Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Look at the Size of That Thing: An Interview With the Collectors Behind Read Five Books

Ron writes:

 What do you reckon is the best book on Star Wars collecting ever published?

I think most will agree there are several legitimate contenders for that title. 

Undoubtedly, most will also agree that there's no correct answer to this question: Opinions will naturally differ as to which publication is superior. 

But what if I modify the question slightly? 

What if I ask not what is the best book on Star Wars collecting, but instead what is the most impressive?

The blue, gold, and silver colors correspond to different Kickstarter tiers, while the black cover (most limited) was reserved for special gifts.

Well, I'm just one guy with an opinion, but for me that's an easy one.

Upon seeing the new book put out by British collectors Gianni Venturini and Gregory Armstrong, there was little doubt in my mind that it's the most impressive publication ever devoted to the subject of Star Wars collecting.

Measuring 15 inches by 12 inches, and weighing 10 pounds, Star Wars Toy Guide, Volume One: Kenner Action Figures, has the heft and sumptuousness of a limited-edition product from a publisher like Taschen. Leafing through it is a sensual experience: The weight of the paper and beauty of the graphics contribute to an effect that is immersive; you want to dive into the thing. 

In fact, it's so sensually compelling that while leafing through it you may almost forget to scrutinize its information.

But don't worry: Its informational content is just as ace as its aesthetic appeal. 

Covering just about everything touching on Kenner's vintage action figure line, it's a treasure-trove for beginners and experts alike. Cogent and photo-rich elucidations of loose figures sit comfortably beside data-spreads treating tough-to-pin-down topics like two-packs and accessory variations. Even the large-size action figures are covered. 

Forgive my resort to cliche, but there's really something here for everyone.

Because I was so impressed by the volume, I invited Gianni and Greg to sit for an interview concerning their process and future plans. I hope it'll serve as a good introduction to them as well as an endorsement of their future efforts.

If you don't already have a copy, I wholeheartedly recommend signing on to the proposed second edition (see below for details). If you have any interest in Star Wars toys, you won't regret it.

Ron Salvatore: Tell me about your background. In particular, how did you get into Star Wars toys?

Gianni Venturini: I was born in Hammersmith (West London) in 1974. My mother took me and my older brother to the Gaumont Theatre just off Shepherd Bush Green during a school half-term break in February 1978. My mum always tells the story of me reacting to Darth Vader coming through the blockade runner’s doors and me asking her to turn it over to another channel (I was only four at the time). I persevered and Star Wars stuck with me ever since (I’m always grateful to my mum for that introduction at quite a young age). 

Professionally, I have been a Graphic Designer for over 28 years, initially studying General Art & Deigns at Richmond College and then Typography at the London College of Printing (now called UAL: London College of Communication). 

My main toys as a kid were Star Wars, but when I got a bit older my toy collection was given to the children’s ward at the hospital where my mum worked. It wasn’t until my college years that a fellow student introduced me to Steve Sansweet’s book Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible, and in there I saw the full lineup of figures. I remember remarking on figures I didn’t even know existed (namely, the last 17), and thinking I wanted them all back. And so began the resurrection of my Star Wars collection.

Gregory Armstrong: I’m a little younger, born in 1984; however, my mum’s job, while she was pregnant with me, was running the Star Wars toy floor in Elys department store in Wimbledon. I’ve always had Star Wars toys from my earliest memories. They were just there. Not a complete run, but I had a fair few, along with my TV recorded VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back. When I watch that film now I remember all the cuts for the adverts still. 

Growing up my parents would often take us to car boot sales and that was a prime location to buy my Star Wars figures and vehicles to play with. I love my box of vintage figures, both Kenner and Palitoy, and all beaters, played with for years by me and now played with by my daughter who has my Millennium Falcon in her room. Gianni collects a lot on cards whereas I’m all about playing with your toys (by playing I mostly mean displaying and doing toy photography), so we have a good balance between us of toy collecting.

