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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for the ‘Digital Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Entrepreneurial Digital Printing

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

As a commercial printing broker, I look for trends. I’m always studying. Always observing all things related to custom printing. And over the last several years I’ve been noticing that the majority of my clients have been entrepreneurs. I think that’s rather exciting.

Here’s a rundown:

  1. I have one client with whom I’ve been periodically discussing a reprint of a public domain book located solely online. It is a book about the space program. She thinks she can sell it as a print book.
  2. I have another client who produces color books for fashion. She is a “fashionista.” Her print books are like small PMS swatch books. People use them to choose clothing and make-up colors based on their hair and complexion. She is expanding and adding a clothing line based on her color system. Therefore, I’ve been studying direct-to-fabric printing in order to help her prepare her initial Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. For this campaign she will only need a few digitally-produced prototypes.
  3. A few years ago I had a client who produced graphic novels. They were essentially perfect-bound print books. Their subject matter was an intensely emotional, dramatic, photographic portrayal (with limited text) of human relationships. To me it was a cross between high opera and an adult comic book. This client also crowdsourced her work, getting small donations from a number of people and drastically limiting her press runs.
  4. I had a recent client who wanted to produce a 500-plus-page book with heavy 4-color coverage and bleeds but only a 100-copy press run. My price was too high for him, so he first considered buying a Xerox color copier for the text and outsourcing the binding. Then he opted for a 30-copy press run produced by a local printer to test reader interest and secure funding for a longer run.
  5. I had two poets contract with me to produce very limited runs of poetry print books. In one case, my client only wanted 20 to 30 copies of a 32-page book (plus cover).
  6. I had another client who produced a 200-plus-page print book on the Holocaust for family members. If I recall correctly he produced only about 40 copies. I had a digital print book vendor produce the text digitally and then offset print the covers (to ensure their quality), since the press run was so small.

The list goes on.

A Learning Experience

That said, here are some things I learned from all of these experiences.

  1. It used to be that a writer would produce a book and then find a publisher. The publisher would pay to print, market, and sell the print book. Then he/she would pay the writer a percentage of the profits. This meant that only a limited number of authors would get published. Beyond the financial implications, this meant that only a limited number of writers would get their product to a wide audience—or to any audience.
  2. Then there came digital custom printing, the country-wide increase in freelancing, crowdfunding, the “sharing” economy (like Uber), etc. Writers realized they could “do it themselves.” They could produce a limited number of any kind of publication, shop it around, talk it up on the Internet, maybe sell it on Amazon, and get a percentage of the profits. If they also sold it themselves (rather than through Amazon or any other web-to-print site), they could keep significantly more of the profits.
  3. This redefining of publishing (which in the 1970s was called “vanity printing”: i.e., funding your own print job rather than convincing a publisher to do it for you) democratized the industry. It made everyone a potential publisher.

Implications for Digital Custom Printing

The democratization of printing, which I would put up there with Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in Europe (as opposed to in China, where it happened earlier)–and which led to the democratization of information–also had implications for how print buyers bought printing. Here are some thoughts:

  1. I just received the first bid for my client whose 32-page book of poems I’m shopping around. The cost of 20 copies or 30 copies is almost the same (about $5.00 apart). What this means is that almost all of the money is going into preparation (no matter what they say about digital printing’s not having any prep work). My advice to her is to buy 40, 50, or 100 books and give them away through writing schools, her website, and other venues. She could consider it a marketing expense. The unit cost would drop precipitously, but the overall cost would rise only slightly.
  2. My client who printed the Holocaust book text via digital printing and the covers of these books via offset lithography benefited from the following technical “facts”: a) For heavy-coverage solids, offset printing is better than digital. b) For black-only text on a nice, textured, off-white printing stock, digital printing is fine, especially since the photos were old and of of marginal quality. c) And an offset printed cover with a film laminate coating, a press score, and a nice perfect binding can make a digitally printed book look spectacular. d) Plus, a press run of 300 covers is cheap when compared to a print run of 300 entirely offset printed books.
  3. There are online vendors willing to do any of these jobs. Personally, I’m more comfortable going to vendors when I know the management and can visit the shop if something goes wrong. You may have a different experience with online vendors.
  4. There are any number of vendors in the Far East who will do this kind of work. However, they’re far away if anything goes wrong. Also, if there are any problems with the shipping, customs, dock strikes, etc., what are you going to do? (You pay for your savings in other ways.) Also, they often have minimum runs—like 1,000 copies.
  5. In general, many printers have minimum runs. Most of my clients’ jobs could not meet these minimums. That means needing to find a printer who can. It also means (see item #1 above) that most of the ultra-short press runs will cost about the same even if you double or triple the run length. I always tell my clients that it’s cheaper to print too many copies and then give (or throw) them away than to print too few copies and need to go back on press. This is sometimes true for digital jobs as well as offset jobs (see item #1 above).

