Mer-Made in the USA May 21, 2019 16:00

From Jess: 

This is not going to be a fun post, but I think it’s a necessary one. We'll return to your regularly-scheduled happy Mer-May news soon.

In the past week, I have observed two American small businesses that I admire and support — a well-known mermaid tailmaker, as well as deluxe art book publisher Flesk Publications — struggling with the new 25% tariff being implemented on goods produced in and imported from China. These are smart people who are doing everything rightcreating things of beauty to share with all of us at prices we can afford, and now they're being forced to question their companies' futures.

”Well,” the knee jerk response seems to be, “just stop doing business in China!”

Okay. Let me tell you a story  a story about a book.

Chris and I printed our novel “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist” in the United States. Right here in Glendale, California, in fact! Both the hardcover first edition and the paperback second edition were printed and bound in the USA.

There were a lot of advantages to this! We have a good relationship with our local printer and were happy to work with him again, we were able to drop in and see the books in progress, the entire process was really fast (we needed the first editions in time for San Diego Comic-Con 2015), and the books turned out beautifully both times. Chris and I like to support small businesses and to buy American when we can, and it was gratifying to know that the money we’d spent on printing the books was going back into our very own community.

But there’s one big disadvantage: with all the books we’ve sold since 2015, we have not profited ONE CENT.

”Well,” asks the same person who suggested not doing business with China, “why don’t you just charge more for your books?”

That’s an easy one: because people won’t pay what’s necessary for us to make money when printing in the United States.

Here are some numbers for you. I don’t normally discuss finances this openly, but it’s vital in this situation to drive home my point.

Illustrator fee: $8,000
Colorist fee: $1150
Printing/binding fee: $19,924
Total cost: $29,074

Printing fee: $16,442

Those were the costs for 1,000 books each time, which makes figuring out the unit price really simple: $29.07 per hardcover, and $16.44 per paperback.

We sell our books for $20 each.

See where this is going?

Every single copy of “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist” has been sold for a profit of about $3.56 (paperback), or for a loss of $9.07 (hardcover). Once we sell every copy of our novels, we will still be in the redAnd that’s not even taking into account the inevitable damaged books, gift and personal copies, or books we’ve sold through Amazon subject to their FBA fees (compounding the loss). We're just trying to fill the hole as much as we can.

The thing is, Chris and I knew going in that we were going to lose money, but printing and selling these books was important to us and that was a sacrifice we were willing to make at that time. We figured we’d compensate for it in other ways. He and I are fortunate enough that we were able to take a loss in order to get the first “Rescue Sirens” book out there — but most people are not. If this was our livelihood, we would obviously be screwed.

Let’s take a look at what we would have to charge in order to make this financially feasible. Keep in mind, we’ve already received plenty of complaints for selling our books for twenty bucks apiece! If we had, instead, offered them at 250% of our cost — which 1) pays for production, 2) provides us the same funds to print the books again, should we need to, and 3) earns us some actual profit on top of that — then we’d be charging $41 for the paperback and $73 for the hardcover. Do you think people are going to pay that for an 8.5"x5.5", 192-page novel? Because I can tell you that they won’t. I sure as hell wouldn’t.

”Well, why don’t you just sell the books digitally?”

Yeah. We do that. You can purchase “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist” on Amazon for your Kindle or tablet/smartphone for $2.99. It’s almost pure profit for us. And, over and over, the feedback from customers has been, “I just prefer a book that I can hold in my hands.” Digital sales have been negligible (around five hundred “copies,” last I checked).

So, tell me, what are Chris and I supposed to do when it comes time to print the next "Rescue Sirens" book and we don't want to (or can't) take another multi-thousand dollar hit? As I think this post has proven, keeping book production in the United States is unsustainable, and our current government is busy making it too expensive to work with overseas manufacturers, as well.

Is the US-China relationship and how it relates to the state of American manufacturing today a problem that has an easy solution? Of course not. I would never claim that. It's complicated, and has been for decades. But punishing small businesses by charging them money for having their goods produced overseas at a cost that allows them to actually make a living isn’t helping.

