Fulfilling Kickstarter Orders with Shipstation

Wonderful! You’ve just completed a successful Kickstarter (or some other crowdfunding or pre-order campaign) and you’ve been successfully funded. You’ve got that wonderful feeling of elation – until you realize you have to fulfill hundreds (maybe thousands) of orders. Suddenly, a dose of reality hits. How in the world are you going to manage that?!

When I completed my first Kickstarter campaign for Marooned, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had to ship out over 200 large books all over the world. I had prepared with boxes and shipping materials – I had even properly planned for the shipping costs.

A Time Machine Would be Handy

TARDISWhat I did NOT plan for was the time it would take to manually copy and paste orders, print them out on paper, cut them to size and affix them to boxes. Even worse, the hours and HOURS spent at the post office with bundles of packages waiting for each one to be weighed and paid for.

The worst part of the process being international orders and the extra paperwork. UGH.

It took me close to two months to fulfill all the orders, and untold hours of my time. When I closed my second Kickstarter campaign for Rock & Tin, I vowed to find another, better way.

And that better way is ShipStation.com.

Using ShipStation, I fulfilled around 130 orders in less than two weeks, and I spent almost no time at the post office. And it was the easiest thing in the world.

How it Works

ShipStation partners with all kinds of marketplaces to suck your orders into the system. When you sign up, you get a Stamps.com account as well to handle the postage. So the bottom line is you pull up an order, print out the shipping, affix to your package and drop it off at the Post Office.

Here’s how it worked specifically for me.

ShipStation isn’t connected to Kickstarter (yet), but that’s not really a problem. First I exported all my orders from my backers into .csv format (spreadsheet format). Then I imported them all as “manual orders” into ShipStation. It basically looks like this:

orders

You can customize what columns you want to see. Here I have the backer reward level (item name), I can see notes I left (especially for add-ons, as you can see in the pop-up window), order number, quantity and customer name. I like that in the name, there’s an icon telling you whether it’s a residential, apartment or even international order. The red icon is an address that has not been validated.

Clicking on order gives you a detail view (either full screen or in the right rail) like so:

order

You can see all the information is at your fingertips – including the shipping cost. And I can tell you that I only skimmed the surface of the features available – you can customize and automate things as much as you want.

A closer look at the shipping info panel shows you how you can figure the shipping rate:

rate

You can save presets for as many types of shipping as you like. You can choose if you want delivery confirmation, or insurance. And note, both the insurance AND the shipping rates you pay are discounted off the retail price! This saves you money on your campaign.

The best thing about all this is that there are no extra forms to fill out EVEN on international orders. It all prints out on ONE label that you affix to your package.

When you print a label, your Stamps.com account is debited, and the order automatically moves to the “shipped” section. And you move on to the next one. It’s that easy. And let me tell you how awesome it is simply walking into the Post Office and dropping off a stack of books at the counter and walking away – it’s like you are cheating at life!

Hook up All Your Stores

I also took some orders from my StoreEnvy.com store. Because ShipStation supports Store Envy as a sales channel, it was a simple matter to hook them up, and those orders were automatically sucked in, and just as easy to fulfill.

stores

What are the Costs?

All this certainly sounds awesome, but you are probably wondering about the cost. That’s probably the best part. It depends on how much you ship, of course. The Stamps.com part – you are already buying postage either way – so not only is that a wash, but as I said you are getting a better rate.

The pricing model is based on amount of stores (sales channels) and shipments you send out. If you had more than one channel you can ship up to 1,500 packages per month, you’d pay $45/month. BUT WAIT.

I’d say that is worth the cost anyway, but if you stick to one channel, you can ship up to 500 packages and only pay $25/month. BUT WAIT!

They have an UNDOCUMENTED “Starter” plan that allows you to ship up to 50 packages per month for only $9! That’s the plan I am on now. But how did I ship out all my Kickstarter packages and only pay the $9 rate?

See, this is why free promotional deals are worth it! You get ONE month free – to use the thing like a rented mule. I got everything done in two weeks, as I mentioned, then when it came time to pay, I went down to the starter plan. Truth is, you could just cancel at that point. But it’s a valuable service that I plan to continue using.

What do I need to use ShipStation?

Not a whole lot – but a few things can help.

  • You need a scale to weigh your packages properly. If you weigh things wrong, your customers could end up owing postage, and you do NOT want that. I picked up this scale for under $20 and it’s perfect.
  • You’ll need a credit card if you plan to keep the service beyond the 30-day trial.
  • Depending on how many packages you are shipping, you may want to invest in a label printer. I ended up not doing that, and just printed them on paper, then taped them to the package. I will say having a label printer would make the process even faster. But they can run around $200-$250 (new at least) so you need to have the volume to justify the cost. Eventually I plan on getting one though.
  • You at least need a printer to print your labels.

That’s it! The other thing you’ll need is some kind of plan to fill all the leisure time you’ll have after fulfilling your orders – because you are going to steam through them!

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the service. And to be clear, ShipStation is NOT paying me or asking me to write this. I wrote this because I love the service, and think it’s an awesome tool for you to use.

Check them out at ShipStation.com.

How to Use Google Sheets to Track Your Crowdfunding Expenses

One of the scariest things about launching a crowdfunding campaign is knowing whether or not you have accounted for all the money you have to spend vs. what you collect. The internet is littered with crowdfunding horror stories, where creators lost all their profits – or worse, had to dig into personal finances – because of unforeseen expenses.

Well, I’ve got some good news for you. You can avoid such a situation by planning out your campaign using Google Sheets – and updating it live as your campaign progresses. I’ve used this technique on both my successful crowdfunding campaigns (and I made a profit on both), and I’m going to show you how to do it for yourself.

Fail to Plan? Then Plan to Fail

The title is a cliche, but it’s true. You want to plan for ALL your campaign expenses BEFORE you launch. And then you want to match that up to your goal to see if what you are planning on doing is really something viable that will actually turn a profit.

So what are the key expenses for which you have to account?