What You Can Learn From This Multi-Client Case Study

  1. Think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to blend technologies such as digital and offset printing in one project.
  2. Think outside the box with funding. Look at Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites online.
  3. Consider repurposing your product, as my client did by expanding from color books to garments based on the same colors.
  4. Always get samples. For any job with physical requirements (such as garments), test the samples. Wash the sample garments. See how they “drape,” how they fit and feel, how they respond to sun and rain.
  5. Look at samples side by side. See what a heavy coverage, full-bleed cover looks like printed digitally vs. offset printed. Can you see a difference? Does the difference bother you? Is it worth the extra money?
  6. Find print vendors you can trust, and then listen to their advice on all of these subjects.

Custom Printing: New Digital Print Technology from Kodak

Monday, March 19th, 2018

I was excited to see the new digital printing technology from Kodak, the NEXFINITY platform, referenced recently in the printing trade journals. I have been a devotee of Kodak’s competition, the HP Indigo, for years due to what I perceive as its superior color fidelity. However, I can’t help but believe that strong competition in the realm of digital printing technology will “raise all boats.” The new printing platform that Kodak has crafted will benefit all digital print buyers by encouraging the constant improvement of digital print technology in the marketplace.

The New Technology

The first article I read on the subject was a Kodak press release, “Kodak Launches the NEXFINITY Digital Press Platform,” published on 3/1/18. Here’s how they describe their new approach, called “Dynamic Imaging Technology,” which will be available in the spring of 2018.

The technology applies “algorithmic adjustments to specific areas of an image,” enhancing the quality and consistency of the content within each portion of the printed page. That is, it can produce high-resolution type, crisp lines, soft flesh tones, and clear skies on the same page. The technology maximizes the image quality of each, even though all of these require different treatment.

The press release notes that this improved technology will benefit package printing, commercial printing, direct mail production, and publishing.

Moreover, the NEXFINITY platform can do this by utilizing “the industry’s highest information density at more than 1.8 billion pieces of image information per square inch” (Kodak press release). This produces consistent, flat fields of color and detailed imagery. According to Kodak, the NEXFINITY “can reproduce fine details on the fly, like highlight areas and consistency in mid-tones by adjusting the exposure levels….” Kodak’s press release goes on to say that “The LED writing system provides 256 levels of exposure on the imaging cylinder, compared to laser systems that only are on or off.”

Furthermore, the new Kodak technology allows press operators to change the order or combinations of digital inks depending on the needs of the specific job. This, along with closed-loop color control, produces outstanding results.

More Digital Press Features

Here are a few more items Kodak touts in its press release on NEXFINITY.

  1. The new Kodak press can be seamlessly integrated into existing workflows, so finishing operations can be done smoothly and quickly.
  2. NEXFINITY is compatible with existing digital workflow software (including PRINERGY, among others). The printing unit can be operated in stand-alone mode, providing imposition; trapping; color management; and print job specification, management, and reporting functions. Or it can be integrated into existing software utilizing JDF and JMF data. All of this allows for a smooth transition of the new equipment into the pressroom as well as quick, efficient production of all print jobs.
  3. One operator can successfully control up to four NEXFINITY units simultaneously, using a Kodak Multi-Press Station to coordinate all printing activities from a single console.
  4. In terms of runability, the NEXFINITY press can accommodate stocks up to 24pt. in thickness and 48 inches in length, and it can print between 83 and 152 pages per minute. In addition, the technology allows for fast “RIPing” of detailed imagery and complex variable-data jobs.
  5. In terms of substrate coatings, the NEXFINITY press can efficiently and cost-effectively print specialized coatings (including dimensional coatings, security elements, and special finishes).