If these new duty taxes aren’t affecting you or someone you know now, they will be soon, even if it’s indirectly through the items you purchase. And if this keeps up, we’ll see a world in which products either cost a LOT more, or they simply cease to exist. I don’t want to lose beautiful fabric mermaid tails, or Flesk Publications’ gorgeous art books; I want to see these businesses (and the families behind them) thrive. That means something has to change... and these new tariffs need to go.

Further reading:

John Fleskes’ Facebook post about how the new tariffs are affecting Flesk Publications

INKtober 2017 October 23, 2017 06:00

From Jess: 

Now, if you've read our past blogs, you know about Mer-May -- when everyone spends a month drawing mermaids -- but are you familiar with Inktober?

As the name suggests, artists take the month of October to work on inking traditionally: with a brush, pen, or quill; some draw every day and follow prompts (just like the prompt lists you'll find during Mer-May), but other artists just draw what they feel like as often as they can. No matter how you do it, Inktober is a celebration of all things inky! With so many people creating their drawings digitally now, it's awesome to see such a dedicated return to hand-drawing.

My husband and "Rescue Sirens" co-author, Chris Sanders, is a master with a brush and a bottle of ink. While he often colors his drawings digitally in Photoshop, Chris still sketches them on paper with a pencil, then inks them with a Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable brush. It's like magic to watch, and, last Inktober, Chris recorded himself inking a cute witch pin-up for Halloween, which I then edited into a short time-lapse video.

Several months ago, I did the same for an illustration of Rescue Siren Kelby that Chris drew earlier this year as part of the artwork on our booth backdrop at San Diego Comic-Con. I waited until now to upload the video because, hey, Inktober!

Take a look:

Isn't it mesmerizing?

As a bonus, let's revisit the adorable chibi-style drawing of Rescue Siren Nim that Chris offered as a prize in our "Rescue Sirens" fan art contest this past May:

Inking even a relatively simple drawing like Chibi Nim seems like witchcraft (appropriate for this time of year!), at least when it's done by someone as skilled as Chris. I could watch him ink all day long! Between Halloween (my favorite holiday) and Inktober, October is a pretty fin-omenal month.

If you'd like to see more "Rescue Sirens" videos, you can always visit our Videos page or our YouTube channel.

Underwater photography workshop with Brenda Stumpf March 31, 2017 13:35

From Jess: 

Back in October, I had the opportunity to do something really special: wearing my beautiful silicone mermaid tail and top from Merbella Studios, I participated in an underwater modeling workshop with photographer Brenda Stumpf that was facilitated by professional mermaid performing company Sheroes Entertainment here in Los Angeles. It was amazing! The resulting images of me dressed as Rescue Siren Nim have the dreamiest, most ethereal look to them; they're magical.

I've been photographed underwater a couple of times, but I still feel like a newbie; let me tell you, it's something that takes practice! Imagine everything involved in normal modeling -- striking a great pose, finding the right angle, making sure your hair isn't doing something weird, and wearing a casual facial expression that doesn't betray all the things on your mind -- and then add a giant mermaid tail and an inability to see clearly (because mermaids don't wear goggles). Oh, yeah, and you also can't breathe. Whew! I still tend to wind up with "thinking face" as I mentally tick off all of those boxes, which, of course, isn't usually what you want in a photograph.

Fortunately, Brenda has a ton of experience shooting models underwater, and she and Sheroes' Catalina Mermaid made the entire workshop experience really easy and fun. When Chris and I arrived at the shooting venue, there was a rig set up in the delightfully heated pool that I could grab onto and hang from when I was above water -- this allowed me to keep my tail still to avoid disturbing the fabric backdrop as I came up for air or chatted with Brenda and Catalina about our next shot before dropping back beneath the surface.

As you've probably guessed from the concept of "Rescue Sirens," safety is something that's very important to me; luckily, it's important to Brenda and Sheroes Entertainment, too, and Catalina acted as a safety diver for the workshop. She watched me closely and kept a lifeguard tube handy in case I experienced any sort of difficulty, and, knowing the extent of her lifeguard and rescue training, I knew I was in good hands and could enjoy myself. As you can tell from these behind-the-scenes photos snapped by Chris, I was all smiles!

The ninety minutes I'd booked seemed to fly by, and I was sad to wiggle out of my tail and dry off because I'd had such a good time with Brenda and Catalina; I didn't want it to end. Saying goodbye meant that I was closer to seeing the four final images that came with the workshop package, though, and I was thrilled when they arrived in my inbox about a month and a half later!