The cost of your product

In my case it is graphic novels. So I need to know the printing costs (at various price break levels). But it’s not just printing the book! It’s proof copies, any other related printer expenses (pre-press, for example, if you need it) and very importantly – shipping the books to YOU. (You have to get them before you can send them out!)

Shipping costs

dnf

When you read failure stories, it’s often because of this. People often just leave it out entirely! Not only do you have to account for domestic shipping, you have to account for international should you be shipping abroad. And that can get expensive.

And something else here is important. You want to know almost exactly what it costs to ship your item BEFORE you order it! You need that number. How do you do it without the thing in your hand? Make a mockup, or find something similar. For my books, I found a same-sized book, got the box I would use, and brought it to the post office. I had them calculate domestic shipping (media mail) and international (first class).

And make sure you are accounting for multiple shipments if you are making them. (I suggest you try NOT to do this). For both Marooned and Rock & Tin, everything that could be gotten from the campaign could fit in the one box. I did not have to make any extra shipments to incur extra costs.

Extras and Fees

Stickers, buttons, bookmarks, t-shirts, whatever it is – find out the cost to buy it AND the cost to ship it to YOU (just like the books.)

You’ll pay a % fee for the crowdfunding platform plus a fee for credit card processing. Make sure you look up this information on the platform of your choice.

Setting up the Google Sheet

With all this information at hand, you want to start building your spreadsheet. We’re not going to do anything difficult here, so don’t worry. First, you create a new spreadsheet by going into Google Docs and creating a new Sheet. (If it’s defaulted to docs, you can go to the menu in the upper left corner of the browser).

Next, we create a section up top for expenses. I like using some color formatting to make things easier to read. You can copy what I did, or you can roll your own.

s1

My format is to use 6 columns (the one to the left of notes is just for readability). On each line, enter an expense item. For things that change over the course of the campaign, make use of the quantity column to update things on the fly. For things that won’t – like my button or sticker order, just make the quantity 1 and put in the total amount. The notes field is optional but can help you remember things.

Automatically calculating the cost

We make our sheet automatic by using the SUM functionality. As long as you know basic math, you can use this – it’s not hard 🙂 Examine the image below:

sum

You can create a SUM function by clicking the button highlighted to the right (with the tooltip “Functions”). But you can also just select a cell, and type “=SUM(” to get started. If you look at the SUM I have set up to calculate the cost of my softcover books, you can see how simple it is. The numbers inside the parenthesis are cell numbers of the spreadsheet. “B3” means column B, row 3. (You can see row numbers in the image, apologies!)

So I am multiplying (since the asterisk means multiply) cell B3 by C3 – in other words, 46 books at $6.69 equals $307.74. And the great thing about this is that if you copy cell D3 now and paste it in cell D4 (the next row) it will copy the formula! Now you can keep adding quantity and cost for your rows that way until you are done. And when you change those numbers on the fly, they will be recalculated.

I did the same thing for campaign fees in another section below the first, until I have this:

s2

And you can see the row numbers here as well. Now the next trick is to add all these expenses together.

Showing total expenses

Now that we entered all this information, we want a full picture of the cost.

fees

I’ve created three more rows. And we’re going to use three more SUMs. For the total base expenses, I wanted to add up the “Cost” column for all those rows. That’s easy to do using a simple colon. So in the example above, =SUM(D3:D11) means “add the total of rows 3-11 in column D. That gives me that first total (or “Toal!).

For the total fees, I did the same thing for the bottom section – just added D14:D15. Then to get my Total Project Expenses, I added the two total cells together =SUM(D18+D19). Now I have the total money that I am responsible for. (Note, some expenses are estimated, like credit card fees, so be aware of that.) 

Add in the good stuff!

Now that we’re done with the bad news, let’s put in the good news. We make a row above expenses that is for funds raised. If you are still in the planning stage, this is funds projected. Before you jump into this, you definitely want to have some sort of an idea of how much you expect to sell. You should not be going into this without an established audience.

In my case, I knew how much readership I had (and how many Patrons I have on Patreon.com). I did a quick poll to see how many people were interested in buying a book – with the full awareness that polls are not reliable! People who will buy will not answer, and people who say they will buy end up not buying. But still, it’s not a bad idea to get some kind of ballpark starting data to use with all your other insights.

I took that number, what I knew about my readers, what I knew about people who bought things from me before and people I was currently talking to who expressed interest in buying the new book. I came up with a conservative number of buyers, and figured out how many books I’d need for that. This is how I crafted my funding goal.

My projection actually was pretty accurate, if a bit low – which is good because I easily met my goals for both campaigns. So with that row placed, we now have this (remember, this amount is manually entered):

raised

Calculating the live situation

You can probably tell from how we have these rows laid out that we’re going to logically subtract the expenses from the funds raised (or projected if you are just starting) to see how things stand.

So we’ll add one more row called “Gain/Loss.” We’ll subtract the total expenses from the funds raised/projected using the simple =SUM(D17-D20). Note, with all these sums, your numbers will likely be something different, but the examples should show you what to do.

gainloss

Ta-da! Now you have a LIVE view into the current state of your campaign. Each time you change a cell, all the values will update. So the complete sheet looks like this (as of halfway through my campaign):

sheet

And I can see that I am currently $840 in the green. Now I can adjust the funds raised each day, add to the number of books to print, adjust the shipping (I like to keep a running total of each shipping method as I go) and so forth.

If another expense comes up, you can add a row in. If it’s in between your SUM range (Like D3:D11) then the sheet should just automatically update.

The only thing missing from here would be taxes, but I feel like that really doesn’t fit in.

Ideally, you make this spreadsheet BEFORE you launch. Estimate what you think you can realistically raise (even if it’s only an educated guess). Then you can put your funding goal in as that number to start, and you’ll see if you need to adjust.

As your campaign goes on and you meet your goal, this spreadsheet will be an invaluable tool to help you decide how to implement stretch goals or add-ons, and how those costs will affect your bottom line.

Now go forth and conquer!