I got involved in this project through my experience in retail, digital marketing, photography and my love for Star Wars. Gianni and I have been going to Star Wars exhibitions and seeing the films in the cinema for years before we even started discussing the book.

RS: What would you say is the focus of this book? What did you want to accomplish with it?

GV: When I first had the idea I wanted a book that would cover all aspects of Star Wars figures from all over the world, but soon realized it wouldn’t be achievable in the level of detail I wanted to cover. From that point, you start at the beginning, Kenner. But even then, with the vision I had, I knew we couldn’t cover it all the way I wanted to. So we started with the figures. We wanted to make a book that cataloged all we could about the figures and anything that was pertaining to them. At the same time, we wanted to produce a high-quality book that was a collector’s item in itself. Ultimately it was a book I wanted to own, and that I hoped would appeal to other Star Wars collectors.

GA: We weren’t looking to take on the Kellerman. We obviously adore that book. But it’s hard to pick up for an affordable price. We wanted to make a book that wouldn’t cost £300-£500, but would still be held in high regard. We wanted to cover everything Kenner in one book, but given the level of detail we wanted to go into, it became very clear this was impossible. So we focused on the action figures and everything that goes with them, such as catalogs, variations, card backs, coins, etc.

RS: Guides have been published over the years, both in print and on the web. What are some of your favorites, and how did they influence the creation of your book?

GV: I have a large collection of Star Wars collecting books. After seeing my college friend’s Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible I immediately went and got myself a copy and would flick through that daily looking at all the items I would love to have in my collection. Steve Sansweet is a common author in my collection with The Star Wars Action Figure Archive being another favorite (amongst others). The John Kellerman book was one I signed up for when a possible second run was announced (missed the boat the first time around), but unfortunately that never happened, and I wasn’t able to get my hands on one until much later. These, along with Mark Bellomo’s Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures, were the books I would go to time and time again for reference.

GA: I have The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures, by Mark Bellomo, which is a really nice guide. I also love the UK Echo guides, wonderful books to look through. The web databases are amazing, but I love the feel of a book. 

RS: You’re both credited as co-authors. How did you delegate duties? Who did what?

GV: I knew this book would be something I couldn’t complete on my own with other commitments I had (at the time). Also, before this project I wasn’t really present on any social media, so I didn’t know too much about that side of things. I had started out designing some Star Wars card-back posters, which I sold through Etsy, and I knew Greg (who is married to my cousin) worked in social media advertising. I approached him about setting me up on social media as well as other platforms and how best to advertise the posters I had. 

I soon sold out of my first poster batch and explained my idea for the book and how I saw its potential as a Kickstarter campaign. Greg threw himself into helping me set up the campaign, create a social presence, and also threw a bit of photography in there. Fundamentally I designed the book with Greg doing all the photography (unless already sourced or supplied).

GA: Our duties changed over time, as we helped each other share the load. Gianni is a fantastic graphic designer, I would only give my opinions on layout which would be discussed, but I had complete confidence in Gianni’s vision. We would both be doing research, getting in touch with collectors, doing long road trips to meet collectors and photograph key pieces in their collections. My primary task was photography. All the figure shots, the chapter breaks, and pretty much any physical we had in hand. 

RS: The photography is first-rate throughout. How did you ensure that level of quality? And how hard was it to hunt down the photos you needed?

GV: With regards to the quality of the shots we had that was down to Greg. I fully trusted in his abilities, which is one of the reasons I was happy to have him on board to begin with. I think he should be particularly proud of the chapter-break images he produced -- so much so that we produced a poster of them all that was sold with some tiers of the Kickstarter. 

