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Portraits milestone ...

Posted by Dave Bull on December 25, 2013 [Permalink]

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.

[I have also prepared a .pdf version, as well as an Excel version, if you want to play with numbers yourself ...]

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
  • Russia
  • Malaysia
  • Brasil
  • Sweden
  • Singapore
  • Guam
  • Northern Ireland
  • New Zealand
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Netherlands
  • Finland




Added by: Dave on December 26, 2013, 6:57 pm

I didn't mention anything about this in the post, but in case it's not clear - we certainly aren't closing off subscriptions at 200. The hard cherrywood allows very high numbers of impressions to be pulled, and 200 is basically just a warm-up for blocks like this. As long as we let them rest after each batch, and treat them carefully, they are capable of producing many many thousands of excellent prints.

Added by: Guillaume on December 27, 2013, 9:03 am

Great that it is doing so well, these details are quite interesting. How does a print run of these Portraits compare to the original Heroes that are still to come, is the quantity similar?

The most surprising of those stats to me is that none of the subscribers are from Japan. Why do you think that is?

Added by: Dave on December 27, 2013, 11:42 am

... compare to the original Heroes ...

We have a few major differences in the accounting/production between these Portraits and our main Ukiyoe Heroes. The first is that the Portraits are a subscription concept, and thus the price is naturally lower than what it would be if they were sold one-by-one (the same as your local newspaper subscription, I'm sure). Another big difference is that with these Portraits, we basically know how many we are 'guaranteed' to sell, so the accounting can be based on that. This is not true with the main Heroes. The original group was 'guaranteed', because of the Kickstarter support, but the ones we are making now, and issuing one-by-one, have nowhere near such a firm base. They are all now fairly risky for me; the carving investment is on the order of 400,000 yen (calculated on a time basis), and the printing fees are far higher than with these small Portraits prints. When Jed and I decide to issue each one of those Heroes, we are taking a flyer on it, and a couple of them have not recouped their costs.

As far as publicly showing all the accounting, I'm not at liberty to do that with the Heroes. Our subscription series - the 'Chibi Heroes' and 'Heroes Portraits' - are published by me. I conceived them, I manage them, I sell them, and I pay Jed a royalty to use his images (as you can see from the spreadsheet above).

The Ukiyoe Heroes are the other way around - they are published by Jed. He conceived the concept, manages the series, and contracts with us here in Japan to do the 'manufacture' (if that is the right word ...). We sell them to him in batches at a negotiated wholesale price, and he then sells them through his website (and through some galleries) as he chooses. I have no access to his accounting, nor is it any of my business ...

* * *

... none of the subscribers are from Japan ...

This is easily explained - I haven't had time to make a Japanese version of the website yet, nor do we have any kind of a Social Media presence in Japan. Basically, very few people here in Japan have even heard of Ukiyoe Heroes, let alone the new Portraits.

We'd like to do more locally, but just don't have the manpower to get things going ...


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