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Time for a change?
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 7:39 PM, March 15, 2014
The short story - we are now accepting Bitcoin as payment for our two woodblock print subscription sets. Subscribers to our very popular Ukiyoe Heroes Portraits and Chibi Heroes series can now make their payments that way if they so choose:
The long story ...
We're well into March now, and as always at this time of year, tax matters raise their head! Along with our steadily increasing business over the past couple of years has come a commensurate increase in our expenses, of course, and keeping the two from 'colliding' is not an easy task!
Here at Mokuhankan we did turn a small profit last year. I say 'we', although from the point of view of the tax authorities there is no 'we' about it; the business here is organized as a 個人事業 (kojin jigyo - personal enterprise), which simply means that every part of it is my own personal affair. All income is treated as my personal income (against which many expenses can be deducted, of course).
The left-over money at the end of the year is the amount that I then pay personal income tax on, and this time around, as that was a very small amount, my taxes were also very light. This will have an additional benefit over the course of the coming year, as many other expenses 'cascade' from this tax assessment: my medical insurance premiums will be very low, as will be my prefecture and city taxes. (And if I still had children in civic day care, their fees would be negligible; fortunately those days are long past!)
But having only a very small profit isn't really good news of course. I work insane hours, and to find that there was so little left at the end of the year (and I take no salary) is a bit disheartening. So I've been going over the financial statements to see if there are any expenses that seem like they could be reduced.
The complete statements will be coming up in a post later, but for now, here's one small clip from the yearly expense summary:
The figures are yen, and the highlighted column is 'Bank", and contains the amount I paid out in money transfer fees over the course of the year, to both local banks and to Paypal. In US$ it came to nearly eight thousand dollars, approaching 5% of our overall income.
Now considering what I get for those fees - easy access to money transfers in small amounts from customers all over the planet - I'm not really complaining. Go back around ten years or so, and such a thing was inconceivable for a small business person like me here in Japan. Typical bank transfer fees were in the $50 - each - range.
But that was then, and this is now. Paypal is charging me a 3.9% fee on every transaction, and then hitting me with a 2% exchange premium over and above the standard interbank exchange rate every time I 'bring money home' into my own accounts. 6% is too much, and it's time to see how that can be reduced.
But what other methods are there that enable one to move money around the planet easily and quickly and yet incur only small transaction fees? Well, how about this one?
Yes, Bitcoin. This has been in the news a lot recently, mostly 'scare' stories about hacking, thievery, and the chaotic volatility of this new pseudo-currency. I have been following news about Bitcoin for some time now, wondering - along with everybody else - whether or not it will develop enough traction to establish itself as a major factor in the way that people make transactions with each other.
I have been particularly impressed with what has happened over the past couple of weeks, following the collapse of one of the major exchanges dealing with Bitcoins. Namely, next to nothing. What could have been a disastrous blow to the new 'currency' seems to have been taken in stride; it seems as though the community is now wide and deep enough to handle such inevitable events without major damage to the overall structure of the system.
So I think it's time to give this a try, and last night I put my programmer's hat back on, set up a Bitcoin wallet, and interfaced it with my bookkeeping system.
When a subscriber has a payment due, their account page will show an option to make remittance through the Bitcoin system:
Depending on what kind of 'wallet' they are using, they can either click the QR code, or scan it with their mobile, to make the payment instantly and effortlessly.
Now having a fee-less (nearly) system of moving 'money' around the world is all very well, but accepting Bitcoins does come with other issues: they are very volatile, with the value changing quite dramatically sometimes day to day, and they of course may not actually survive in the marketplace, perhaps eventually becoming completely worthless.
Well, I don't intend to be doing much speculating with this; I'll accept transfers, and then cash them out to my local currency as soon as is practical. This should minimize my risk on both counts ...
In any case, I can't really just do nothing. The 6% Paypal fee is far too high, traditional banks are no help at all, and I would also like to do everything I can to help get this new exchange medium up and running properly. I have no idea just how many of our subscribers will use this facility - and perhaps it might even help bring in new ones - but there is only one way to find out!
Portraits #3 ships ...
A few days ago I returned to the workshop after a ten-day 'break' over in Canada visiting my family - parents, siblings, daughters, and grand-children ... Ten days was nowhere near enough, but it was all I could spare just now. Our new Portraits series has kind of taken over our lives here at Mokuhankan.
While I was away, the initial batch of print #3 - The Lunatic - arrived from printer Numabe-san.