7 Great Animated Films to watch on Amazon Prime

Animation and comics are kind of like blood-brothers, so it’s no surprise that I am a lover of animated features. It just so happens that there are some really wonderful animated films you can watch on Amazon Prime for free. If you’re a fan of animation like me, you’ll want to fire up your watchlists and add these films. Here they are (in no particular order):

catinparis

A Cat in Paris

This hand-drawn Oscar nominated film comes from the animation studio Folimage. The first reason you want to watch this film is the unique and lush visuals. It’s like watching a modern museum painting move. Really wonderful character designs, color and movement style.

Dino is a cat that leads a double life. By day he lives with a little girl named Zoe, but at night Dino works with Nico, a cat burglar. Everything is not right with Zoe and her mother – a strong, local police detective, They are both struggling with the death of the father. All these characters, along with the local mob, intersect to provide a very interesting and satisfying story.

One reviewer stated the film is “practically an anti-Disney kids’ movie: it’s stylish and unpredictable.” And this is very true. You’ll revel in the beautiful drawings, and you’ll be riveted by the story. The American distribution has Marcia Gay Harden, Anjelica Huston and Matthew Modine as vocal talent. This film is suitable for all ages.

kells

The Secret of Kells

Another Oscar nominated film, and another film with amazing visuals. This time, the drawing style is a geometric style that leads the animation style to present something really unique and visually delightful. The character designs are amazing, the colors are wonderful, but maybe the coolest thing is the way the backgrounds are as much a character as anything else, and play a part in the animation.

The story revolves around Brendan, who dreams of scribing the greatest book of all time, but he’s stifled by his uncle, Abbot Cellach, who wants Brendan to focus on helping the villagers to build a wall around Kells to help protect them from an impending Viking attack.

But when the famous Brother Aidan turns up from another village that’s been attacked by the Vikings, Brendan is fascinated by his work. Eventually Aidan asks Brendan to help him finish the now legendary Book of Kells, which would be a dream come true (instead of building a wall). Now, Brendan must defy his uncle and venture into the forest outside Kells and confront his fears of the “Dark One” to find inspiration to finish the great Book of Kells.

Poetry, Vikings, mythical creatures, family, wolves, even a little romance – this story has everything that you will love. Also suitable for all ages.

momo

A Letter to Momo

The only anime movie on the list, this movie has a powerful story. While not a Studio Ghibli movie, it certainly will remind you of one with both the quality of the art and the story.

The last time Momo, a young teenage girl, saw her father they had a fight – and now all she has left to remember him by is an incomplete letter, a blank piece of paper penned with the words “Dear Momo” but nothing more. This final event with her father torments Momo as she and her mother move to a new island home.

As Momo tries to make sense of these two words and guess what her father was trying to tell her, some strange incidents occur on the island, which is otherwise tranquil. People’s orchards are ransacked by an unknown person, and some of their prized belongings start to go missing. Momo also starts to hear strange sounds coming from the attic in her house.

Unable to convince her mother of the strange sounds, Momo embarks on an adventure to discover the source of these disturbances, and finds herself involved with some very strange creatures. Momo will discover that all these occurences, even the death of her father, are interconnected.

A really great movie to watch with your whole family, and deals in a wonderful way with the death of a loved one. It even manages to have a real nice feel good ending.

nocturna

Nocturna

Once again, with Nocturna you’ll be subjected to a creative style and beauty that is lacking in mainstream animated films (especially those of the hand drawn variety, as few as they are.) Nocturna is a Spanish-French animated film produced in 2007 by Filmax Animation.

Tim lives in an aging orphanage, where the nights are something special for him. The light reflected from the stars is the only cure for his fear of the dark. The other kids think he’s a little crazy, and get mad at him after he refuses to retrieve a ball that fell into the basement because of his fear. The kids steal the doorknob to the shutters of the window that Tim used to watch his star, forcing Tim to travel to the rooftop. Once there, he manages to spot it, when suddenly it dissapears. Unfortunately it’s not going to be the last one.

Tim meets the Cat Shepherd, who takes him to see Moka, the guardian of the night within the Night World, and pleads for him to return the stars to the night sky. Moka pays scarce attention to the boy’s pleas, so Tim asks the Cat Shepherd to take him to the Lighthouse of the Stars, where he thinks he may find the answer to the strange phenomena. They race against the clock to stop the threat known as “The Darkness” and save Nocturna.

Another unique story that you will want to revisit more than once. Suitable for all ages.

enest

Ernest & Celestine

A film which has won boatloads of awards (including of course, an Oscar nomination), it’s based on a series of children’s books of the same name published by the Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent. But do not be put off because these are based on books for kids. This is a wonderfully heartwarming story that everyone can enjoy.

Once again, we have a foreign-made film that simply looks beautiful. There’s some amazing animation here, with fun chase scenes and perfectly done character movement. There’s a couple scenes where a large number of mice are animated as one entity, and it is just fantastic.

This gorgeously animated film is the story of an unlikely friendship between a bear, Ernest, and a mouse named Celestine. Celestine is collecting bear teeth (the mice use them as replacements) when she gets trapped in a garbage can. Ernest has woken from his winter slumber hungry, and he finds Celestine. She convinces him not to eat her, and instead break into the candy shop where he can eat all the sweets he likes.

When he gets caught the next morning, Celestine offers to free him for one big, huge favor. Their partnership leads to a massive upheaval of both mouse and bear culture. This movie has become one of my all-time favorites, and I admit, I keep watching it over and over.

point

The Point

This one has a special place for me, because I first watched it way back in elementary school – and depending on which version you watch, it has Ringo Starr as the narrator. Think of a feature-length version of a Schoolhouse Rock video, and you’ll get a bit of an idea how this movie feels.

Directed by Academy Award-winner Fred Wolf, “The Point” tells the story of Oblio, a round-headed boy living in the land of “Point,” where everything and everybody has one. But unfortunately, Oblio was born with a round head – he has no point!

When Oblio offends the son of the nasty Count, the King is forced to banish Oblio, along with his trusty dog, Arrow, to the Pointless Forest. Oblio has a wild adventure and comes to find out that even the Pointless Forest has a point. Then Oblio begins his return journey to the Land of Point to face the count and give an account the King.

