Communion Of Dreams


A “best seller”? More or Less.

This past weekend a broadcast of the BBC show/podcast “More or Less” caught my ear, as it was discussing the economics of conventional trade publishing. I would encourage listening to the entire thing (about 9 minutes), but the basics are:

  • Of about 50,000 new titles published in a year, just 0.4% will sell more than 100,000 copies
  • To ‘break even’, a title needs to sell about 5,000 copies
  • Some 86% of all titles sell fewer than 5,000 copies
  • Something like 15% sell fewer than a dozen copies

Whoa.

I knew the numbers weren’t good, and that I had been relatively successful with self-publishing my own books (after years of trying to land a conventional publishing deal), but I had no idea that they were that dismal.

For perspective, all three of my books broke that 5,000 threshold the first year that they were available. And two went on to break it again the second year. Total downloads (ballpark numbers) for each of my books so far:

I’ve been mildly disappointed in the performance of St Cybi’s Well, but that is largely in comparison to Communion of Dreams, which was published a decade earlier (and which has continued to see strong sales/downloads each year). This kind of puts that into perspective.

One thing I want to mention: free downloads. Yeah, that skews the numbers a bit, but not as much as you might think for the two novels. For those, free downloads account for about 15% of SCW and about 20% of CoD totals. HFY saw a much larger percentage of free downloads, but that was because we saw the book more as a public service to other care-givers than a moneypot.

Oh, and “best seller”? Other info I’ve seen indicates that about 50,000 copies is typically considered a best seller in the trade publication industry. Now, that’s for one-year sales, not cumulative sales over a decade. But still, it makes me feel pretty good about how CoD has done.

Jim Downey



Machado-Joseph Disease: As one chapter closes, another is begun.

Recently I drove out to Las Vegas, for the first post-Covid national meeting of the Liberal Gun Club (I can be seen at several points in the video, wearing a red & white flannel shirt). It’s a drive I’ve made previously in two days (about 12 hours each day), but I decided that it would be wise for me to split it up into three days each way, to better reduce my stress and better accommodate the unpredictable episodes of MJD symptoms (since I didn’t want to take any of the painkillers or MMJ stuff that help me manage those episodes while I was driving).

It was a good decision. When I had an flair-up of symptoms, I knew that I could take a break without feeling a lot of time-pressure.

And it gave me more time to think.

To think about this past year, and where I’ve found myself. To think about the LGC event (particularly after it was over, and I could reflect upon what happened there). To think about the near-term future.

As I noted yesterday (and in this series of MJD-related blog posts generally), it’s been a challenging year. And there’s nothing like going naked (in the sense of not taking any meds) for a prolonged period of time to show you, honestly and clearly, what your real condition actually is.

Mine isn’t bad. But it is perhaps a lot worse than I had realized, in my day-to-day life. That’s because being able to take things that help manage it means that I can largely ignore the symptoms. Without those meds, though, the truth tends to be a little sharper edged (as is the pain). While teaching a black powder workshop I had hand spasms that were so bad I couldn’t hold onto the gun I was using at the time, let alone manage to load it. So much for the idea that being focused on a given task (which I was) would be enough to set aside that symptom. I verbally walked my students through the process, and we got on the other side of it fine. But it was a sobering moment.

A moment that drove home the idea that it was time for me to make some changes. Specifically, that it is time for me to pretty much completely retire from conservation work. As I noted in this blog post last May:

As a conservator, I can’t afford to celebrate my mistakes. There will of necessity come a time when I need to stop doing conservation work, out of respect for the items entrusted to my care. That time is rapidly approaching; indeed, it may already be here.

I think I crossed that line sometime this summer. So the time has come for me to (mostly) stop doing conservation work altogether, at least in terms of being hands-on.

That’s a big change for me. I’ve largely defined myself as being a book conservator for 30 years.

* * *

Western Utah is stunning. But also bleak. And more than a little alien to my Midwestern eye.

I think those vistas, and the mental space I was in on my drive home, helped me realize something else.

That I’m ready to start writing a sequel to Communion of Dreams.

I hesitate even mentioning this, since I had so many people after me about the long delays in writing St Cybi’s Well. But I decided to share it to help offset the seemingly ‘bad’ news that I need to retire as a conservator.

So here’s the deal: don’t ask how it is going, or when I expect it to be done. I’m at the very beginning of the whole process, and it is likely to take years. I may occasionally mention things about it. Or not. But asking me about it is not going to get any additional information beyond what I volunteer, and will just annoy me. You can wish me well with the writing, but leave it at that, OK?

Thanks.

