Creativity in a Box

Creativity is all about working within constraints. Although the creative process never ends, once all the initial limitations are dealt with, you get the answer to two very important questions: How much will this thing have to sell for? And will people pay it?

There were a few initial constraints that I placed on the design of The ULTIMATE Beer Journal.

  1. It must be handmade.
  2. It needs to be earthy.
  3. It should be durable.
  4. It will be affordable.

In addition, there were a few features I wanted to make sure the notebook included:

  • Lay flat when opened and in use.
  • Stay closed when being transported.
  • Convenient to carry.
  • Attractive and intuitive.
  • Sealed prior to being sold.
  • Locally sourced.

To research materials to construct the notebook I had to find a starting point. Everything builds off of each other. I decided to start with the most important thing: the journal pages themselves.

I began by contacting book publishers to get quotes on publishing books with a mix of black and white and color pages. Turns out, that is a tall order for most publishers so that eliminated a lot of options right off the bat. Then there was the issue of having notebook grade paper: 70# text paper. With the few publishers I had remaining I received quotes all over the map. Then, I asked the big question: “I know you guys publish bound books, but how willing are you to publish and unbound manuscript and let me so my own binding?”

Surprisingly, the cheapest book publishing source I found, DiggyPOD, came back with an affirmative to that question and told me it would knock $0.50 off the cost of each manuscript AND they would ship it to me for free! Considering they were only a short drive away in SE Michigan, this wasn’t something I was overly concerned about but it was a good starting point.

Then I decided to get creative. With DiggyPOD’s quote as a baseline, I contacted traditional print shops around Chicago and asked for quotes on print jobs for sections of the book. See, making 50,000 copies of the same page (the blank tasting pages for The ULTIMATE Beer Journal) is a pretty cheap order compared to making 10,000 copies of a 50 page document (the pre-filled out tasting pages for The CHICAGO Beer Journal). I could conceivably save money by taking advantage of different print shop’s specialties and ordering the appropriate components of the book from each. And that is how I found the local Chicago printer, Ino Prints.

To my surprise, Ino Prints was able to not only give me a cost advantage on the notebook broken down into smaller uncollated print jobs, bit their total cost of printing the entire book beat out DiggyPOD’s total cost flat out. With this information, I was able to find the appropriate mix of print services and proceed with a base cost for the notebook.

Manuscript: $3.98 per unit

Next, I went to work figuring out what to do about the covers. This was super important because the look of the cover material would say everything: it could make or break the marketability of the journal.

Then I stumbled upon this creative little print shop in Toronto called Jukebox Print. Jukebox specializes in printing on all kinds of fun materials: cotton, bamboo, cork, pulp, kraft, wood… The earthy feel and recycled nature of many of these stocks was enough to hook me, so I began a back and forth with Jukebox’s estimating department to discover what kind of costs I was looking at for each material.

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Cherry wood stock from Jukebox Print

To my disappoint, the desired cherry wood/kraft ply material I wanted to use for my book was pretty darn expensive. However, the 90% recycled pulp was extremely reasonable and the 100% recycled kraft was also in the ballpark of my budget. That is when I made the decision: make two versions of the book, a deluxe version with a “luxury” cover and a standard version with the pulp cover. Both looked gorgeous, so one was really not better than the other, but at least this way people would have the choice.

Covers: $1.63 to $4.49 per unit

Pulp stock from Jukebox Print
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Pulp stock from Jukebox Print

So now I had my manuscript and my covers picked out. All I needed to do now was figure out how to bind the book, how to close it, and how to seal it. Based on my experience with notebooks in the past, I knew spiral binding was the way to go, but I wanted to avoid plastic and stay eco-friendly if I could. At first, I was sold on some extremely inexpensive double loop Wire-O from Binding Depot. The cost was only $0.09 per book and it seemed sturdy and professional enough.