The tale is narrated by Ringo Starr and includes songs written and sung by Grammy Award-winner Harry Nilsson. It has a real fun 60’s feel to it – almost like an old Beatles video mixed with Saturday morning cartoons. The songs are catchy (especially “Me and my Arrow”) and fun. Not only is it a great bit of nostalgia, but it’s also a great film with a good message, too.

The Last Unicorn

The newest addition, this 1982 feature just got added to Prime. There’s so much to love about this animated feature. First, it’s a Rankin Bass creation. If you are old enough to know who Rankin Bass is, then you know most everything they made was wonderful in some fashion.

The Last Unicorn is the story of a unicorn who goes out into the world to find out what happened to all the other unicorns. She soon comes to find that a mysterious creature called the Red Bull has driven them all away into the kingdom of King Haggard.

Along the way she is captured and then befriended by a wizard and a serving maid, and they make their way to the King Haggard’s castle to see if they can solve the mystery of the missing unicorns.

The movie is based on the famous book by Peter S. Beagle, and he also wrote the screenplay.

The animation is well done and definitely has that Rankin Bass feel (some of the characters feel similar to those of The Hobbit in design). But the Lady Amalthea/Last Unicorn definitely has a slight Anime feel to her, and it’s a very appealing mix.

What is unique about this movie is that it really has an all-star voice cast, long before such things were a staple in animated features. I think this is partly because some of these actors were just getting started in their careers. Notably:

  • Mia Farrow as the Unicorn / Lady Amalthea
  • Alan Arkin as Schmendrick the Magician
  • Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir
  • Angela Lansbury as Mommie Fortuna
  • The late Christopher Lee is King Haggard

Lastly, the film features a wonderful soundtrack by the 70’s band America. The songs are really wonderful.

Taken as a whole, The Last Unicorn is a real treat to watch, and has plenty of fun and entertaining moments, as well as some sadness for the plight of the unicorns. Definitely don’t miss this one if you have never seen it.

So what are you waiting for? Head on over to Amazon Prime and get these into your watchlist. You’ll be happy you did!

Yiynova MSP19U+ Review (vs. Cintiq 24HD)

It’s been some 4 months since I purchased the Yiynova MSP19U+ tablet monitor to complete my Marooned graphic novel. I’ve put it through it’s paces, and this is my review and recommendation of the display.

The Yiynova is a direct competitor to the Cintiq tablets by Wacom. Probably the key issue with the Cintiq tablets is their price. For the large tablets, Wacom’s Cintiq runs from $2000 – $2500. The Yiynova comes in significantly less at $600. Let’s face it, that is a tremendous savings. And if artists face one challenge almost all the time, it’s the cost of materials and equipment.

I had been working on a Cintiq 24HD at my previous job, doing my drawing at lunch or before/after hours. It’s an amazing piece of equipment, but I could not afford $2,500 for one – and I needed to finish my graphic novel. So a tablet that was $1,900 cheaper was very appealing, and I pulled the trigger after reading some positive reviews.

I’m going to give you the bottom line up front: The Yiynova does the job, but it is no Cintiq. To friends I’ve often put it this way: The Yiynova is a Chevrolet, but the Cintiq is a Rolls Royce. Here’s why.

  • Resolution: The Yiynova ships at 1440 x 900. The Cintiq 24HD is at 1920 x 1200 – significantly higher. I didn’t initially think this would be a big deal, but it turns out that it really affects how much you want to zoom in, and it affects how much you can see. The Yiynova gives you a much more cramped working area. I really miss being able to see more of the page, and being able to see more of what I am working on without having to zoom out. It has definitely affected the way I work.
  • Viewing Angle: The Yiynova’s H:85°/85°, V: 80°/80° is substantially worse than the Cintiq’s 178° / 178°. This means you really need to be right on top of the tablet to see properly. This is especially a problem with color, because it really affects how color looks off-angle.
  • Enclosure/Build: The Yiynova feels $1,900 cheaper. Does this mean it’s going to fall apart, or not work properly? No, I’ve not had any problems of that sort. On the other hand, you can move the thing around with the weight of your arm if you are not careful – so you have to be careful. On the Cinitiq you tend to forget you are doing anything but drawing. On the Yiynova, you are always aware that you are on a device.
  • Comfort: This might be one of the biggest issues I have. The Yiynova isn’t very comfortable to work on. Partially because of the lighter weight, and definitely because it’s just not as adjustable as the Cintiq. Particularly the Cintiq 24HD is more like a drafting table that you can lean on and go to town. It’s very tricky to find a comfortable position on the Yiynova.
  • Sensitivity: The two devices both have 2048 levels of sensitivity. But the Cintiq feels better, draws better. It’s hard for me to say exactly what it is that makes it feel that way, but it just does.
  • Pen: The pen works fine generally, although the rubber slip cover around the button has come off for some reason. Again, it doesn’t quite feel as substantial.
  • Controls: One last big downside of the Yiynova is that it lacks onboard hotkeys/controls. This is a big plus of the Cintiq, which has customizable controls that really helps workflow. Yiynova has an updated version that does have a row of buttons on the top, so I would definitely look at that one.

It’s not that I cannot get work done on the Yiynova, because I certainly can. I’m doing all my Rock & Tin pages with it, and it’s working just fine. But I long for the days when I had access to the Cintiq 24HD. There really is a large gap in quality, fit and finish and functionality between the two.

If you can save the money for a Cintiq, I would go that route. You could look at the Wacom Companion with the smaller amount of memory which runs for $1,800. (Review by Krishna). And you could be mobile. But for a couple hundred bucks more, you could have the Cintiq 22HD. I still personally think the 24HD is the best of the best. My hope is to maybe pick up a used one in the future.

Yiynova is doing a great job giving arists an alternative in a space where Wacom has practically no competition, and thus no pressure to lower prices. But they do need to improve their products to be more comparable – even if they need to raise the prices a bit. Only a more comparable product will make Wacom feel any pressure.