The Implications of the Technology

All of these features reflect the following benefits:

  1. Flexibility, in terms of the varied substrates the NEXFINITY can image.
  2. Much higher speed and productivity, in terms of the kinds of jobs that can be efficiently produced, from short-run jobs (hundreds of copies) to much longer ones (thousands or millions of copies). This makes these digital presses better able to compete with offset technology in longer-run jobs.
  3. Integration, in that the NEXFINITY can easily link to existing commercial printing and finishing equipment. Therefore, it will complement rather than disrupt the current workflow, making the custom printing supplier more efficient. It can even make current staff more productive or reduce the number of operators needed.
  4. Access to new markets, due to increased press sheet lengths and paper thicknesses. For instance, the 48-inch press sheet can allow commercial printing vendors to produce large lay-flat photo books, and the 48pt. paper thickness can give custom printing vendors access to the burgeoning packaging and signage markets.
  5. Differentiation from computer-display-only products. Since NEXFINITY can efficiently and cost-effectively print specialized coatings, such as dimensional finishes and security elements, it can set custom printing jobs apart from their non-tactile, computer-screen-only counterparts.

What Does This Say About Digital Printing in General?

I’ve given thought to the implications of Kodak’s new technology within the overall commercial printing market. Here are some ideas:

  1. The focus on enhancing digital custom printing technology suggests that Kodak and other equipment manufacturers expect physical printing to be around for some time. Instead of abandoning print, Kodak sees opportunities for developing those capabilities only available within the physical print process.
  2. Many of Kodak’s developments improve the efficiency of the digital printing process. This allows digital printers to compete with offset printers in increasingly longer press runs. My expectation is that digital printing technology will eventually marginalize offset printing, making it still essential for selected products but no longer as pervasive as digital printing.
  3. Kodak’s Dynamic Imaging Technology, which allows for adjustments to specific areas within a printed page, reflects a focus on image quality, as does the expansion of the color gamut through extended color sets. I think the goal is to not only match the quality of offset printing but eventually exceed it. At this point, the variable imaging capabilities of digital printing will make it more attractive for many jobs than the static nature (printing the same page again and again) of offset lithography. Only by making digital presses run at comparable speeds to offset presses (and therefore making them as efficient to operate for longer press runs) can this actually happen.

Book Printing: Digital Book Printing at Lightning Speed

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

A print brokering client of mine called me up early last week and asked whether I could provide a direct reprint of her prior year’s government textbook, 350 copies, 6” x 9”, 272 pages, perfect bound, delivered to Florida from Virginia in a week’s time. There was to be a meeting in a convention center on a university campus, and my client’s boss wanted the participants to have copies of the print book. Due to an inventory miscount, my client’s warehouse had run out of copies of the book before the next issue had been printed.

Fortunately, my client had been buying the printing for this book from the same printer for many years, so he had a strong motivation to do what she wanted, but I was still initially unsure that it was even possible. So I asked the sales rep.

What the Book Printer’s Rep Said

The printer said this was possible as long as he got a firm commitment that next day so he could purchase paper. The books would be produced digitally and then perfect bound. My client could have a PDF proof, but it was “confirming-only.” That is, the production process would not stop and wait for her approval. The proof was just a confirmation that the print book was a direct reprint from the prior year’s art files.

Now this news made my client very happy, but to be honest it both surprised and intrigued me. Almost forty years ago I had actually copyedited, typeset, and pasted up this very book for this same organization (three times a year). In fact, more than twenty years ago, I had hired and trained the woman to whom I was now brokering this printing (as a graphic designer), back when I was an art director. Back then, the book took six weeks to print and bind at a large book printer. So in my eyes producing 350 copies in one week was astounding.

Glitches and Resolution

Included in the one-week schedule was the shipping time from the book printer to the university. I did not know at the time, but a two-day delivery time from the Virginia printer to the Florida university actually required a third day for delivery. The print books would arrive at the university in two days, but the delivery service would have to arrange an appointment for final delivery (within the university) on the third day. In addition, the delivery would incur a surcharge since it would be made to a convention center. And it would be an inside delivery.

All of this is relevant because it shortened the time the book printer had available to digitally print and perfect bind the books.

The schedule proceeded as follows. My client contacted me on a Tuesday. She committed to the press run (it was still in flux at this time between 340 and 400 copies), and reviewed the proof, which the printer immediately provided as a PDF on Wednesday. Then the printer produced the pages (272 pages x 350 copies = 95,200 pages, so it wasn’t a short run) and bound the book in house, handing it off to the delivery service on Friday. The following Tuesday it arrived at the university, and Wednesday it was delivered to the final destination within the university.

