Kickstarter Breakdown Pt.3 - Digital vs. Offset Printing

Kickstarter Breakdown Pt.3 - Digital vs. Offset Printing

In part one I talked about how continuing an ongoing series influenced the design of our campaign. Part two covered our experiences with research, analytics, and advertising. In this post I'll be going over the differences between digital and offset printing (as we see it). I was going to cover shipping in this post as well, but it started getting long again so I guess that'll have to wait for part IV! 


International Printing / Offset

For issue one, we came dangerously close to not making our New York City Comic-Con deadline because we didn't consider China's Golden Week holiday into our scheduling. We ended up printing in the USA, which increased our costs by quite a bit. This time around, we knew we wanted to print in Asia if at all possible in order to save money. Doing so meant testing international freight shipping. Long Beach had an ongoing strike near the launch of our Kickstarter, so we were definitely scared the decision to print offset internationally would backfire on us again.

We ended up working with Sam and Jacob from Kraken Print. They're pretty awesome and print books in Taiwan, which is kinda my ancestral homeland. Gotta rep, y'know? The books took about two months from order to arrival. If we had to do it again, we would've bought the books before the Kickstarter went live. The shorter your backers have to wait, the better their experience will be. We did our best with the first Kickstarter, but we knew our book was done before this second one. Still, we could've gotten our backers their rewards sooner had we ordered earlier, like before the campaign actually started. Lesson learned.

The quality of the books turned out amazing. They do a Kraken' job, that Sam and Jacob. 

Pros and Cons of Offset

The primary value of offset is that per unit costs go down drastically as the amount goes up. At the time of writing, printing 1,000 copies would cost about $2,000, or $1.98 per book, while printing 2,000 costs $1.58 / per, and then you get down to near the $.51 / per once you hit quantities of 4,000, where it seems to flatline for a little bit. The cheaper your per unit cost is, the more money you’ll make per sale of physical book. Of course, you need to have the capital to put down a couple thousand dollars which can seriously affect your cashflow (I talked a little bit about this in part I), need to store the books somewhere, and then you need to see if you even have the demand to support selling that many books. That’s determined by not only the quality of the book, but your marketing and salesmanship. Don’t forget time, as well - yours selling the books at cons, packaging stuff, etc. 

Quality is another consideration for Offset Printing. Yes, the quality is a little bit nicer, but to the naked eye (and if your digital printer has good equipment) the difference can be unnoticeable. More on this later. 

The downside of printing offset is time and minimum quantity.  Offset Printers only becomes worth it at quantities of 1,000+, though every additional thousand copies you order dramatically decreases the cost. While there are offset printers all over the world, none are cheaper than the ones in East Asia. The actual cost of the book is almost nothing, but shipping the books is another matter. Freight is slow - about a 65 day process. The major publishers (AFAIK) mostly print domestically because of this very reason. The money they would be able to save printing in Asia is negated by the additional two and a half months of turnaround time they would need to account for. Plus, at the quantities they print at (10k+) I'm sure the price per unit becomes much more palatable printing domestically. 

So yeah, a lot of factors to consider. In this case we went with 2,000 of each book. I would take 1500 and handle the bulk of shipping while Vince would take 500 of each and handle Europe. It’s a little early to tell how fast we’ll run out. This is something that’s kind of on our mind on the business end of things. If we run out of books again before the next Kickstarter, we’ll have to reprint, which is seriously expensive. It’s waaay cheaper printing more upfront, but the last thing you want to do is get stuck with thousands of books you can’t sell. 

Talking to Printers

With printing (as with a lot of industries, it seems like), the key is learning the phrases. Instead of asking for a comic book, ask for a saddle-stitched, full color booklet, 36 pages on #100 glossy exterior, #80 glossy (and so on and so forth). If you want to learn about the printing process, PrintNinja has a ton of great info online

As long as you know the terms you can go to almost any printer - including local ones - and ask about their prices. Printing comic books is no different from printing anything else.  There is no magic sauce that makes printing comics somehow more difficult or arcane or whatever from other things you would want to print. The only reason there are specific comic printers online is because those companies saw a market to capitalize on, and have thus focused their marketing to comic creators. I'm not saying these companies are bad - most are great - but limiting yourself to just comic printers limits your options.