10 Reasons why The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is NOT Tolkien’s Story

UPDATE on 1/12/17

It had been awhile since I published this and read through the comments. One thing that has since become apparent is that the fault of this largely belongs at the feet of Del Toro and the film studio. In a nutshell, the story was built by Del Toro’s team, and when Jackson jumped in at the last moment, he didn’t get time to adjust anything. I still believe he could have made changes and fixed things, but he was in a very difficult situation.

I’ve also tried to clean this up a bit and shorten it.

Regardless, the films ares still a tragedy. This short 6-minute video explains the issues.

As a lifelong devoted fan of Tolkien’s writings, I was intensely disappointed after viewing “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug.” I felt compelled to blog about it, because I feel like it’s important for one simple reason: to help people understand that the large screen adaptation of Tolkien’s work is not Tolkien’s story.

story

I’ve provided some background and detail on the list, below. If you don’t care about my reasoning or the issues that I feel are important to the movie’s failure, you can cut to the chase and just read the list at the end.

Your Objections

I understand that a movie based on a book  is an adaptation because cinema is a different medium from the written word. While many would consider me a purist, I’m not such a purist that I can’t understand that changes must be made in order to make a movie watchable and engaging.

No, this is not some throw-a-fit session because the movie doesn’t match the book. It’s all about what is the story, and what isn’t. When I complain about things being in the movie that are not in the book, the problem is that’s it’s a worse than being a departure from the real story – it’s generally an addition/fabrication that makes the story worse, or causes us to lose out on wonderful things that were originally there.

A Quick Note on the LOTR Films

 

Let’s briefly touch on the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies. I think they are amazing pieces of work. They are stirring on both a visual and emotional level, and on many occasions completely exceeded my expectations. As for the adaptation, I can understand and agree with the omission of Tom Bombadil. The changing of Glorfindel to Arwen during the flight to the fords makes perfect sense – especially to bring a more feminine tone to the movies.

Even the extended scenes with Arwen that were written were written faithfully based on Tolkien’s own work in the appendices – and they fit into the narrative of the LOTR stories as a whole. The story of Arwen and Aragorn is a compelling one, and it reaches back to the story of Beren and Luthien in Tolkien’s historical works. How stirring is the scene with Arwen wearing her funeral garb, mourning over Aragorn’s death?

arwens_fate

 

While I would take issue with a small handful of things in the movies, on balance they are a wonder. It seems the only times there’s a bit of trouble is when Peter Jackson puts his writer hat on.

The Heart of the Matter

We are dealing with the most famous work of high fantasy ever written. It was written by a man whose works in worldbuilding are unparalleled, and by a man who frankly created the genre of high fantasy. If you doubt me in this, you might take a moment to read this commentary by a reader on Reddit.

It will help you appreciate the magnitude of what kind of writer Tolkien was – what kind of scholar he was – and what went into the writing of his works. It’s certainly fair to say that Tolkien is one of the greatest writers of fiction of all time. The Hobbit and LOTR are some of the best selling books EVER. The LOTR has sold over 150 million copies, The Hobbit over 100 million.

So the point becomes this: what is the reason for rewriting a major portion of Tolkien’s story – one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written? And when I’m talking about “rewriting” I mean creating things that are not present in the book, and would have no basis for being there. I’m talking about directly changing events, people, and themes when such changes were not necessary to adapt the book to film. 

The DOS goes far beyond adaptation, and that is the crux of its failure. Why would Jackson and his team think that they could write a better version of The Hobbit? Because it is clear that they cannot.

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The Hobbit is not a true Prequel to the LOTR

Many of the film’s problems result from trying to force The Hobbit to be much more of a prequel than it really is. Yes, Bilbo finds the One Ring and escapes Gollum, and yes, Gandalf and the White Council force Sauron out of Dol Guldor. But it must be understood that The Hobbit was written as a children’s book for Tolkien’s own children. When it was complete, he had no original intention of writing LOTR. It was only with the success of The Hobbit and his publisher asking for “more stories about Hobbits” that led to LOTR.

When Tolkien wrote LOTR, it went through many, many revisions and it was not written as a children’s book. Yes, it has hobbits, but it’s much, much more than that. To quote Das_Mine, the author of the essay I linked to above:

“Tolkien believed the world suffered from disenchantment: that along with the modernization of the Industrial and Victorian eras had come a reduced sense of wonder at the world, and a diminished willingness to believe in the fantastic and the terrible. In his essay, On Faery-Stories, he explained his views on faery-stories and the importance of fantasy and mythology. He felt that they had been tamed, that the connotation of “fairy” (the spelling was important to him, as a discriminating philologist) had become tamed, something you would meet in your garden rather than a dark forest, something adorable rather than something which should make you tremble. He felt that such stories described the world on a spiritual plane in a way that mundane stories about the real world could not.”

The LOTR is much more than a children’s story. Much of what transpires in LOTR was developed as he wrote it. In The Hobbit, the ring is little more than a magic ring, but in LOTR, it’s the One Ring. There are many more examples one could give, but to avoid writing a novel here, suffice to say that to try and take The Hobbit and make the darker tone of it match LOTR is to create something that isn’t there.

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(Image by Jian Guo)

Tolkien Tells Us What the Story is About

The Hobbit is a tale of adventure, and it is primarily concerned with Bilbo. And we know this because Tolkien tells us. The very subtitle is “or There and Back Again.” It’s about Bilbo’s journey and how it changed him. At the end of only the third paragraph Tolkien tells us:

“He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained — well you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

This is the guiding principle that Tolkien sets out at the beginning of the book. It is this principle which is utterly lost in the second movie. The Hobbit is full of wonderful moments of adventure, Bilbo’s self discovery and a sense of longing for home. These things are nowhere to be seen in the movie – even though at times Jackson tries to fabricate them out of his new writings.

My feeling when I left the theater was this: I had seen a movie that contained characters in the book The Hobbit, but the movie I saw was not The Hobbit. It was some other story entirely.

The List

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1) The Arkenstone is not a catalyst for a gathering of Dwarven kingdoms to reclaim their home.