My client was relieved, I was relieved, and the printer was relieved.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

First of all, this couldn’t have been done if the press run had been very long (thousands rather than hundreds) because the various analog steps of a true offset print run would have taken longer than book production on a digital press. (For example, since there are no custom printing plates on a digital press, there are none to image, none to hang on the press, none to wash up, etc. But even the digitally printed pages still had to be trimmed and bound, which took time. However, all of this was still possible within this time frame.)

Secondly, digital printing opens up a lot of options that had been unavailable when offset printing was the only technology. More specifically, back in the day, no one at the university conference would have received a copy. It wouldn’t have been possible. So they would have missed a learning opportunity, and my client’s boss would have missed a marketing opportunity.

Basically, this means that a bookseller (or in this case an educational foundation that provides books as part of an educational experience) can produce an initial offset book print run that’s almost right and then follow up later with a short digital print run if necessary.

Otherwise, to avoid running out of copies, such a book provider would need to always overestimate and overprint a job. And this would lead to excess inventory that presumably would eventually be thrown away. But before the books were discarded, they would take up space in the warehouse, and they would be counted during inventory. Essentially they would cost money to be produced and stored, but they would generate no income.

Not needing to do this saves a lot of money. So in your own work, even if you need to reprint a few hundred books now and then (and their unit cost was quite a bit more than the offset press run: about $10.00 per book for 350 rather than $4.60 per book for 3,000), the cost still is reasonable when you consider the avoidance of waste and extra storage costs.

What we also learn is that dedicated book printers have their own perfect binding equipment. This shortens the lead time for binding, since most other printers have to subcontract out this work. In fact, another (much smaller) press run of books for another client of mine will take a full week to bind because the printer in question is small and therefore does not have in-house perfect binding capabilities.

Granted, in most cases perfect binding equipment at a book printer is large and is intended for long press runs in order to be cost effective. However, some book printers have smaller perfect binders that are ideal for short digital runs.

The final thing I would like to point out is that even with a short press run, the text pages of a long perfect bound book still require a lot of post-press finishing work after the liquid ink or toner is on the press sheets. The pages still need to be bound and trimmed to size, then cartoned and shipped. So if you need to do a job like this, research all the shipping costs and physical requirements first. Make sure you know whether the delivery point is a loading dock or a location inside a building. Avoid finding this out at the last minute.

Finally, this is not the kind of thing every printer will do for you. In my client’s case, there was a long-term, mutually beneficial working relationship that kept my client coming back and motivated the printer to meet the requested schedule, no matter how short it was. When you buy commercial printing, you’re buying a process more than a product, so it is extremely helpful to know your print vendor is a trusted business partner who will cover your back.

Custom Printing: An Approach to New Print Jobs

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

Out of the blue today a client I hadn’t heard from in over a year emailed me. She had a custom printing project and wanted my help.

The Print Job

This is what my client wrote in her email:

“I need pricing on 100 front and back printed programs for an event on May 20th. They are for a black-tie event. I will get you all of the details next week. Can you cost these for me? A nice cream card-stock will do. Call with questions.”

There were two attachments to the email: two logos and a 5” x 7” full-color card with a night shot of the U.S. Capitol as its background and a lot of surprinted type. So I made the erroneous assumption that the card was the project. In fact I made other assumptions as well:

  1. Since the job was such a short run (100 copies), I assumed that it needed to be printed on a digital press. I knew of a trusted printer with an HP Indigo, so I figured I’d get his prices first.
  2. Since the image was full color, I assumed the job would look best if printed on a coated stock (cream coated, since this is what the email requested). I thought the toner would sit up more evenly on the coated surface than on the hills and valleys of an uncoated commercial printing stock. I assumed that a rough, uncoated paper finish would dull down the photo, and it would lose it’s crispness.

When I called my client to discuss the job further, I learned that the attachment to the email was the invitation, but what I needed to price out was a program for the evening. This also clarified the schedule. That is, my client would need delivery on or before the day of the event rather than several weeks earlier (i.e., my client would not need extra lead time for mailing the programs to attendees).