Jim Downey



All’s well …

Just over a year ago I did a write up on completing the leather bindings for Communion of Dreams. This is going to be a similar documentation of completing the leather bindings for St Cybi’s Well.

Unlike the sewing structure for CoD, the sewing for SCW is exactly the same as for the hand-bound hardcover edition. Since I have already done a thorough documentation of that process, I see no reason to repeat it here. Instead, I’ll just refer you to that original post: Turning words into books.

And likewise, a couple of months ago I did a post about the actual design of the cover of the leather edition of St Cybi’s Well, so there’s no reason to go over all of that again. You can find that post here: Well, well, well …

The first thing in doing the full edition of 14 books, I needed to cut out sufficient “stones” of bookboard to form the relief on the front cover, and get those each laid out and mounted on the heavy bookboard. This was made possible by the use of my Glowforge laser to cut through the heavy bookboard. The “stones” were laid out such that one blank space was left for the mounting of a real slice of Preseli Bluestone from the quarry at Craig Rhosyfelin on the outside of the leather:

My Kickstarter backers selected what color leather they wanted for the cover of their books, and I ordered in the leather that I didn’t already have in stock. It’s all high-quality bookbinding goatskin:

I calculated how big of a piece of leather I needed for each book, and made a jig cutting those out:

Then those needed to have reference lines laid out, the corners cut and all the edges pared down:

The Communion of Dreams leather covers had the slight raised image of the Burr Oak tree, which was made using an archival board with a thickness of 0.02″. The archival bookboard I used for the “stones” of the St Cybi’s Well design were 0.10″ — five times as thick. Because of this, some additional work was needed to make sure that the leather conformed to the “stones”.

The first step was to saturate the outside of the leather with distilled water in the area of the front cover:

The the inside of the leather was pasted out with adhesive:

And the front cover was positioned. A barrier of plastic film was put on each side, then a sheet of foam core was positioned to cover the entire front cover. That was then placed between two press boards and the whole sandwich was put into my large nipping press. The press was cranked down, and the sandwich was left to dry overnight. The next day, this is what the end result looked like:

Then I mounted the rear board, as well as the spine liner, and turned the edges in (be sure to read my Wabi-sabi post about this):

After all the covers (the bookbinding term is “cases”) were finished, I mounted the text block as per usual. At this point, they were books, but they weren’t finished.

First, I wanted to get the endpapers mounted. Typically, this would just be done by tipping in the endpaper, then pasting it out and sticking it in a press for a quick nip. But I wanted these books to be a little more hand-fitted, so I pasted out the slightly over-size endpaper, then carefully by hand laid it out in position before pressing:

This makes the hinge joint a little more flexible, and the book friendly to open and read. A small thing, but with a book of this quality, an important one. Once the endpapers were mounted, I trimmed the excess off.

The next step was to mount the thin spiral cut from sparkly blue commercial glitterpaper using the laser. This was a visual reference to a similar image in the book. The trick was to mount the narrow, somewhat fragile, spiral of paper without distortion, damage, or excess adhesive. To do this, I first positioned the off-cut of the spiral using low-tack tape:

Then I pasted out a sheet of waste paper. Carefully laying down the thin spiral on top of the waste sheet, I lightly tapped the spiral so that a thin application of adhesive was transferred to the back. I carefully lifted the spiral off the adhesive, supporting it across the center with a micro-spatula. I was then able to position it into the void of the off-cut:

Using a narrow bone folder, I then pressed the thin spiral down along the entire surface, and then removed the off-cut:

This was then given a quick nip in the press to set the adhesive.

Once all the endpapers & spirals were mounted, it was time to mount the blue “water” inside the well design:

With the “water” mounted, I masked that area and did the title etching in the laser, using the same technique I developed for the titling on Communion of Dreams:

The titling done, I added a small tip-in sheet with the colophon and edition number:

I mounted each slice of Preseli Bluestone in the appropriate place on each book. Here they all are, arranged so as to re-create the “well” design with each stone in the proper location:

And they’re all done. 9 of the 14 bindings are going to their new homes, and one is staying with me. That leaves these four bindings still available for adoption:

If you’re interested in adopting one of these books, and perhaps a matching # copy of Communion of Dreams, feel free to contact me for the details: jim@communionblog

It’s likely that given my MJD, this will be the last edition of bindings I ever do. Not a bad place to end a career. But we’ll see.

Jim Downey



Well, well, well …

Last May, I wrote about the process of designing and executing the artistic leather bindings of Communion of Dreams. Now that all of my Kickstarter backers have made their choices, I thought I’d give a preview of the process of designing and executing the artistic leather bindings of St Cybi’s Well.

