone has really affected aspect ratios and what work is being created - while photos and videos generally tends to be wider than tall, the increased use of consumption through our phones has altered current expectations.

But – back to sketchbooks haha.

At the start, one could only use the the commercially available slightly 0.25” smaller size.. and while I loved using handbook journals, and my art style was a lot more premature, being younger and less practiced, I found that sometimes the canvas was a bit limiting.

I always found that I either was holding back exploring the full idea, or just ran straight to the edges without really exploring the medium or the composition of a drawing.

The prompt into exploring a larger square sketchbook definitely showed its results when I started using thinner fountain pens and played around with composition more when my own sketchbooks came to fruition (please note this is around late 2015/early 2016, as opposed to late 2014).

A wider notebook was also fun to explore because it also meant you had extra surface area to explore the world that you were building in your piece.. and if you used a smaller pen, even moreso.

Final Thoughts and Future Plans

As much work as it is to go through my archives and dig up many many year’s worth of drawings, along with photos and other merch I’ve made through the years (if I’m being honest, I don’t have any of this saved locally.. all of it is on my social media which I flip through to compile these Patreon posts); it is, well bluntly put, a bit of a nod to all the work younger me put forth and it sometimes inspires current me.

Right now, since manufacturing has been on break (with the extended holiday and also the outbreak), a lot of my personal interests in merch has been shifting towards being more hands-on this year - since I’ve kinda passed the baton of the art of creating to assets rather than the entire product as a whole.

This time I asked the vendor to send me an extra ream of paper, which I am hoping to use to test my own handmade books. Here’s a sneak peak of something I’ve been prototyping.

Thank You

Notebooks/sketchbooks are something that are near and dear to my heart and the romanticism I have wrapped around the idea of them - the holder of your dreams, thoughts, ideas, and hours spent compiling the pages to be enjoyed in isolation or with others.. it’s just really beautiful.

So thank you, for all those who have, continue to, and possibly will support these artistic endeavours I spend my spare hours on. For those who have bought a book, whether used or hoarded (I know you’re all out there, please give them a try!!) - I still genuinely appreciate each and every one who thinks the books are worth spending a hard earned dollar on.

I feel like I put this at the end of my posts too often, but honestly - thank you so much. I wouldn’t be able to do all the things I want to do without the support.

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