The card backs and many fronts were already sourced from some private collectors I knew (access to these collections was very much an inspiration for the book). We thought we had the book pretty much planned out prior to the Kickstarter, albeit with some images still being required. The success of the Kickstarter (as we hoped) opened doors to other collectors and their collections. We were able to source many of the items we required to finish the book, but we didn’t stop there. With all this new content and information we had access to we couldn’t help but add to the book (the initial number of pages was 300 -- which soon grew to 400, and we ended up at 536). If we learned of something new we had to include it -- we wanted the book to be as in-depth as possible, printed "real estate: permitting!" The community was so generous, and we even got invited to people’s houses (after lockdown) to photograph extremely rare items. 

We contacted people through Facebook who showed off amazing pieces via posts, but we were not always successful. We badgered the likes of Frank Mews a few times before we convinced him of the project. Some collectors were a flat "no," whereas others greeted us with open arms. We always made sure we showed people layouts and designs in order to convince them it was a worthwhile project, and many times that was the deciding factor in getting them on board. Some collectors even took and retook photos for us because we were particular about how we wanted the item to appear in the book. 

We were particularly lucky with certain items, like the catalogs. We wanted this show the printed spreads the catalog mailer packs were advertised on, as we knew that would spark nostalgia in the reader. We found a lady in the U.S. who collected them and had a majority of the ones we wanted. The lady was able to supply us with the necessary scans. At the same time, this also raised concern as we could not find the Spiegel catalogues anywhere. Searching through we found a relevant article by a certain Ron Salvatore. Problem solved! We asked a lot and got a lot back. We're so grateful to so many. 

GA: Thank youI appreciate that. I’ve always been a keen photographer. I've had images published in magazines like Photography Monthly before, worked in digital marketing, and I'm a big fan of Toy Photography, so was no stranger to taking photos. They were all taken during the lockdowns -- in my kitchen, actually. I had some incredible figures at my house, including Gianni’s complete beautiful loose 96-figure run, all of them featured in the book, which both excited and terrified me. We of course had many variants to hunt down and photograph, as well as the Droids and Ewoks on card and loose. 

There were some things I was very nervous handling, such as the Hoth Luke still in the original mail-away baggie, double telescopic Luke, Vader and Obi-Wan on cards (albeit in acrylics), double telescopic lightsabers, and some figures on the card with slightly loose bubbles. These may not have been ours, but rather lent just for the photography. But it was amazing to have all these wonderful figures in hand and on my kitchen table being shot for the book. 

RS: What is your favorite aspect of the book? What about it are you most proud of?

GV: For me, it’s the look and feel of the book. We wanted great information but we also wanted a traditional feeling book with a sense of quality and presence. We wanted it to be a collector’s piece in its own right as well as a great resource! When people see it in person it always gets the reaction I was hoping for.

GA: Of course, the photography, particularly the full-page chapter break images, which were added a lot later. But, in all honesty, I would say the chapters on variations and weapons. We weren’t planning to have them in the book, not at the level of detail they are anyway. We added them during the Kickstarter as stretch goals, but once we actually sat down the do the chapters we realized how big a job it was going to be, and once we started pulling that thread we couldn’t stop till the whole jumper was gone.

It was a lot of work, stress, and at points very frustrating, but I love looking at those chapters now. They really elevate the book even higher, and it wouldn’t be the same without them.

RS: Tell me about the graphic design. Gianni, you mentioned you worked in that field. How did you approach the look of the thing? 

GV: Being a graphic designer I wanted to make sure the book wasn’t "over-designed." When you love the content, you want that to be the star. I knew if we got the photography right (which Greg did) I could allow the content to dictate the look of the book. No bells and whistles, let the images do the talking. The efforts in design were more about communication, which is what graphic design is. You want to present something in a way that not only looks good but communicates its message clearly. Breaking down the card backs into "masters" and "subsidiaries" was a bit of a eureka moment for us as we felt this simplified the various combinations in a much clearer way and allowed us to show the full range of existing card backs as well as other predicted possibilities.

The book actually started off having a landscape orientation, but with some pages having throw-outs (fold-out pages), it limited the size of press we could print on, and so narrowed down our options regarding printers. We were always conscious of costs and wanted both quality and value for the reader.