I had a piece of Preseli Bluestone from the quarry at Craig Rhosyfelin (which is the source for the Stonehenge Bluestones in the inner ring). This site appears in a scene in chapter 8. Well, I had the stone cut into 14 slices (two times the magical number 7). Which I then used to construct a “well” as the cover design. The center of the well has thin blue leather to represent the water in the well. Like this:

Actual stones on the right, laser-cut ‘stones’ under the leather on the left.

Each of the 14 leather-bound copies will have one actual slice of the stone mounted on top of the leather, and thirteen ‘stones’ of bookboard under the leather for bas relief. In this way, all fourteen copies of the leather-bound edition will be connected into one “well”. Here are two examples:

I’m offering a choice between curvilinear and rectilinear water in the well.

As with the titling for Communion of Dreams, the letterforms are etched using my Glowforge laser, then infilled with real gold leaf.

The other major design decision was what to do for the endpapers. Communion of Dreams had marbled endpapers. For St Cybi’s Well I wanted something different. Thinking through the various visuals in the book, one recurrent image I used was of a Celtic spiral. A symbol of whirlpools and infinity, but also of the transition between realms of reality. Combine that with the ‘healing energy’ in the novel characterized as being a luminous blue. So this is what I came up with: a thin sparkly blue spiral, cut with the laser from commercial glitterpaper stock. It will be mounted onto black endpapers, one each on the paste-down sheets front and rear. Here’s an example:

Technically tricky to mount it without smearing the adhesive, but also making sure the spiral is uniform.

I do have all the text blocks sewn up and ready to use. I’ve ordered the leather, and soon will be completing these bindings. There are five text blocks and five stones (numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 11) still available. If you’re interested in one, you can still choose your color of leather. Details here. Once I finish the nine books for my Kickstarter backers, I’ll just finish the remaining five in leather of my choosing (and raise the price).

I’ll post pics when I have the first batch finished.

Jim Downey



At long last …

It’s been five years since I last wrote about my efforts to come up with a satisfactory cover design for the premium leather edition of Communion of Dreams. Well, needless to say, a lot has happened since then. Not the least of which was getting, and learning to use, my Glowforge laser.

And now I’ve finally resolved the many different design and execution issues to my satisfaction, to the point where I’m completing the promised leather-backed copies for my Kickstarter supporters. Here it is:

This is going to be a bit about this binding, and how it differs from the hardcover cloth binding.

First thing, the sewing is different. Rather than just being sewn onto linen tapes, the books are sewn onto heavy linen cords:

Why the weird arrangement? So that those cords provide additional texture to the spine of the finished book, along the location of where the tree branches are (see the first pic above). Once the sewing was done, the text blocks were glued up and rounded slightly. All of that was very straight-forward.

However, as noted in that blog post in 2016, the problem I had was trying to achieve the raised texture of the tree for the rest of the cover. I played around with a bunch of different solutions, until I settled on using the laser to cut out a slightly abstracted version of the Burr Oak image:

That’s in the bed of the laser. The material is archival 50pt board. Trying to cut out such an image by hand would take me hours, probably. The laser does it in about four minutes. (Though I did spend some considerable amount of time coding the design so the laser would do it.)

Here’s the image free of the surrounding board:

That is then pasted onto a sheet of paper, and the book cover boards are mounted on the back in the appropriate location. Then it is time to mount the leather, and impress it such that the tree is in relief, with this result:

(Actually, that was a practice piece, not the final version pictured above. But I forgot to take an image of the final version at this stage.)

The edges of the leather are then turned-in, and the corners formed. This gives you a finished case (what bookbinders call the cover).

Next, need to do the titling. And this is where the laser once again comes in very handy, though it took me a while to get just the right technique worked out. After the design for the title is done, the leather is masked and then engraved with the laser to an appropriate depth:

Once that is done, the engraved areas are cleaned of residual charred leather, and gilding size applied:

Once that cures, then it’s time to apply the gold leaf:

Now, that’s real gold, in multiple layers, about $25 worth. This process is different than traditional gilding done by bookbinders, so I had to work up a whole different process to do it (based on my experience with traditional gilding). The result is very satisfactory, though, since I have a much greater range of options for the final design.

Once the titling work was done, it was time to prepare to mount the text block to the case. First, I tear the outer page of the outer signature, and trim the cords to the appropriate length:

This combination, with the two liner tabs, will make for a *very* secure mounting to insure the cover and text block stay together. Then, you fray out the linen cords, so that they will not present excess bulk inside the cover:

Then the whole thing is pasted out and mounted inside the case, similar to how the hardcover cloth bindings were done. Once everything is dry and secure, I added endpapers of hand-marbled paper I made:

Giving the finished product:

I tried a lot of different color combinations, and have decided that this is the one I think works the best (and echoes the original cover nicely). My Kickstarter backers have the option of choosing a different color, but henceforth this will be the only color option available for other collectors.