So essentially I was getting bits and pieces of information that were helping me create a list of specifications for the printer, as well as the due date, information not completely clear in my client’s email.

To get back to the program, it would be text only (script) with no photo. This implied that the paper stock would not need to be coated. It just had to be heavy and yellow-white (i.e., cream or natural white) rather than blue-white (or solar white). In fact, when I called the commercial printing vendor to discuss the job and get feedback and suggestions, the sales rep suggested an uncoated sheet. For such a project, she said, the uncoated paper would be more upscale. Since this was a black-tie event, I was sold.

Here are the specs I compiled to share with both the printer and my client.

100 copies (print two sides)
K/K, no bleed
5.5” × 8.5” vs. 5” x 7”
Uncoated natural white (cream white), 110# cover (eggshell or antique), such as Classic Crest, Crane, or Strathmore; option for 110# cream dull coated cover stock
Hard-copy proof to client (on actual paper stock)
Please provide file upload date: Job must reach client by May 17 for May 20 event.

Digital Printing (on Indigo)
100 copies – $xx.00
Add an additional $xx.00 for delivery (approximately).

As you can see, I kept the dull coated stock in the spec sheet as an option in case my client didn’t agree with the printer’s advice to use an uncoated paper. I also specified Classic Crest, Crane, or Strathmore, since I knew these were stationery makers with paper offerings ideally suited for a gala dinner program (I had learned this from the same custom printing supplier a while back).

In addition, my client had printed her business cards on this paper, on 130# cover stock, a while back. Since the gala program was significantly larger than a business card, I suggested 110# rather than 130# cover stock, and the sales rep agreed with the choice. It would be heavy (lending a sense of gravitas to the piece) but not too heavy.

Over the phone my client said the type would be black only or some special PMS color, perhaps a metallic. Since she had asked for something beautiful and inexpensive, I noted that digital printing was ideal for the 100 copies she wanted. But I also told her that while digital custom printing could produce the black script type for the gala program, a PMS color would require moving the job to an offset press. This would cost her three to four times as much. She understood.

So we had paper options, color choices, and the schedule. Normally I would suggest a digital proof for this job. After all, it’s a simple project: a little type on paper with no bleeds and no images. However, in this case the product would go to a black-tie dinner. Presumably it was to be a charity event, and attendees would have paid a hefty price for admission. Since there was going to be a little extra lead time, I suggested a hard-copy proof produced on the actual commercial printing stock. If my client hated the look, there would be time to change the paper on the final press run.

Finally, I looked at Google Images to find samples of “gala dinner programs.” I wanted an overall mental picture, since my client had asked me to suggest a size. I told her that if there was to be only a little text, in script (as my research online had suggested), then 5.5” × 8.5” or 5” x 7” would be fine.

Finally, I wrote up the specs as noted above and sent them to both my client and the printer’s sales rep for feedback. I thought I would resolve any discrepancies in their responses once both had replied to me. That’s where I am now. We’ll see what happens next.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This is a simple job. However, it addresses many of the same questions that will arise in complex jobs, and my personal approach may be instructive as to how you can approach your print buying. Let’s say you have an in-house client (in a corporation) or a freelance client (as I do), and you need to help your client be specific. After all, most people outside the publications department (or other graphic department) will not have a clue as to the specific information you will need to provide to solicit custom printing bids.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Craft a custom printing specifications sheet that includes everything from trim size to paper stock, ink choices and ink coverage, binding, proofs, and delivery. Update this periodically. Consider it a work in progress. When a job comes in, you can add specifics to the relevant items as necessary. Some print jobs won’t need certain specs. For instance, there’s no binding required in my client’s job. As a start, you may want to collect printing bids from a number of jobs and a number of vendors to get ideas for your “master list of print specs.” (That is, see how commercial printing suppliers have described various print jobs in the estimates they have sent you over the years.)
  2. Make no assumptions. After all, I thought the photo of the Capitol on 5” x 7” stock was my client’s upcoming job, when really it was just the invitation she had designed.
  3. If there is any reason at all to think that even a small job should be proofed on the actual printing stock (if the job is digital, or in some cases even if it’s offset), do it. It’s better to see the paper and not like it at the proofing stage than to find this out after the job has been printed. Also, it is usually smart to request unprinted paper samples from your printer.
  4. Discuss delivery early in the process. Your job does no good if it gets to the client late. Make sure there’s time for every component of print production. If not, consider tightening up the schedule by requesting a PDF proof (screen proof, virtual proof) instead of a hard-copy proof.
  5. Do what I did. Share the specs with the printer and ask for suggestions. He (or she, in my case) can be a fountain of information. You may come up with ideas you hadn’t dreamed of, and some of these may actually meet your budget.
  6. Whenever possible, discuss your job specs with the printer early, even if the specifications are not yet in final form. The bidding process will get you thinking about items you may otherwise overlook.