GA: That was all Gianni. His design of this book blew me away, even in the earliest drafts. 

RS: What do you think the book has contributed to the knowledge base of Star Wars collecting? 

GV: As we mention in the book, collecting these figures is multi-faceted. You can go down multiple rabbit holes with many aspects of the collection. Given limited pages (only 536) we were both conscious and careful that we gave the right amount of information to the right areas. We do hope, however, that we have given enough information to start people down those rabbit holes, should they so wish to go there, by giving outline information. I feel like we do this in the section on COOs on page 263, in which we explain how they can be scrutinized down to the finest detail without showing every possible option -- which was impractical in this instance and a book unto itself.

I hope one day this book could inspire another generation and make them realize why these toys are loved so much by so many. 

RS: I notice that you occasionally feature a photograph of a prototype alongside its production counterpart. What was your thinking there? What do you think prototypes contribute to our understanding of these toys?

GV: These were images we had access to from the Lehmkuhl brothers [Sean and Ryan], who run They were kind enough to supply some images, so we thought it would be cool to show these off and give a little insight as to how these figures were put together and even explain some of the terminology used in preproduction collecting.

GA: It’s just nice to have those extras in there. If we knew about it, could get hold of it or get our hands on a useable image from someone who had it, it was going in the book. 

RS: I was happy to see the large-size figure line included in the book, as that line doesn’t get a lot of love from collectors. Why did you decide to include those alongside the action figures? What do you enjoy about the large-size line?

GV: Originally, that was a stretch goal, but we always knew we wanted them to appear. This book was to cover all things figure-wise from Kenner, so to omit them wasn’t really a choice. They not only add new collections to the book, but they also add new color pallets. The content dictated the design. We even flipped the design of the pages (Droids & Ewoks) to reflect the card backs, putting the figures on the opposite side when compared to the movie-line figures. This is not necessarily something that people would pick up on, but we knew it was there.

GA: Much like the variants and Droids and Ewoks, the large-size figures were floating around as a stretch goal during the Kickstarter, but before even hitting our target we had already discussed it and decided they were going in. We just couldn’t leave anything out. But I’m glad they are in there. If you love them or not, they are still part of the Star Wars Kenner history, and so fully deserve their own chapter in the book. 

Earlier you mentioned accessory variations. I was impressed by the level of detail there. How hard was it assembling all that information, and do you reckon what you’ve put together is close to comprehensive? 

GV: This was always a tricky section, and one we decided to add late in the process. I think it’s one of those sections that could be expanded upon or be a book on its own. With space as an issue, we treated it as one of those sections through which we can inform people enough to allow them to further investigate. We know this book won’t compete with the level of information that is on the internet, but we wanted to cover as much as possible to give people a good starting point.

GA: It was a very time-consuming and daunting task, with a lot of opinions woven into fact, so it was very difficult to catalog, but I’m very happy and proud of the final chapter and how far we went with it in the end. 

RS: "Opinions woven into fact." That's a great way of putting it! This book includes more information on the ROTJ two-packs than I’ve seen in any other source. What are your thoughts on those products? 

GV: These are items not necessarily on my radar but I appreciate them all the same. We too had never seen a lot about these in other books, and it was tricky, as we knew we could never display all of the almost 3,000 options possibly available. Again, we had help from a guy (mentioned in the book) who focused on these, and who had a lot of knowledge that he was willing to pass on. I feel we did the two-packs justice. 

GA: I didn’t know much about these going in so the whole chapter was an education for me. I love the combinations. 

RS: Speaking of hard-to-catalog areas: Does the book feature photos of nearly every catalog figure mailer known to exist? It almost seems that way. How hard was it finding all of those photos?