Next, after finishing these bindings: designing the premium leather binding for St Cybi’s Well.

Jim Downey



Let’s talk economics.

Last week I went through the mechanics of turning words into books. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the economics of that, as well as being an author.

When I set up the Kickstarter for St Cybi’s Well lo these many years ago, a lot of my estimates in deciding on what goals to shoot for were based on … blind faith, to be perfectly honest.

I’d published Communion of Dreams, and had some sense of the possible income that could generate, as well as the amount of work that went into writing/editing/formatting it. But I really had no idea what the costs would be for printing and hand-binding copies of that book or the yet unwritten St Cybi’s Well. I had a pretty good handle on how much time it would take me to do the hand binding, based on my book conservation work. And likewise, what the cost of materials would be, other than the printing. Now that I’ve gone through all of that with both books, I have a much better idea of how costs break down, so I thought I would share all of that.

Based on 55 copies (edition of 53, plus two author/artist proof copies), the actual out-of-pocket expense runs about $50 per copy for the two different books. That covers the cost of the oversize archival paper (so the grain/drape of the pages is correct for hand binding), the printing, and going to collect the printed pages. It also covers the cost of archival bookboard and cover cloth. (The leather copies are two or three times as much, depending on the actual leather used.) Were I to bind a single copy, it would take me about 2 hours of labor. If I bind multiple copies at a time, that drops to about 1.5 hours of labor. (Leather is about 2x the labor.)

My Kickstarter goal was $17,000. Which succeeded. After deducting the fees paid to Kickstarter, and the costs of the different “rewards/premiums” for the backers, I wound up with about $12,000. Which, truthfully, isn’t a bad advance for a relatively unknown author.

It took me seven years of writing work to finish St Cybi’s Well, rather than the one or two years I originally expected. That was both embarrassing and stressful, since I made promises to people I didn’t fulfill. But it’s over, and everyone seems happy with the end product, so let’s just talk about the amount of labor that went into it. I’d conservatively guesstimate that I have something on the order of 2,000 hours of labor in writing, rewriting, editing, and then composing (the last is mostly thanks to my Good Lady Wife) the book. That *might* be as much as twice as long as it took me to do the same with Communion of Dreams, though spread out over a longer period of time. So, do the math, and I earned about $6 per hour.

That’s just the Kickstarter, of course. Now that the book is done, I’ll continue to earn money on purchases of the downloads, printed paperbacks, and special order hand-bound copies. How much is hard to say. I have had about 40,000 downloads of Communion of Dreams, though a big chunk of those are free downloads. Still, with Amazon’s system, 2/3 of every sale goes to the author (as opposed to like 5-7% for conventional royalties with a publisher), and that adds up. To date, I’ve only had about a thousand downloads of St Cybi’s Well, and most of those have been free downloads. Which has been a little disappointing, but we’ll see how things go over time.

As for the printed paperback copies, there I earn a bit more from Amazon than I would for the downloads, but not a lot. And they don’t amount to very many sales. The signed copies I sell directly do a little better still, but again, that’s just a handful of books per year.

As for the handbound books, there I do make a lot more, about $150 per copy. But my conservation labor is billed at $200 per hour, so at 1.5 hours of labor, I’m making half of what I would professionally. The return on the leather bound copies is even worse.

So, why do it? Why even offer those books on the websites?

Because I enjoy it. I enjoy knowing that the books that I create will be enjoyed, perhaps cherished. Read, and passed down to children and grandchildren. Like most artists, I’m willing to trade some financial reward for that satisfaction, and I can afford to do so. Maybe it shouldn’t be the case, and it wouldn’t be the case ideally, but we do what we can under the circumstances.

Finished product.

Anyway, my books will be available for free download tomorrow (the First of the month, as always). Give ’em a try. If you like ’em, you’re always welcome to either purchase a download or one of the physical copies later, if you can afford to do so. But don’t feel guilty if you can’t; as noted I can afford to give them away, and take joy in knowing people read them.

Jim Downey



Turning words into books.

As I noted a couple of months ago, I found a printer to produce the pages for a hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well. This is a photo-essay of the process of turning those pages into finished books. This is not intended to be actual instruction on how to bind books.

My printer for Communion of Dreams had been bought-out and was no longer capable of doing the printing for St Cybi’s Well. I was able to source a new printer after some trouble. Everything was slowed down due to Covid, of course. Eventually I was able to drive over to Wichita KS to pick up the printed pages.