The packing ladies had done all the preparation for shipping, and were just waiting for me to confirm that the prints were 'OK', before getting them all packed up. They were indeed all acceptable - as we expect from Numabe-san these days - so while the ladies got busy finishing the preparation, I fired up my bookkeeping software and initiated the automated monthly billing procedure. Payments have been streaming in over the past couple of days, and today the first batch of 130 or so went off to the Post Office.
That leaves around 100 more, and they will leave bit by bit over the next week, as those collectors send their payments in.
But 25 of the collectors will not be getting their prints sent that way in the usual envelope-style packaging. They'll be getting a larger boxy package ... Yes, the first batch of cases have been finished by Dani-san!
For any of you who might be thinking these are a bit late, I have to tell you that it's a miracle we're getting them at all. Here's his home and workshop around two weeks back:
He's way out in the country, and when that snow hit, was left completely to his own devices; he and his family dug themselves out, but the rural roads were not cleared at all, and they had to make 3 hour trips on foot to the nearest town to get food and supplies.
The snow eventually got cleared away, his normal business could resume, and yesterday afternoon he drove over here with the first 25 cases. Later today, we will be running these down to our local post office, each one with the current print inside, and off they'll go.
He is scheduled to be back here in the last week of March with the next couple of dozen, and that pattern will continue until we've dug our way through all the pending orders.
Chibi Heroes update ... new case!
Remember our Chibi Heroes series from last year?
I say 'last year', but the Chibi Heroes series is actually alive and well; we have a number of currently active subscribers, and more joining all the time.
Why do I mention it now, though? Because finally ... we are ready with the new storage case / display stand!
IAmA Update ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 8:44 PM, February 8, 2014
So we're done! The Reddit event came off pretty much as planned, although as it wasn't promoted on the Reddit Sidebar, there weren't all that many people 'present'.
I don't have any kind of image or photo to show you - I was pretty busy start to finish with print-making, answering questions, updating the thread, and generally having a good time, to take any ...
Nor was the - 3-hour! - video stream preserved ... All that remains is a long Reddit thread with any number of over-blown replies from Dave!
IAmA woodblock printmaker!
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 3:52 PM, February 6, 2014
The Reddit event is now scheduled!
Are there many Reddit readers here on this blog? Perhaps not too many I think ...
For those of you who don't know what the IAmA designation refers to, it is "I am a (fill in the blank) - ask me anything," and is a very popular section of the vast website known as Reddit.com. (It is also known as "AMA" ... "Ask me Anything ...")
The concept is simple - a web page is opened, with an opening statement created by a person who is either famous, noted for some reason, or - and this is where I come in - doing something particularly interesting to the community at large.
Readers of the page submit questions in the hope that the person will answer them, and other readers vote these questions up and down. Questions that rise to the top are usually answered by the person, and these answers then generate a threaded discussion.
If the target person takes the time to create thoughtful answers the discussion can become quite interesting, and the IAmA concept has certainly taken off, with people from all walks of life hosting discussions on the site.
Jed and I are going to give it a try, and we've scheduled an IAmA for later this week. Our event though, will be an IAmA with a difference - we are going to coordinate it with a live Webcam session, and I will make a print - start to finish - while people watch (and hopefully ask interesting questions).
You might ask how I will possibly type my replies while printing, but don't worry, I have hired a transcriber - a young lady in the US - who is going to type madly in the background while I speak on the camera, and we'll put the text into the thread at the appropriate places.
Jed himself will answer whatever questions are directed to him ...
AND ... we have a bonus. I will make around 10 or so copies of the print (from our Portraits series), and after the session is over, will give these out to the contributors whose comments reach the top section of the page (voted by the contributors, of course)!
Don't miss this one! It will start at:
- 2pm Friday afternoon (US West coast)
- 5pm (US East coast)
- 10pm - or so (Europe)
- 7am Saturday (Tokyo)
... and will run at least until the prints are finished.
Note: we don't have a exact URL to send you yet, as that will not be known until a few minutes before the scheduled starting time, at the moment I initiate the thread. But if you watch the Reddit IAmA page around that time, you should find it with no problem ...
I hope to see you (and your questions) there! And tell your friends!
Portraits series cases arrive!
We finally have some cases available for our Portraits print series ...
At last! The long-awaited display/storage cases for our Portraits prints have started to arrive ...
And when I say 'cases' in plural, that's exactly what I mean - we have two types of case available! I have one type right here in my workroom, so am able to take some photos:
As for the other type, that is over at Jed's place, and I'll be able to show a photo as soon as he sends me some. For now, please visit the case page of the website for more information!
Wrapping things up!
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 1:18 AM, January 31, 2014
Where are our packages going?