The Arkenstone was a treasure very specific to Thorin’s heart, but no more than that. Because of this idea that was written into the screenplay, Bilbo’s whole interaction with the Arkenstone has been changed for the worse – beginning with the nonsensical encounter with Smaug (more on that down the list). This mistake will further come home to roost in the third movie.

The concept creates a host of problems. Never in The Hobbit do we read of a gathering of seven Dwarven kingdoms. (Again, I can only imagine what this means for the third movie.) The idea that Thorin was being hunted by men is flat out ridiculous. (Edit: True, Gandalf had met Thorin previously as outlined in Unfinished Tales.) The reason for Gandalf seeking out Thorin was to somehow get Smaug out of the picture so that Sauron could not use the dragon as a weapon (this is revealed in LOTR.)

He knew Thorin would desire a chance to return to the mountain, and Gandalf had met Thrain in the dungeons of the Necromancer, where Thrain had given him the map and the key to the secret door. While Gandalf felt it was a long shot, it was his only idea for getting rid of the dragon.

In Tolkien’s story, Bilbo finding the Arkenstone and keeping it a secret from Thorin is the catalyst that helps avert a war between the Dwarves, Men and Elves right before the Battle of Five Armies. Thorin saw Bilbo as a traitor for it, and they only reconcile at the end. Another vital part of the story that is lost.

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2) The attempts to shoehorn The Hobbit into a strict prequel to LOTR.

There are many instances of this, but I think the worst is when Bilbo takes off the ring when confronting Smaug because he sees the Eye of Sauron! The whole concept of the ring as a part of Sauron is completely absent from The Hobbit. The ring had not “awoken” and began to “seek its master” like Gandalf explains to Frodo in “A Shadow of the Past.” in FOTR. Remember also that in FOTR, Bilbo states that he never felt there was anything wrong with the ring itself, only that there was something wrong with himself. Bilbo never once attributed any evil to the ring.

Yet suddenly, in his early use of the ring, he sees the eye and takes it off in fear. This is also an excellent example of losing out on the wonder and sense of adventure of The Hobbit and replacing it with the darker themes of LOTR.

Just as bad are the many scenes with Gandalf and Radigast in Dol Guldor. Gandalf is taken prisoner?! Such a thing never happened (not until Saruman gets him!) We’re not aware of any armies massing at Dol Guldor ready to strike a moment’s notice. We only know that goblins have been multiplying in the mountains. The White Council (mainly Gandalf) only suspected that something was wrong there, and that this necromancer could be more than he seemed. But there was no battle between Sauron and Gandalf – and there’s really no writing of Tolkien’s from which you could extrapolate such a thing.

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The whole idea of a direct confrontation between them is ridiculous, especially because we are told in Tolkien’s writings that at the time, “the Necromancer” (who was Sauron) had not fully gained his powers back yet. Because of this, the White Council was able to drive him out fairly easily – something we learn later was only a feint by Sauron to bide time.

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3) Beorn’s character lost all it’s charm, danger and delight.

I was very much looking forward to the scenes with Beorn. In the book, we see Gandalf use his wisdom to trick Beorn into allowing 14 people into his home, when Beorn would prefer to have none! Gandalf tells the exploits of the company as they arrive two by two. The whole scene is funny and interesting, and frankly would have been a nice way to recap the happenings of the first movie.

At night, Beorn checks out the story and finds that it is true, and becomes an ally of the company – especially because he loved the fact that they killed the Great Goblin. It would have been wonderful to see this, instead of the wild, nonsensical chase from the Carrock with the made up “magical barrier” around the house. As for Gandalf breaking into Beorn’s house – it’s again ridiculous. Beorn would never stand for such a thing and Gandalf knew it.

Worse, the Company had just escaped the goblins of the Misty Mountains by flying over the mountains on eagles! There could be nobody chasing them so quickly – and indeed, there wasn’t. Speaking of which…

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4) Azog is dead. There are no armies of orcs until the Battle of Five Armies. Also, Azog – DEAD.

The mishandling of Azog is disappointing because Azog has been dead for a long time when this story takes place. While he was a powerful enemy of the Dwarves, he was killed by Dain at the Battle of Azanulbizar (which we see in the beginning of the first movie). There was never a massive army of orcs following the Dwarves and Bilbo.

The company had trouble with the goblins of the Misty Mountains, but once they escaped them (via the eagles), they saw no orcs (or goblins) until the Battle of Five Armies. All this fighting and chasing between Azog and his group could have been left out – there is simply no reason for it. And that would have left plenty of time for the wonderful things that are in the book – like the scene with Beorn, for example.

(As for Bilbo fighting Azog in the first movie with Sting, that’s preposterous – Bilbo would have been killed instantly. )

It was at one of these chase/fight scenes that I realized that Christopher Tolkien’s fears about the movies had come true. He said that they would become simple action/hack and slash movies and destroy his father’s work. In this case, he is exactly right – that is precisely what happened in this movie. And it only gets worse as the movie goes on.

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5) Mirkwood Mishandled

The chapters that involve the company’s adventures in Mirkwood are some of the most fun and exciting in all the book, and there are some really great moments there – and all are lost in the movie.

While Gandalf does warn them about the path in the movie – he doesn’t warn them enough, and the company doesn’t really heed him. Yet this is a critical issue in Mirkwood. The forest is so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face. To leave the path is to die. Yet the company leaves the path almost immediately, with no real reason.

We lost the fun of Bombur falling into the magic river and falling asleep – making the dwarves carry him! The dwarves using the last of their arrows shooting after the white stag for food. Their despair at the dark and the feeling they would never get out, and again Bilbo’s longing for home (something we never get in the movie.)

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When Bilbo climbs the tree and looks out, he cannot see the end of the forest (Causing him to despair). He does not see the mountain! (That first glimpse comes later, and is another important moment). And when he goes down to the grumbling dwarves, they are in even further despair – they have run out of food.