Then, I saw a demonstration of the advantages of plastic spirals over Wire-O on the TUFFNotes Notebook Kickstarter page that made me seriously start to doubt this choice. Since Kickstarter seems to be a place for exciting creativity and innovation, I started to search there for better binding solutions for notebooks. That is when I discovered tcoils.

Tom Leszczynski is a product designer and c0-creator of the tpad, an innovative approach to notebook protection. Using Grade 5 Titanium and excellent design elements, the tpad is a way to replace notebook covers with a nearly indestructible covers. To do this, one would need to replace their standard spiral coils – with near indestructible titanium coils – so that they could easily add and remove covers, pages, etc. to the notepad.

tcoils from Tom & Paul Leszczynski
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tcoils from Tom & Paul Leszczynski

See, the cool thing about tcoils is that rather than being crimped on both ends like regular spiral bindings, these used locks on the end that allowed them to be opened and closed. This allows for users to replenish their notebooks – a feature I was already thinking about adding (although in a radically different and less efficient way). I immediately knew that tcoils were going to have to be an add-on feature for The ULTIMATE Beer Journal – and perhaps even an included feature in the Deluxe version of the journal. But how much did they cost?

Well, it turns out, they cost a LOT. Enough to make it impossible for me to include them as a standard feature of even the Deluxe notebook and still have a reasonably priced product. The only way I could include them with the Deluxe notebook is if I somehow could get the costs down… and the most expensive thing in the Deluxe notebook at this point was the wooden covers. It was time to go back to the drawing board.

On my quest for a cheaper “deluxe” cover for my notebooks, I came across another Chicago based notebook company with a wooden cover: Field Notes. What really surprised me, however was that their Cherry Wood cover was offered at the same price point as their standard covers. How was this possible? It was possible because they were clearly sourcing their wooden paper stock from a different company: Graphic Wood Technologies. And wouldn’t you know it, GWT was located in Wisconsin and sourcing their wood from northern Illinois. Talk about staying local. Watch this awesome video about how wood paper is made.

So, now I am in the process of finding a printer who sources and prints on GWT’s stock and can hopefully give me a cheaper price quote so that I can make tcoils a standard feature of the deluxe version of The ULTIMATE Beer Journal. In order to make it an add-on feature, though, one thing was clear: Wire-O wasn’t compatible. I would need to go back to using plastic spiral coils – which are super cheap, but not really eco-friendly. Then, I made a startling discovery.

This lovely little company, MyBinding, makes eco-friendly plastic coils from recycled post-consumer waste! The price is comparable to the Wire-O and the construction is such that the notebook punch holes will be compatible with tcoil replacements. And speaking of recycled post-consumer waste, guess what else I found? A source of recycled elastic bands for creating notebook bands to hold the notebook closed when note in use, and a source of recycled plastic bags that will keep the notebook sealed and protected from damage prior to being purchased. What is even better about the bags, which I am sourcing from ClearBags, is that they are also USPS approved and can double as mailers.

Spirals: $0.16 to $4.13 per unit

Elastic band: $0.04 per unit

Bags/mailers: $0.12 per unit

Barcode stickers: $0.06 per unit

Labor: $0.20 to $0.50 per unit

After months of research – that is, consequently, still ongoing – I finally had arrived at some basic costs for construction small batches of The ULTIMATE Beer Journal. Once I figured in labor costs for final product assembly, wholesale costs for selling through retailers, and postage costs for selling online (as well as logistics costs for supplying retailers), I finally arrived at a price point of $20 for the basic version of the notebook and $30 for the deluxe version. For a tasting journal with over 150 pages and the option to add replacement pages (for only $5 per 25 sheets), that actually turns out to be a great value compared to other beer tasting journals on the market.

Now, the only problem I had to deal with was the minimum quantities necessary to get started and the additional equipment necessary for hand assembly. We’re talking anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 necessary for just a small initial launch. Where is all that startup capital going to come from? Stay tuned…

Coming up next: Quest for a Logo – How to find the brand image that represents the very essence of our values and existence.