As you might expect, among the subscribers to our new Ukiyoe Heroes Portraits series are many people with an interest in computer gaming. They are - of course - our 'target market' if you think in such terms. So it shouldn't come as any surprise to learn that we have subscribers who actually work in the game industry:
Here's another one:
But it's not just game companies that provide refuge for our subscribers. We also have prints going out each month to some top companies in the tech field, like this:
... and this very nice address:
I always get a smile when I see this package going through our system, imagining that the name is a 'cover', and the package is actually going to the CEO's office ... :~)
But speaking of that last one - to the Cupertino address - I got an advertising email from Apple just yesterday, with an image that made me look twice. Our subscriber working there must have received his first Portraits print a couple of weeks ago, and when he opened the envelope, found our ribbon-wrapped package inside:
And I now suspect that he doesn't work in the CEO's office, but in the advertising department, because look at this photo from the Apple ad in my email!
Hey! That was our totally original and completely unique - never done by anybody else - idea!
(Not! But we're happy to be in such classy company!)
Webcast with Jed ... recorded version
Jed is now back in the USA, but the Webcast lives on!
He was only here for a couple of hours one morning during his (very busy) trip to Tokyo this month, and while he was here, we put the Webcam on, sat him in a chair, and tossed questions his way. He was glad to escape once it was done!
We recorded the whole thing (about an hour of it), and you can see it over on the Ustream website.
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 12:23 AM, January 11, 2014
Jed & Dave - Live Webcast in Tokyo!
Jed & Dave - Together in Tokyo ... live webcast!
Set your calendar for the date/time:
- Tokyo: Monday January 20th, 10:00 AM
- US West coast: 5:00 PM Sunday January 19th
- US East coast: 8:00 PM Sunday January 19th
- London: 1:00 AM Monday January 20th (sorry!)
Jed is currently in Tokyo, and during his trip will - of course! - spend some time in Dave's workshop. We want to share this event with all our fans, so are planning a one-hour webcast live from the workshop. Jed and Dave in conversation will be the main focus of the broadcast, but we'll also take the camera for a 'walk' around the shop and let you look over the shoulder of the printers at work.
The broadcast will be visible on two web sites:
Dave's webcam page incorporates a live message board, which we will be monitoring during the course of the broadcast. Send in your questions and comments during the broadcast, or feel free to let us know in advance here on this Facebook page what topics you would like us to cover.
Don't miss this one!
The Portraits series is now up and running ...
The New Year has begun, as has our new Portraits series - we have begun shipping!
Hey, if Apple fans can do it, why can't we! Let's have a little series of 'unboxing' photos. We're pretty pleased with our packaging - it's both attractive and secure - and we hope you enjoy it too!
Rather than duplicate the content here on the blog, please visit the 'unboxing' page to see the complete series of photos ...
And if you want to join up and receive these beautiful prints yourself (or as a gift for somebody), please look at the Subscription Page.
Portraits milestone ...
Running the numbers on the Portraits series ...
Jed and I gave ourselves a bit of a 'break' a couple of months ago when the Chibi Heroes subscription series came to a close in October. I knew I wanted to continue issuing subscription prints of his work, and had been busy planning the 'sequel' for some months back, but decided not to start the next series right on the heels of the first one.
I decided to have a two-month gap, and to begin the new series with the turn of the year. There were a couple of reasons for this; first is that I intend to keep making such series for quite some time, and it seems to make sense to have them aligned with the calendar year - 'Our series for 2014!' etc. etc. But a more pressing reason was my workshop schedule. November and December are pretty tight around here, what with orders for the annual Gift Print streaming in all through that period, not to mention production of the New Year greeting card that we have to do every year (even though that doesn't bring in any revenue).
So I pushed back the start date of the new series to January. But this didn't mean keeping it secret! Of course we have been talking about it constantly over the past couple of months while we have been getting everything ready, making a web site, blog posts, YouTube videos, and keeping up a stream of updates for Jed's Facebook page. This all turned out to have a benefit that I hadn't particularly foreseen - the subscriber base had a chance to build up steadily over the two months, and earlier today we reached an interesting milestone. A new subscriber (the fourth one today - a student at the University of Massachusetts) joined a few minutes ago, giving us a total of 200 people now signed up for the series - just a few days before we actually 'open' it all up officially.
I'm pretty happy about this, as you might expect. I knew from the beginning that there would be quite a bit of interest in these prints, but I wasn't sure how many people would actually be willing to 'sign on' for the year-long adventure. And if the subscriber base had stayed in the sub-100 zone, I would have been in trouble. It has always been my intention to keep our prints as reasonably priced as possible, as I don't want them to be 'exclusive' in any way; I want normal people to be collecting them for fun, and not for any perceived 'investment' value. (Whether such value will exist in the future is really no concern of mine, and in any case, beyond my control ...)
