Writing Perils or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Action Figure Book

Luke-Skywalker-opening-spread

When last you left this little corner of the net, I’d been relating how I had gotten the much-delayed go-ahead to start writing Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection last Dec. 9—yet the deadline for the first third of the book was 10 days later. On top of that, I had been informed that the book had to be written in hidden data fields that, unbeknownst to me and many others, are part of every jpeg photo file.

I tried to get that decision reversed. I threw a temper tantrum. I held my breath until I turned blue, but my editor couldn’t see that on the phone, so I gulped some air. How would it be possible to write descriptions of 2,300 action figures if I couldn’t see what I’d already written, or be able to easily change and correct things?

Clearly I needed someone with a Master’s degree in geography!

Well, that’s part of the package that you get with Anne Neumann, my good friend, general manager of my collection, and vice president and secretary-treasurer of Rancho Obi-Wan. She also has extensive database writing experience, which came in handy when we worked together on Star Wars: 1,000 Collectibles. Anne’s answer was to write a custom Filemaker database that would let me write the book the way I needed to. Then she found shareware that converted fields in the database to the specific jpeg metadata fields that the publisher had chosen. Anne spent about 80 hours on that project…but that was just the beginning.

The real challenge was wrangling 2,300 different action figures, identifying them carefully, pointing out what was new and/or different, making sure the release dates and line names were accurate, and weeding out any figures that essentially were just repackaged without changes. Was Jabba the Hutt really an action figure? Well, no…but from a certain point of view he was certainly a major speaking character, so he’s in. Should a massiff packed with a Geonosian or Tusken be a separate entry? If a figure is re-released without a certain item of clothing or an accessory does that count as new?

I clearly needed some help. First I got permission from Philip Wise, owner of the granddaddy of collector websites, Rebelscum.com, to make use of information developed over more than 15 years. Then I brought aboard Dan Curto, who had put together a lot of that data and photos. And finally I called on Paul Harrison, who takes great figure photos and writes critiques for JediTempleArchives.com.

Massive amounts of information and photos were going back and forth across country. Meanwhile, at Rancho Obi-Wan, Anne led a team of volunteers that physically checked every action figure to make sure the descriptions were accurate and the colors in the photos were true. To do that, she opened, bagged, and entered data on about 1,900 figures newly separated from their cards and other packaging.

And then one evening, I walked into the room where she was sorting and discovered she had been felled by the dreaded AFO—action figure overload! (One look at the photo and you’ll see why I was concerned.) Luckily she snapped back quickly.

Anne-Neumann-has-action-figure-overload

Photos came from everywhere. I got a dump of some 12,000 images from a licensed 2007-2008 Japanese project, but not one image was identified and many of the photos just didn’t work because of the different nature of the two publishing ventures. I received hundreds of digital images from Hasbro, but we had to carefully weed out early pre-production photos when the final figures turned out different. Dan, Paul, and Anne took many original photos.

And the clock kept ticking. I was now working on the project seven days a week, sometimes until 2 am or later, but the nature of the book and the way it was being done just sucked time into a giant black hole. A “final” deadline of Feb. 28 blew past…as did March, April, and May. Even as the writing and photos were going ahead, we were changing text, adding and subtracting figures, and going over the text and photos time after time. (I’ve included the opening spread for all Luke Skywalker figures since 1978 at the top of this post.)

Finally, on June 11, the completed files were sent to the printer in China—and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief not only to have finished the project, but to have turned out a book that we’re all proud of and hope that you enjoy. We did a panel at Celebration VI, and the four of us signed bookplates at the Rancho Obi-Wan Experience booth. (From left: Dan, Paul, Anne, Steve.)

Signing-at-Celebration

The book is due out next month. You can buy it at your local bookstore or reserve it in advance at a discount at RachoObiWan.org. Let us know what you think!

Steve Sansweet is chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit membership museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia. To find out about joining or taking a guided tour, visit www.ranchoobiwan.org. Follow on Twitter @RanchoObiWan and http://www.facebook.com/RanchoObiWan.

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