Printed pages and color cover stock. Note that these are oversize. This is necessary to make sure the ‘grain’ of the paper runs the correct way, so that the pages will turn properly once the book is bound. They get trimmed down after binding.

Each section (group of pages) has to be folded, then punched consistently to allow for sewing.

It’s easier to do the laser-design work on the section before binding. The design is that of the St Melangell Centre, of a hare, at Pennant Melangell. This is the location in the book where much of the action takes place.
Once the individual sections are all punched, they are gathered into books and then sewn. This style of binding is “sewn on tapes”.

Sewn text blocks. Note that these are oversize, using the full printed sheets.
The sewn text blocks, now cut down to finished size. This is done individually, using a c. 1915 guillotine.
I designed a simple thin-board jig using my laser, which allowed me to mark on the cut bookcloth where to mount the archival bookboard.
The marked sheets of bookcloth.
Mounted bookboard on the bookcloth.
Completed case, with the edges of bookcloth turned in and additional liners added. Those liners are needed to balance the strain on the boards cause by mounting the color cover stock label.
Exterior of the case, with color cover stock mounted.
Text blocks now lined with support paper along the spine, and endbands added at the head and tail. The outer page of the first and last section has been cut down to function as an additional hinge. This, combined with the sewing tapes, is sufficiently strong to mount the text block to the case covers.

Text blocks mounted into case covers, and allowed to dry under weight.
Finished books. If you look closely you’ll note a slight wedge shape to the text blocks. I wanted a flat spine to match the hand-bound copies of Communion of Dreams, but St Cybi’s Well is longer, and so required more sections. This made the swelling at the spine more noticeable. Once the books are opened and read once or twice, the wedge shape should disappear.
Finished copies.

If you would like your own hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well or Communion of Dreams, click the links. Each edition is limited to just 53 numbered copies, plus two Artist’s/Author’s proof copies. At either link you can also order one of the remaining copies of the Amazing Koob, as well as signed paperback copies. And of course, you can always download the books from Amazon (remember, they’re free on the first of each month).

That completes the next-to-last phases of my Kickstarter. The final phase will be the design and completion of the leather bindings.

Jim Downey



“If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales …”

I’m just going to post this entire review:

Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2020

From the very first page, St Cybi’s Well steeps you in the rich culture and landscape of Wales. It has a feel of ancient otherworldliness—until the scientific and political realities hit you full-on.

This book sounds uncanny echoes of our present predicament: Pandemic. Police. Politics. Racism. Rioting. Revolt. You can hear the ripping of the social fabric as fear overcomes reason.

And yet, there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a better future. Hope for us all.

With protagonist Dernell Sidwell’s quest for hope/healing/redemption set in the mystical, ancient sites of Wales, the reader feels deeply drawn to the power of the past—all while checking over their shoulder for what new nightmare the present has to offer.

You’d think the author was a time traveler, considering how closely Sidwell’s journey parallels the challenges we now face. You will appreciate Sidwell’s determination, his acute survival skills, and his willingness to consider, confront, and accept some things that stretch his perceptions of what is possible.

If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales, take the trip now. This is an urgent adventure that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the last page. I’ll see you at St Cybi’s Well.

St Cybi’s Well, and my other books, will be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month. Please download & share! And as I’ve said before: “And please, if you do read it, leave a review.”
Jim Downey


Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



Cautionary insight.

I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a medical professional of any sort.

And yet, I spent a lot of time studying the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, because I used that as the model for what the Fire-flu would be like in St Cybi’s Well. And it largely paid off, as I’ve noted previously, since so many people have seen the eerie similarities in how the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded to what I depict in the novel.

That’s because a lot of these things happen consistently in all pandemics, as you can see time and again if you look at the history.

And, having studied that history, even though I’m not an epidemiologist, I feel honor-bound to say: be worried about where things are headed here in the US. Currently, the C19 virus is largely uncontrolled in most states, and I’m afraid that it is going to get MUCH worse in the coming months. Place the blame for that where you will, the fact of the matter is that each individual needs to take whatever precautions you can to limit your chances of catching this disease. Follow the advice of the real epidemiologists out there. Don’t listen to the politicians. Or the conspiracy theorists. Or your buddy from high school who barely passed biology class.

St Cybi’s Well actually contains a lot of solid practical advice for how to prepare for a pandemic, if you step back and think about it. I added all that stuff because I wanted the book to ‘feel’ real, and to show what an intelligent, well-educated person might do when faced with the prospect of a pandemic. That it now might add some insight into what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones going forward is just serendipity.

If you think so too, maybe share the book with your friends and family. It’ll be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month.

Jim Downey