When I tried to figure out the pricing for the series, I did so by making a spreadsheet of all the costs, then setting the price so that a figure of around 100 subscribers would be the basic break even point. Now with 'normal' printing - when you get your quote from Kinko's, etc. - prices might work something like this: 500 copies - $50.00 / 1,000 copies - $60.00 Most of the expense is in the setup, and adding more copies is not much more than the additional paper cost.
Woodblock printing doesn't work like that. Of course we have some basic costs that must be covered before the first copy is made, and which then don't increase much - the carving of the blocks is the prime example of that. But all the other expenses: printers, paper, packaging, design royalty, transaction fees, etc. and etc. vary directly in line with the quantity. There is almost no scaling advantage at all. Although adding subscribers over that 100 mark does add something to the bottom line, the margins are still very thin.
Anyway, getting to the 200 mark - double what I had roughly projected a couple of months ago - is very gratifying, and mostly so to the printers here, who are now assured of steady work for the next 12 months. They don't yet know what they will be printing, as Jed hasn't created all the designs yet of course, but they do know that there will be food on the table all year long!
So ... just what are the numbers like? Here's the basic spreadsheet (click to enlarge), showing costs for one Portraits print. The numbers are in yen, but as it happens, the yen/dollar rate these days is very close to 100/1, so those of you who know dollars should just read this sheet as though it were in pennies. If you see 1000 it means $10.
As you can see, the first 100 is just barely break-even (less actually, when you factor in some of the unaccounted expenses also mentioned at the bottom of the sheet). Upping the print run to 200 adds some breathing room, and puts us marginally 'in the black'. (If you're curious about why the carver's fee is based on a percentage of the quantity produced, something unheard of in this business, and why that percentage varies, you will find a basic explanation in the [very long] piece I wrote a few years ago outlining some of my plans for our business - 'Mokuhankan in the year 201x').
Honestly speaking, as I wrote in a blog post here a short time ago, the price should be higher. $35 would make much more sense, bringing the carvers and printers payments more into line with a good hourly rate, and leaving a slightly healthier 'house' margin. So we're going to think long and hard about this over the next few weeks, but I suspect that we are going to have to give in and put it up. But either way, we have a bunch of people busy working (and learning), more people busy providing paper and supplies, some ancillary people happy to have work supporting the production (packaging, etc.), and ... 200 (presumably) happy subscribers!
Not to mention the legacy: 200 x 12 = 2,400 beautiful woodblock prints with our names on, spread around the world to make their way down through the years ...
For those who are curious about that 'around the world' comment, here's a breakdown of the subscriber locations:
- USA : 124
- Canada : 14
- England : 11
- France : 11
- Australia : 11
- Switzerland : 6
- Mexico : 3
- Germany : 3
- Austria : 3
- Italy: 2
- Northern Ireland
- New Zealand
Woody mystery - the solution
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 11:43 AM, December 5, 2013
How the wooden prints were made ...
We have a solution to our mystery!
It's not so complicated actually. Looking through the stack of prints, and looking at the reverse side, I found one that showed a small 'patch' on the back. Looking closely I could see that there was a scrap of torn paper peeling off. It seems that the prints - although they look like wood from both front and back, are actually laid down on a thin paper.
So to test this, I took the 'sample' print that had been used for wrapping one set of blocks, and which was damaged in a few places anyway, put it into a shallow tray, and soaked in it warm water. Nothing happened at first, but after an hour or so, the glue had softened up, the paper backing came off, and the pieces floated apart. Here they are after drying:
The wood is insanely thin; my micrometer gives about .05~.06mm depending on the location.
I can't really claim that 'you can read a newspaper through it!', but it's close!
You can see that the wood is actually full of holes and gaps, where the softest part of each cell has just dissolved away.
So I guess the process went something like this:
- prepare a stack of the thin paper sheets
- brush glue over the top sheet
- shave off four or five thin strips of wood with the plane
- lay them one by one on the glue
- take that sheet aside and press it
- repeat ...
- make a batch of prints with the glued-up sheets
Normal pigments are transparent and end up being driven deep into the paper, but these prints are done with thickish opaque pigments, applied with a gentle flat baren, which sit up 'on top' of the surface (this is typical of most 'Kyoto' printing).
So now that we've got it all sorted out, what to do with the multiples that I have here? I'm going to keep a little stack of each design in our 'archive', but I see no reason not spread the joy a little bit, and there is certainly no sense in just hiding them all in a drawer forever, so I'll put them into our catalogue.
Please go and have a look!