When they finally leave the path and meet the spiders, it is a momentous moment in the book for Bilbo. Because it is there he finds his real courage, it is there he leads the dwarves and they begin to change their mind about him. We lost all the fun of Bilbo singing insulting rhymes to the spiders to enrage them, and then their desperate fight to escape the spiders for good – and Bilbo makes it all happen. And he makes it happen using the ring! He even tells them he will disappear!

And it was leaving the path and stumbling upon the elves making merry that led to their capture. That is how Thorin gets separated from the company. All these wonderful moments that could have been in the movie were replaced by fabrications – changing the story and making it worse, not better. Taking out the special and putting in the mundane.

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6) The Wood Elves, Legolas and Tauriel, Bard

I actually had hopes that Tauriel might be a good character. I understood the reason to try and add her, but what she ended up being is a disaster. While it might have been fun to see Legolas again (and it even made sense) seeing him as an invincible war machine was disappointing. Action for action’s sake, I guess. When he stood on the heads of the dwarves in the river and continued killing orcs, I could only shake my head.

While in captivity, Thorin is losing heart. He’s about to give in to the Elven King’s demands and tell him about the quest, when Bilbo finds out where Thorin is being kept. Keep in mind Bilbo kept his ring on nearly the whole time he was with the Elves. He did not fear his ring. This is one of those moments when Thorin takes heart and his esteem for Bilbo grows – once again lost in the movie.

But the worst is the insinuated romance between Tauriel and Kili. This is about as unfortunate as it gets. Was Jackson that desperate for a romantic story? There isn’t an Arwen/Aragorn story in The Hobbit, and furthermore, there is no need for one.

As for the idea that a romance would ever blossom between an elf and a dwarf, it’s frankly a joke. Any Tolkien fan can tell you this. Many times in the history of Middle Earth, the elves and dwarves were bitter enemies. Rarely were they on good terms (the friendship of Legolas and Gimli was a rare, rare thing – part of what made it so special!) In addition, they are physically very different, and they see the world from two completely opposite sides of view.

It was at that point in the movie that I knew it had all gone astray.

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The escape in the barrels was laughable. I can grant that the dwarves need to be seen instead of hidden in the barrels since it’s a movie, but the crazy battle with the orcs was so unfortunate, and so fake. There was no “Morgul arrow” shot into Kili’s leg. One wonders how there could even be a morgul arrow when the Morgul vale at this time was abandoned – and far, far away from Mirkwood. If such a thing existed (which is never mentioned by Tolkien) it would hardly be used by a common orc of the Misty Mountains. The Morgul blade that Frodo was stabbed with was wielded by the Morgul King himself.

The whole scene looked like a video game. I think the worst part was when Bombur did his spinning dance, destroyed his barrel, then leaped back into a barrel in the river – even though there were no extra barrels. What?!

What we really lost was Bilbo’s first sight of the Mountain as the barrels came around a bend. It was a time where Bilbo wasn’t sure if the dwarves were even alive or what would happen to them, and the mountain looked menacing – another moment lost.

7) Bard the Bowman and Lake Town

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So much that went on in Lake Town was boring and unnecessary, and this part of the movie dragged on, and was filled with eye-rolling moments. Yes, Bard is a descendant of Girion of Dale. Because of that, he was no common river smuggler. The idea of the dwarves paying money for passage cheapens their journey. Bard was a doomsayer, and maybe a bit crabby, but he was an honorable man – a captain of the guard. An expert bowman.

The black arrow was an actual arrow that had been handed down to him for generations – not some huge metal monstrosity that the dwarves built. All the nonsense with his kids and running around the town and getting in prison – none of those things happened, and none of them were necessary.

What was important was that Bard was smart enough to realize that the dwarves were probably stirring up trouble for Lake Town. And it was Bard that got the people to fight when Smaug finally does come. Bard is a noble man that eventually kills Smaug, and later becomes Lord of Dale. Not some common thief.

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8) Characters out of Character

I’ve already mentioned the wounding of Kili (which never happens). But suddenly dwarves know what Athelas is! An herb that only elves and the Dunedain (the Rangers) truly knew about (which is where Aragorn learned of it). Yet somehow they find it at Lake Town! Again we get Sam’s line “it’s a weed.” Just to have the nonsense with Tauriel healing Kili. The whole thing with Kili seeing her glowing in a nimbus of white light was laughable.

Thorin would never have left his kin, Kili, behind, or any of the company of dwarves for that matter. Yet we are sold a bill of goods that somehow Thorin is being affected by a treasure horde he hasn’t even seen yet! It’s like they want Thorin to have his own version of the evil of the One Ring. Thorin has enough problems in the book without creating new ones for him. While one could stretch and believe it would be possible for Thorin to act that way if he held one of the seven dwarven rings, Thorin has no such ring.

Meanwhile, Thorin has become the star of the movie. A surly, unlikeable character has been brought to the forefront. And Bilbo’s figurative and literal journey has been utterly lost.

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9) The Arrival at the Mountain

The dwarves arrival at the Mountain is such an emotional moment in Tolkien’s story, for many, many reasons. They had gone through so much to get there, and yet there was still so much more to do, including finding the secret door.

Yet what do we get? Instead of their search, their fear at being so close to Smaug (things we could have had instead of “Bard the Smuggler”) we have them arrive exactly on Durin’s day (what luck!) Worse, they find the door right away because Bilbo sees something in plain sight! The dwarves make a big deal out of his “wonderful eyesight” or whatever, meanwhile, they all see it immediately too!

We lose Bilbo showing his usefulness by finding the doorstep (and that connection with what he said about sitting on the doorstep at the start of the book). We lose all the tension with them trying to get in the secret door when Smaug flies out. They are nearly killed on the doorstep!

Worse, suddenly, the dwarves just give up right away after spending all that time getting there when the keyhole does not appear! They begin leaving – after all that they had been through?! Not just the adventures, but years of toiling in the mines as common workers, struggling to live for this moment. Nah, we give up.

Meanwhile, it’s not moonlight that reveals the keyhole, it’s – as the secret riddle stated – the last LIGHT of Durin’s day. These scenes were some of the worst in the movie, and all the more so because so much of the original story is so wonderful – so many meaningful moments that we never get to see.