Click to enlarge:

If you're in the Los Angeles area, Sheroes Entertainment is facilitating another underwater modeling workshop with Brenda, coming up in May. There are currently only two spots left, so be sure to check it out if you've ever wanted to get incredible underwater pictures of yourself! (You don't have to wear a mermaid tail, either, although fabric tails are available for the shoot if you're so inclined.) Both Brenda and Mermaid Catalina are the very definition of professional, courteous, experienced, and responsible -- and they're friendly and fun, too! I'm already looking forward to the next time I get to work with them.

Nim and Kelby, drawn by Brianna Garcia April 23, 2016 17:29

From Jess: 

One of the artists that Chris and I like to pester visit with the most during comic conventions is illustrator, storyboard revisionist, and color stylist Brianna Garcia. Her drawings are fun, joyful, and utterly beautiful, and she herself is such a pleasure to talk to! We'd been wanting to commission her for quite some time, and we finally asked if she wouldn't mind drawing two of our Rescue Sirens: Nim and Kelby. Luckily for us, Brianna agreed!

Working with her was a breeze; after we briefly described what we were thinking about, Brianna went off and came back with four awesome sketches of Nim and Kelby being BFFs (best fins forever) together. The hardest part was choosing which version to bring to final!

(Click to enlarge.)

Any one of them would've been amazing, but we finally decided on the second of the four sketches. The endearing expressions and the poses that showed off both girls' mermaid tails helped make this our favorite, so Brianna cleaned up her drawing and gave it a striking paint job:

Gorgeous, isn't it? Chris and I are so happy that we had the opportunity to commission Brianna -- her take on Nim and Kelby couldn't be cuter!

To see more of Brianna's wonderful artwork, check out her Instagram and Tumblr.

"Sirens" Songs: musical inspiration October 30, 2015 18:26

From Jess: 

My husband and co-author, Chris, has worked in the animation industry for almost thirty years. He helped shape modern Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King," and "Mulan," and he co-wrote/co-directed and lent his style (and his voice!) to "Lilo & Stitch." At DreamWorks, his current studio, Chris co-wrote and co-directed the first "How to Train Your Dragon" film as well as "The Croods." He's always worked in story, whether that means storyboarding (which he still does today even in his role as director) or writing, and, if you ask him what one of the most important tools is in filmmaking, he'll tell you that it's music.

"Music does the heavy lifting," Chris says, and he went into his first project as director planning for that. When it was time to talk about budgets and music for "Lilo & Stitch," Chris wanted to hire one of his favorite composers, Alan Silvestri (known for scoring "Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump," and "The Avengers," among many, many other films), and Chris told his producers that the score for the film was of paramount importance. Even though they were going to be making "Lilo & Stitch" for a budget, he made an agreement with the studio that whatever the best score in the world would cost, they could carve that off the overall budget and he'd make the movie for whatever was left over. Alan delivered a score for "Lilo & Stitch" that was rousing, moving, and emotional. Not only that, but Alan directly affected the story. And Chris learned a lesson that he would never forget.

In the early planning stages of the music for the film, Alan would view the story reels with Chris and co-director Dean DeBlois, and they would discuss the placement and vibe they were considering from moment to moment. After covering most of the film, Alan surprised Chris with a question. "There's one thing I think I missed," Alan remarked. "I didn't catch the moment when Stitch turns from bad to good."

"The question caught us off guard," Chris says today. "Even though the entire film was based on the idea that a villain would be redeemed rather than killed off, as they usually did in Disney movies, we had left that pivotal moment off the screen. We explained to Alan that of all the moments in the movie we'd written, we just couldn't find a way to land that one. It was too subtle, too delicate. We'd both taken runs at it and whenever we'd tried to verbalize it, we'd failed. It was always too awkward, or too vague. So in the end we'd just left it to happen off-screen. We just couldn't find a way to do it.

"And that's when everything for me changed. Alan looked at us and simply said, 'Put it on screen, and I'll do it.'