GV: Simple answer is yes. Probably the hardest section to source images for. Not only the packs (which, again, we had great help with from experts in this field), but the catalogues too (as you well know, Ron). We ended up missing a couple of packs which we have now sourced and will include in any future print runs. We searched online for stuff we could maybe ask permission for and even looked at purchasing some, but these too are becoming sought after and so command a price! As I mentioned, we managed to find a lady in the U.S. who collected all sorts of catalogues and was selling USB sticks containing digital versions. We sent a list of what we needed, and the lady was able to help out with pretty much all of them from that period. The only ones we struggled with were Spiegel (which a certain Mr. Salvatore helped us with at the 11th hour).

GA: It seemed borderline impossible at points until you find that person who has them. I tell you, during the lockdown, I become very good friends with my postman. 

RS: Yeah, the Spiegel catalogs are tough. I'm thrilled I was able to help in some small way. You seem to place a lot of emphasis on the internet collecting community, even devoting a section to it. How do you think this book fits into that community?

GV: With myself not being on social media prior to this project I was very detached from the online community side of things, which is how Greg and I got started in talking about this project together. As it turns out the online community played a massive part in getting this book to a point where we were able to produce it. Without the likes of certain YouTube channels that we mention in the book, Facebook groups also, which include many people we have become very good friends with (both online and in-person), we could not have spread the word as much as we did, as there was no budget for advertising, and we relied heavily on word of mouth. Nobody knew who Read Five Designs was when we started (I even started doing posters under the name Blue Milk until we spotted someone else using that name), and it’s fair to say that people took a risk on us, which we will forever be grateful for. Whenever we see comments from videos, live streams, or online posts, we are always given the impression that they have been a part of this journey in getting the book out, and sometimes they got us over difficult periods. So a big thank you to that community.

GA: Such a great bunch of humans. We weren’t exactly greeted with open arms when we announced the Kickstarter. Understandably so, we came out of nowhere, no one knew us, and here we were claiming we were going to make the most in-depth Star Wars Kenner toy guide. So we would go on with anyone who was kind enough to invite us onto their YouTube channel, including Bossk's Bounty, Paliboys, and Holochronicles, who welcomed us with open arms and believed in the project from the start. We made some very good friends within that community. We’ve also had people tell us throughout the process of making this book that it brought other communities together in their excitement for the book. Meeting people in person at conventions like Echo Live and toy fairs has been a really amazing and rewarding experience. 

RS: The collecting community is certainly incredibly diverse and responsive to requests. How did you go about leveraging the knowledge of that community in helping you assemble all of this information?

GV: Once the project got funded, it opened a lot of doors, and some people approached us notifying us of rare items they had in their collections. If I’m honest, it was always a part of the gamble -- get the project funded, so people know it will actually be happening, and then bring people on board with their collections. When you start communicating with people online about specific focuses you get to hear and read the same names crop up as to who to speak to or contact. Some collectors gave us a flat "no" and others were very keen to have their collections added. We managed to convince others by sending them sections of the book that were relevant to them, and once they could see what we were trying to do they wanted to help.  

GA: It was so important, knowing whom in the collecting community to reach out to, depending on their focus, to help us. Chapters like the ones on coins and two-packs just wouldn’t be what they are without the valuable knowledge of the collecting community. 

RS: What do you wish you could have included in the book but couldn’t for reasons of space, time, lack of adequate photography, etc.? 

GV: I will always look at the book and see ways to improve it. That said, I think that, given that it’s over 500 pages and the size it is, it would be easy to say most of it’s there. But no. I do think some sections could have been expanded upon, but adding to the number of pages with what I had in mind would have made the book a danger to itself. What do I mean by this? Well, I think it would have been too thick and heavy for it to handle its own physicality, and would maybe not last too long with constant handling. We had a couple of prototypes made before going to final print, and that was pretty expensive to produce. This included the dust jacket options and all the finishes we were looking for. We got it, and it was too big really. The page weight was too heavy, which meant the spine was too wide, and it was tricky to handle. As a result, one of the prototypes got damaged, so we made some refinements with the final product, bringing paper weight down and modifying some other details, and we think the final product is solid, and with quality finishes to boot! I know this goes away from the original question but it’s all about balance. Did we get the right amount of stuff in a book that size? I think so, yes, and without too much compromise.

