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A 'spot' of trouble ...

Posted by Dave Bull at   5:11 PM, June 24, 2014 [Permalink]

About six weeks back, I made a few posts in a row about Raining and Pouring, in which I mentioned that because of some recent wonderful publicity tossed our way in the gaming world, we have had a dramatic boost in subscribers to our Heroes Portraits series. To handle this, we need more printers, and I talked about how I had been given an introduction to a workshop down in Kyoto - a place that was highly recommended as being completely capable of handing our level of work.

I followed up on the introduction, made a quick Shinkansen trip to Kyoto for a day, and set things up with the workshop master. He is about my age, has been running the workshop for most of his life, and (I understand) inherited the thing from his father (and perhaps previous generations; I'm not sure about the exact history of the place.)

At the time I visited, his own workbench was bare, but three printers were busy beavering away on a variety of different prints; one was making some kind of buddhist image on commission from a temple (he told me), a young girl was making some kind of small tourist-type prints, and a young man was working on quite a large stack of Hiroshige ukiyoe prints. These guys seem to be covering a lot of bases!

I discussed my requirements with the master, showed my sample image, the blocks, and my stack of paper (enough for 150 copies of the design). He inspected it all carefully, we discussed details of the work, talked a bit about price and deadlines, etc. etc. and agreed that they would take on this job.

While I was sitting there, a phone call came in - it was from the carver back in Tokyo who did the introduction. He was a tad worried that I would not be able to properly explain my requirements, so was adding his voice to the mix. He explained to the workroom master just what kind of printing job I was expecting to have done - specifically mentioning that this was traditional 'ukiyo-e' type work, with rich smooth colour, printed with transparent pigments, fitted properly into strong outlines. (It was worth emphasizing this, because a lot of work done in the Kyoto tradition is different, utilizing opaque pigments gently applied on 'top' of thick hard paper.)

But the communication seemed to all go well, so I left the job there and returned to Tokyo. I guess you can perhaps guess why I am blogging about this today ...

Yes indeed. We received the package of 150 prints the other day, and they are all unusable. Here are a few images; first, the sample we gave him (printed by one of the ladies working here):

Here is one of their prints (a random choice, not specifically 'bad' or 'good'):

All 150 of these prints have not been sold in advance, 'just' around 80 of them, so we hit the Action Stations button right away, cut and moistened a stack of paper, and I myself printed up enough to cover the immediate requirements for this week. Here's one from my just-completed stack:

At this small scale they don't look so different, but popup the three enlargements and compare: the overall colour tone (theirs is speckled and ugly all over the print), the registration (their red block is completely off register, including the eye!), the beard ... the hairlines ... It's an absolute mess, and if this was presented to me by one of the apprentices here, I would just look back at them in astonishment ... "Are you kidding me?"

So now we're in a jam, a real jam. Our three outside pros are all tightly booked up for at least the next few months (both with work from us - Ukiyoe Heroes - and from other publishers). The ladies here are all working at the limits of the amount of time that they have available, and it gets worse: Ayumi-san is heading back to her parents' place in the country for the month of August, Shiba-san is off for three weeks now, and Teiko-san has been assigned to working on the planning for the Asakusa project.

As to why this has happened, why they would turn in such obviously bad work, I have no clue. The price I offered was very fair, my deadline was not tight, and I provided the best paper in the country, cleanly carved blocks, and a clear sample. There is absolutely no excuse for what happened. And it wasn't that they had decided that they didn't want our work, because during the (very difficult) conversation that I had by phone with the workshop master earlier today, he actually asked when I would be sending the next job ...

As if.




Added by: mike L on June 25, 2014 12:47 PM

I'm a subscriber to the Heroes' Portrait series and though I can't imagine it would help, I would be totally ok if the prints had to be delayed a bit, even a month if it would mean you could more comfortably catch up. They're so wonderful and I love getting them in the mail. I'd rather you were happy with the results and didn't feel so pressured.

Added by: Dave on June 25, 2014 2:10 PM

I would be totally ok if the prints had to be delayed a bit ...

You're in the 'early' group - the people who subscribed either last year or in the first couple of months of this year. That group we have under control, and the prints are going out in the first week of each month (as their respective payments come in).

It's the 'second' group of subscribers - the people who started up after that big vblog hit a couple of months back - that we are scrambling with. We knew at that time that we couldn't absorb them into the main group, so we began an entirely new set of printing, starting back with the first print in the series. Those people are thus on a 'delayed' schedule, getting the prints one each month, but a few months behind the initial group. It is this group that we are handling with a combination of in-house printing and outside commissioning, as we did with this batch of 150.

The outside people (at least this particular group) have turned out to be useless, and we're running out of alternatives. Our stalwart craftsman Numabe-san has agreed to postpone some other work and do an emergency batch for us this month, and the batch after that is already under control, but somewhere around August, the crunch will hit - unless I'm able to find more labour ... acceptable labour.

Added by: Guillaume on June 26, 2014 2:51 AM

Unfortunate that this didn't work out, especially with so much going on with your business at the same time. Like Mike said, I'm sure most would understand that labor-intensive work like this can't always be forced to a deadline.

It's too bad you can't have Numabe-san work on your designs full-time. I received the 'Flight of Fantasy' print last week and even with such a complex printing process the result is just perfect, not a single minuscule flaw to be found. He really is an incredible professional. Can't believe how well it turned out, seeing it in person.

At least this is a reminder of how high the quality of the prints you send out is compared to some of your contemporaries.

Added by: Slawik on June 27, 2014 6:15 AM

Hi Dave!

I'm also an happy "early" subscriber to your beautiful monthly prints and as Mike said, I wouldn't mind my print to be delayed if it could help you manage this tough time.

After reading your message, I was surprised to see the subscription was still very much possible on your website. Why not thinking of a limited number for these? That could help in the future, even though it would be a pity to have to refuse people...

Anyway, if you need a delay, all you need is asking and I'm sure everybody will be pleased to help!

Added by: Dave on June 27, 2014 7:43 AM

I was surprised to see the subscription was still very much possible on your website.

We need new subscribers now, more than ever - even though that sounds like a contradiction!

Once we made the decision to move ahead with 'group two' - or whatever we call it - we made a commitment to a certain number. We can't order just ones and twos from a printer, either inhouse or outside, it has to be a 'batch'. And in the case of an outside professional, it has to be a substantial number, enough to make it worth his while to get all the colours mixed, do a test run, etc. and etc. 100 copies or so is about the minimum you can order for prints of this complexity; below that it just starts to get uneconomical for them (preparation time outweighs production time).

So when I made the order to the Kyoto workshop I settled on 150 copies. But our second group was nowhere near that large, so this meant that our Portraits subscription project (taken as a whole) actually moved into the red. So of course I kept the subscription page open, so that we could gradually build up subscribers to encompass most of that 150.

If we grew to fill the second group, then I would have to make the same decision again - close it off, or start a third group.

So now we're stuck in the middle; prints #1 and #3 have been reprinted to the 150 level, and #2 will be done so for us by Numabe-san, as I mentioned above. So that money is now spent, and has to be recovered. By keeping subscriptions open, I'm of course gambling that I am indeed going to be able to find a solution for this. Might as well be 'hung for a sheep' ...


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