What We Look For in a Printer

And btw, we're not experts at this by any means. Everything we know we've learned through the process of doing. So please take all this information with a grain of salt. That said, this is what we look for when working with a printer:

  • Paper Quality - How does it feel? How does it look?
  • Colors - What do the print colors look like? Are they accurate to our digital masters?
  • Coating - Makes things more or less shiny, sometimes gives it a different look. What are our options? What does each look like?
  • Binding - Very important. On two page spreads, are the two sides lined up? Is it bound evenly?
  • Price - how competitive are the prices compared to other printers? 
  • Customer Service - The tiebreaker. All of the above being equal, we will always go with the company that provides the best customer service. That means being attentive, professional, and courteous. 

A final note about the last item: sometimes we'll even go with a company that costs a little bit more if their customer service is outstanding. We've left companies with excellent print quality because their customer service stinks. This goes beyond the printers or merchants we use. Look, the last thing we want to deal with is someone thumbing their noses at us because they perceive us as small time or don't respect the work we do. 

A lot of printers deal with corporate clients who just throw money willy-nilly at their promotional materials. They rely on them not asking around, not double checking their prices and just accepting the $5k or $6k bill they need to print... postcards or something. Well, we're not them. Every dollar matters to us, so of course we're going to ask questions and make sure our money is being spent the right way. Sometimes when you ask a lot of questions without a lot of money people... ignore you or otherwise treat you like a second rate customer. There's a lot of that out there. Rather than dealing with it, we take our business elsewhere. 

The Variant 

For every issue we like to do Kickstarter exclusive variants. We figure these are like collector's editions, and as such Vince and I like to get a little crazy and work with artists from all over. We had a hard time picking this issue's variant, but in the end Vince came up with an awesome concept for a Japanese Sumi-e style ink wash / calligraphy.

An example of Sato-San's work.
He found Sato-san of MyCKs Studio, who does basically exactly what we were looking for: pop culture Sumi-E for things like Avatar: The Last Airbender. We talked about what to depict and settled on a key scene from the second issue: the moment Delmonte leaves William behind.

Sato-san delivered flawlessly. I love the interplay of blue and pink against the white negative space. It's almost like a flowery pattern you could print on a shirt! 

Printing Digitally On-Demand 

Because we only print the variants in limited quantity - usually around 100-150 - Vince and I turn to digital on-demand printing for the variants. The difference between on-demand and offset printing is honestly barely recognizable if you have a good printer. 

A comparison of our two different books:

On Demand Variant on the left, Offset Standard on the right. Apologies for the somewhat blurry photo!
This is something we were really hesitant about for our first issue. We were worried that the quality difference between offset and digital would be vast, but experience has taught us that it doesn't really matter. Every printer has different equipment though, and obviously the better equipped ones will deliver a higher quality product. 

We use Short Run Printing Ltd. because they've consistently delivered an excellent quality at a great price. Plus, their turnaround time is ridiculous, they're based in Arizona (close to LA), and their customer service is excellent. 

They really outdid themselves this time:

The Wax Seal 

One thing I thought would be cool is if we imprinted our wax seal onto the issue. We got two wax seals - one for Vince, one for Ray - commissioned during the first Kickstarter. We were playing around with the idea of packaging our stuff with it, but decided against it because turns out wax takes a bit of patience and time. In any case, I was super stoked with how these turned out, even if it did take some extra work:

From a business standpoint, items like the Kickstarter exclusive Variant and Wax Seal allow us to appeal to hardcore comic book collectors. Even if we do get picked up by a publisher we will never produce these specific products again. As such, we can charge a little bit more for the items, but we also put a lot of care into their production to ensure that our backers are really getting something unique and hopefully irreplaceable. 

Since our main business model is to reward our existing fans with low costs, it's important that we have a higher tier option for those who want to maybe support us a little bit more. The Variant and Wax Seal fit those needs perfectly. 

Part I: Continuing an Ongoing Series

Part II: Research, Analytics, & Advertising

Part III: Shipping


If you found this information helpful please be sure to check our comic, Skies of Fire. If you're already a fan, don't forget to sign up for our mailing listfollow us on twitter, and like us on facebook

Thanks all!
- Ray and Vince 
Back to blog