RS: Did you have an experience while writing the book that you particularly value and that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?

GV: I think this goes back to the community and the people we have met along the way. They encourage you to push on and get the job done. In my mind, I knew I never wanted to let these people down, and I knew I could deliver a quality product. As time went on, we ourselves go frustrated with how long everything was taking, but we knew we had to get stuff right. We constantly kept our backers updated, and we were always accessible to any questions or concerns people had. The community helped us get to the end. 

GA: Meeting everyone and seeing their reactions to the book we poured so much work, time, and love into. Collectors we met on our photography road trips, collectors in the community, YouTubers, and just meeting those who have supported us, has been a really incredible experience. You walk into a toy shop, and someone stops you to say they backed the book and what a great job we’ve done. It can be a little overwhelming in the best possible way. Just seeing the reactions, the posts on social media, and the emails people send sharing what these toys mean to them and how important the book is to them, it’s pretty amazing. 

RS: What should people thinking of producing their own book keep in mind? What are the pitfalls of writing a collectables book? What are the benefits?

GV: Although I have worked on many projects of this type, I have never worked on one as big as this, of which I had complete control over (albeit with Greg). You have to learn from your mistakes, not just in the contents of the book but with the production and fulfillment. There are certain things we could have done better, but we were learning things along the way. The fulfillment part was particularly hard as we probably both underestimated that task. As I’m answering this question I have just finished attaching the final labels to the last batch that will leave my house in two days’ time, and what a relief that will be. We know how we can use those experiences to give our supporters a better experience going forward. 

GA: You've got to keep a level head. You’ll be told very conflicting pieces of information you’ll need to sort through. And consistency: we had to show all chapters the same respect, the same level of detail, not just brushing over say "coins." We didn’t want weak chapters. We wanted something to please all vintage Star Wars collectors, no matter their focus. 

RS: What are your personal favorite Star Wars toys?

GV: Even as a child I was always about the characters. I didn’t ask for too many vehicles or playsets as a child, and they are not something I need to add to my collection now. I am all about figures, and they were what I wanted as a child. I would receive them double-wrapped at Christmas, and knew exactly what they were before opening them -- it was just a question of which particular figure was in the gift. My favorite figure is probably Han Bespin, I always gravitated to that one as a child.

GA: I love all my beaters, but as a kid I played with R5 and R2 a lot, and took them places with me, bearing in mind as a kid I was playing with these figures before even seeing the films, so I had no idea R5 had so little screen time. And of course, the vintage Millennium Falcon, one of the greatest toys ever made. Can’t wait to get to that in Volume Two.

RS: How can collectors get their hands on a copy of this?

GV: We have pretty much sold out of the first batch, but we may have a small number after fufillment. That said, we have generated a waitlist which is now over the required amount to produce a second batch. If people are interested in being added to the list, they can click this link

GA: After a well-deserved nap, we hope to do another run this year. Collectors can let us know if they want to be notified and jump on the waitlist. 

RS: Earlier you mentioned a second volume. What do you have planned for future volumes?

GV: We have started to flesh out Volume Two, which will include vehicle, creatures and playsets. We will give treat these similarly to how we have treated the figures in Volume One, and there is even a preview of that at the end of Volume One.

GA: I can’t wait to get into the photography side of Volume Two. So excited to meet and work with new and old faces, play with the amazing playsets, etc. Bring it on!

RS: Well, guys, congratulations on completing such a monumental project, and on doing it in such spectacular fashion! I can't wait to see Volume Two. Let me know if I can be of any help with it.

1 comment:

  1. Great to interview the guys Ron, thanks for doing it (and linking to a few YouTube interviews as well). Its a great book, I have it in my lounge room, and pull out and flick through the pics every weekend. Such a massive task to take this on, was so glad it got backed and produced. Thanks to Greg and Gianni.