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10) The Encounter With Smaug

What could have been the best, was the worst. The encounter between Bilbo and Smaug was worse than terrible, and again I would say that here, all of Christopher Tolkien’s fears were realized.

Bilbo is never is visible before the dragon – he would never take the chance of allowing a dragon to look directly at him! And he never senses the eye of Sauron, as I talked about earlier. There is never any connection between Bilbo and Sauron in The Hobbit, no matter how much Jackson wants one. (And yes, you could have made a compelling scene with Bilbo invisible).

Smaug could have eaten Bilbo 20 times over – if not more. Bilbo meeting Smaug face to face and running from him? In a pile of coins? Yet somehow, like a magical fairy, Bilbo evades a raging, powerful dragon. It’s sad, it’s ludicrous, it takes you out of the story completely.

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We lost all the fun with Bilbo playing to Smaug’s ego and tricking him to show him weakness. We lost him taking the cup back and realizing the desperate nature of the quest. Of Smaug implanting doubt into Bilbo’s mind about the dwarves. We lost Bilbo’s finding of the Arkenstone and keeping it before he fully realized how much Thorin desired it.

The whole battle with the dragon was awful – the forges heating up so fast (I would imagine it would take a whole day – even if they did work) the running around impossibly like a superhero in a video game. The things that the dwarves and Bilbo did during those scenes were laughable. And there was never any fear they would be caught. Never any real trepidation about Smaug. Smaug became nothing more than a neat CGI creation, and not the devious, terrible creature that he was.

In the end, we almost have the dwarves victorious, but this is nothing like they were feeling. They were exploring an empty cavern, wondering where the dread Smaug could be (fearing he might arrive at any moment at first) and then preparing for his return.

These are the key reasons for my disappointment. Others have listed some of the same, and many other reasons, too. I guess I’m really sad for people who don’t know the story of The Hobbit – people who will think that this movie adaptation is the real story. Real Tolkien fans know better. But the sad truth is that a new generation will be introduced to a diluted and twisted version of one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written.

I have little to no hope for the final film, and I expect the story to stray even further from the original, becoming less and less of what it was.

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If the movie was your introduction to the story, I urge you to pick up a copy of the book and sit down and read it for yourself. You will not be disappointed – on the contrary, you will be absolutely delighted!

How to Make a Bookplate for Your Kickstarter (or any other) Book

Like many artists, when I planned my Marooned Kickstarter campaign, I wanted my books to be signed and numbered. This adds a little something special to the book, having not only a signed version, but one that is numbered out of the original printing. However, if you have ever tried to sign and number a book by hand, you know that it isn’t the easiest thing to do.

Having to try and hold open the book cover while trying to sign/number the book is one thing – and then you have to wait for the ink to try lest you get ink on the inside cover. Even more troublesome, I had offered artist sketches as well. The difficulty in trying to number the inside cover of a book is nothing compared when trying to do an inked sketch in the same space! Lucky for you, there is an elegant solution.

I would be remiss without first pointing out that I learned this from the talented Jason Brubaker. He did this for his amazingly successful reMIND Kickstarter campaigns. Credit where credit is due!

What is a bookplate?

Before we get in to the specifics, what exactly is a bookplate? In short, it’s a decorative label pasted inside the front cover of a book to signify ownership. They often bear the book owner’s name, motto, crest, device or even coat-of-arms. You see, this is not a modern invention just for Kickstarter – bookplates have been around since the Middle Ages! (You can find out more at the wikipedia entry).

You can look at lots of examples by doing a Google image search, but here’s a couple to give you a general idea:

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As you can see by the examples (and especially the image search) bookplates can literally take any form of design – it’s completely up to you. As an artist, this is very appealing! You can customize the look to match your particular project. In my case, I needed a spot for my signature, a place for the number and a the main area for the sketch (if needed.)

Creating your bookplate

The idea looks good, but how do you do it? It’s actually quite simple. You’ll get yourself a package of full page (letter size) Avery shipping labels. These are full page, thick stickers. The package I linked has 100 stickers for $26 (plus shipping if you don’t have Prime) – but we will be cutting those in half, so you’ll get 200 bookplates out of that one package. That’s around .13 cents per item.

Once you have those, you’ll create your design “two up” – meaning next to each other on a full sheet – like this:

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Print them out on your printer, and you now have 100 stickers with 2 bookplates each. You could then cut them by hand, but that’s crazy talk. Head on over to your local FedEx Office (or local print shop) and have them cut the whole stack in half for you. This cost me like $2.50. Well worth the trip, you’ll have perfectly cut bookplates.

Here’s a closer look at the top and bottom of my design – you can see the circle for the number and the line for my signature:

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One more important thing – when you set up your book, make sure the first page (a right hand page) is a BLANK page, so you have a place to paste your bookplate.

Stamping the numbers

Now we could write in the numbers, but again – that’s kind of a pain and we want something that looks slick and professional. So what you can do is buy this really cool Cosco Consolidated Stamp for $25. Keep in mind, once you have the stamp, you can use it on future projects, too.

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Customizing the bookplates

Now that you have the stamp and the bookplates ready, you can begin actually making them. You kind of want to do this in one fell swoop. Doing things in batches saves you time. The stamp is simple to use – you ink it up, set the numbers and stamp away. I stamped all 200 of my plates at once, then signed them all at once. Now I had a big stack of signed and numbered bookplates. I then did all the sketches on them – which is WAY easier than trying to do them inside a book!

Now you can have your stack of bookplates next to your books as you are putting your orders together. The first thing I would do is grab a book, grab the proper bookplate, and paste it in. It’s quite simple, and looks very good. Now you have a beautifully numbered book (with sketch if applicable) and it only takes a moment to slap it in there.

Placing the bookplate

Putting the bookplates in is very simple. I’ve recorded a quick little video of me pasting one in:

You could use this technique for any size project – big or small. My campaign was around 230 orders, and it has worked wonderfully. So the next time you want to wow your readers with your book – for Kickstarter or otherwise – create a custom bookplate!