"Boom. A light went on. Up till that moment, I'd thought of music as something to sweeten what was already there. But Alan reminded me that music was much, much more than that. It was a tool of storytelling. In fact, I've come to think of a score as the closest thing to real magic there is. It is at once a wing and a throttle. It raises or turns your emotions and either propels you forward or holds you entranced and still. It can be a jolt or a kiss. It wakes up your heart. It is powerful. It is unassailable."

Chris goes on: "So the most important moment in the film was carried by Alan. And it was perfect. From that time on I would build homes for music within my films. Quiet zones where the characters would shut up and music would do the talking. A perfect example of that would be the sequence in which Hiccup befriends Toothless in 'How to Train Your Dragon' (scored by John Powell), or the moment in the treetop when the Croods see the stars for the first time in 'The Croods' (like 'Lilo & Stitch,' scored by Alan Silvestri).

"It's the thing I most look forward to when I write and storyboard," Chris says.

Long before there's a scene on screen -- or, in the case of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist," if you're penning a book rather than a screenplay -- having the right music playing when you're writing a scene can make the difference between smooth sailing and tearing your hair out. But, just like Chris and I have different writing styles (he's a gardener; I'm an architect), we also have our individual preferences when it comes to the music we put on while we write.

While Chris likes to listen primarily to movie scores, my go-to music for writing is the background music in video games. The first video game music that I fell in love with was Spencer Nilsen's instrumental work for Sega's first two "Ecco the Dolphin" games (and some of Tim Follin's score on "Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future" for the Dreamcast), and that haunting, dreamy ocean sound was the perfect background for writing much of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist."

The thing I like best about video game music is that (with the exception of cinematics, which are more--well, cinematic!) it's pleasantly repetitive by design; a video game's score has to be something that you can listen to over and over and over again when your character keeps dying (or is that just me?), and it also has to add a mood and an atmosphere without calling so much attention to the music that it distracts you from playing the game. It helps put me in the right mindset without getting in the way. Film scores, by contrast, are written to complement specific actions on the screen, which is awesome when you're watching the movie -- a passive activity -- but, for me, not so awesome when I'm trying to write and the music accompanying that surprise explosion scene takes me right out of what I was doing. Many people, like Chris, aren't bothered by that, and can even listen to songs with lyrics while they write, but, for yours truly, video game music is the way to go.

In addition to the "Ecco the Dolphin" scores, I also listened to a lot of music from two other ocean-themed game series: Nintendo/Arika's "Endless Ocean" and its sequel "Endless Ocean: Blue World," and "Aquanaut's Holiday: Hidden Memories," composed by Hideki Sakamoto. When you're writing about mermaids, it helps to have appropriate music playing!

But I had other game soundtracks on rotation, too -- games that had little or nothing to do with water. Greg Edmonson's "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune," "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," and "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" albums are all fun, adventurous instrumentals... 

...while Jeremy Soule's score for "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" is some of my favorite music of all time, period. Soule isn't called "the John Williams of video game music" for nothing, and his work on "Oblivion" is by turns stirring, delicate, and bittersweet -- but always beautiful.

The most recent addition to my "Rescue Sirens" writing playlist is the soundtrack to a video game that I've never actually played: Devolver Digital's "Hotline Miami." Since "Rescue Sirens" is set in Miami Beach, I thought I'd give this album a shot even though I knew nothing about the game, and I'm really glad I did.

Much of "Hotline Miami"'s electronic music is leisurely and lazy, chill, ambient, relaxing but never, never boring; it's like eighties synth music was chopped up in a wood chipper and then put back together again in a way that's a bit... off. It is, to me, a sound that defies easy explanation, but I love it and I listened to it like crazy while writing the last chapters of the book.

There are various artists who contributed to "Hotline Miami"'s twenty-two track album; my favorites are probably Sun Araw, who performed "Horse Steppin'" and "Deep Cover," and Jasper Byrne, who did "Hotline" and (wait for it...) "Miami," but the whole album is enjoyable. If you're curious, you can listen to the soundtrack in its weird, wonderful entirety on Devolver Digital's SoundCloud account.

Now that Chris and I are working on the next "Rescue Sirens" story, it's time to sift through our respective music collections and make our playlists, which is always fun; maybe we'll even find some new favorites!

If you write, or draw, or sew, or do anything else creative, what do you like to have on in the background?