Book Printing: Color Shift Problems in the Book Proofs

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Sometimes things go horribly wrong. I think there’s nothing worse than “hearing” the exasperation of a loyal client in her email, knowing that a multi-year working relationship is on the line.

I recently heard back from a client for whom I had been printing a small color swatch book for years. The swatch books pertained to make-up and clothing color choices appropriate for a woman based on her complexion.

The small color books, bound with a screw and post assembly, are essentially PMS books for the fashion industry. I have written many articles about this project, which my client reprints every few months. All 22 original print books had been produced without incident until just recently. They had been direct reprints of between one and ten copies of each of the 22 original master books. The books had been printed, laminated, round cornered, and drilled for the screw and post binding. The book printer produced the color books on an HP Indigo. The color was dead on. Reprints of the print books went like clockwork. Until they didn’t.

The Change in the Job Specs

The change in the job specifications that precipitated the problem was a small one. My client would print 100 copies of the 22 master books (various numbers of copies of each to equal 100 total color books) to fulfill orders for her clients. However, this time, in order to have more colors to bind into some of the print books, my client had created a single sheet containing an additional 30 colors. Some colors matched pages already included in the 22 master copies; many did not.

The goal was to print these at the tail end of the job, once the other books were complete, and then run them through the same finishing operations: lamination, round cornering, drilling, and such, but then to deliver them loosely packed in a carton (not bound on screw and post assemblies). This would cost an additional $200+ instead of the (almost) $3,000 price tag for producing the 15 copies of the single page as a stand-alone job. Why the difference? Because all of the makeready costs that would comprise the almost $3,000 would also cover all of the finishing work for the reprinted 100 copies of the older print books.

But there were problems with the color accuracy—for the first time in the history of the numerous direct reprints. Five of the colors in the 30 extra (master) color chips (the 30 loose chips of which 15 copies would be printed) were already included in the original 22 print books, and the proofs of these colors did not match the colors in the original books.

Fortunately, all the other colors (new ones and colors that had to match the original colors in the 22 master books) were ok.

What Caused the Problems?

Keep in mind that the clock was ticking. My client had clients who wanted books. Their shipments had to be back-ordered. My client also had a new financial backer who understandably also wanted accurate colors.

Fortunately, the sales rep at the printer had a complete set of printed and laminated copies of the original books plus a set of unlaminated proofs of the additional 30 loose color chips. So a list of the five problematic colors gave her a good starting point to resolve the color matching problem.

The sales rep had her plant manager check the HP Indigo color calibration. To be safe, he ran a second set of proofs on a higher-end HP Indigo digital press. He sent second proofs to my client’s financial backer (at my client’s request, assuming the problems had been resolved), but my client’s financial backer said the revised proofs were identical to the first set, with the same five problematic colors still off target (specifically too light). Ouch.

Where Do We Go Next?

Fortunately, since my client sees that the printer is taking this very seriously and trying to make things right, she has given us more time to correct matters. Here are some of the things we have learned and/or have considered relevant to resolving the problem:

  1. The first digital press had been upgraded from a prior model. Apparently, this particular HP Indigo had been altered to improve it, but the color calibration was not yet accurate. This affected primarily the blues, reds, and purples in my client’s color book. That is, the color problems were localized. They did not affect all hues.
  2. When the plant manager moved the job from the first HP Indigo to the larger, higher-end HP Indigo, the problem didn’t go away. Assuming the revised proof was correct (which to his eyes it was), the printer sent the second set of proofs to my client’s financial backer. My client herself didn’t see them. So I asked my client to have her financial backer cut each color swatch in half and send her a complete set of proofs (so both my client and her financial backer, who live in different cities, would each have her own complete set to facilitate communication). Why? Because two people will always see color differently (in this case three, or even more, since the printer also had a set of the same proofs).
  3. I also asked both the book printer and the client (and her financial backer) to look at the colors in different lighting conditions. Why? Because color will look different in sunlight, incandescent light (the traditional light bulbs with filaments), and fluorescent light. Presumably color will also look different under LED light.
  4. I asked everyone to cover each eye (one at a time, back and forth) and check the color. (For some people, including me, colors appear slightly different when they are seen by one eye and then the other.)
  5. I asked the book printer whether any of these colors might be especially problematic when reproduced with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toners. This is because my client’s financial backer had selected PMS colors, and the HP Indigo simulates PMS colors using process color builds. Granted, extra colors can be used on the HP Indigo (up to seven), and these will expand the overall color gamut, making it possible to match more PMS colors. But not all of them.
  6. The book printer noted that the lamination would darken the colors (some more than others) and make them more intense. This might be perceived as a color shift by either my client or her financial backer. (Keep in mind that color has three properties: 1) hue, or the named color, like “blue”; 2) lightness/darkness, or value; and 3) intensity or purity. Laminating the color chips would affect two of these three variables.) That said, the reason this was a problem is that the proofs were not laminated, but the color pages in the original 22 master print books had been laminated. So if my client or her backer were matching the proofs of the 30 loose color chips (unlaminated proofs) to the master books (laminated pages), the colors would not look alike. In some cases the difference would be minimal, but in other cases—apparently—the color shift would be more dramatic.
  7. The printer also noted that if the five problematic colors were adjusted (by the prepress department) to make them accurate, this would affect all other colors on the 30-color digital press sheet (my client could wind up with five correct colors and 25 colors that were “off,” the opposite of the current situation).
  8. My client told me that she still had the proofs (unlaminated) from the first printing of all 22 master books. I asked her to send these immediately to the printer. He would be able to more easily adjust the colors of the 30 new, loose color chips to match the colors in the original books because he would be matching unlaminated color pages to unlaminated color pages.

This is where we are now. We’ll see what happens.

What You Can Learn from This Fiasco

  1. I always say that when you buy commercial printing, you are not buying a commodity. You’re buying a process. At a time like this, it helps to have a long-term working relationship with the printer. Only a long-term partner will take the time to resolve a problem like this. Keep this in mind as you choose printers for your own work.
  2. Color on laminated, digitally printed pages does not look the same as color on unlaminated pages.
  3. If you make a color change in part of a job, this may adversely affect the color in another part of the job. This is true for offset printing as well as digital printing.
  4. People see color differently, depending on their gender (women see color better than men) and on many other variables, and color can look different depending on the lighting conditions and the surrounding colors. (Red paint in a closed paint can is actually black, since color is a function of light and the physical action of the cones and rods in your eyes. That’s why red cars look gray under street lights at night.)
  5. The time comes when “good enough” is good enough. Only you can make this call. In my case, only the client who devised the color chip product for selecting make-up and clothing can say whether the colors in the proofs are close enough to the original colors she chose for her fashion system.
  6. When in doubt, start with the obvious, and start at the beginning. For instance, I asked my client to check the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black color builds in the InDesign art files to make sure the color builds in the original books and the 30 extra loose colors were identical. I may also ask the printer to make sure the printing paper for the proofs is the same as it was for the original 22 books (whiteness and brightness). I already asked whether there’s any chance that the PDF files or InDesign files for the same job could be “off” (damaged, inconsistent, etc.).

As you can see, this is not an exact science. A lot of people at the book printer have been working hard to make this right so my client will be happy. And she has been patient. We’ll see what happens.

Commercial Printing: “On-Shoring” Color Printing

Friday, July 7th, 2017

I am currently working with a print brokering client who produces a number of East Coast beach resort advertising print books, which are manufactured in China because it’s unbelievably cheap. However, she has to deal with a longer lead time, which cuts off her ad sales earlier than she might like. In addition, her print book production schedule falls during Chinese New Year, so book production slows down during this time. Also, there is always the potential for dock strikes, necessitating the rerouting of her books to another port for entry into the United States. Also, if something goes wrong, well, China is far away. So my client pays a lot for the discounted book printing prices.

In light of this, a situation that affects many of her fellow book publishers in the East Coast beach area and presumably a huge number of other publishers across the United States, I read an article the other day about inkjet color printing for trade books. I found it intriguing.

The Premise of the Article

I found the article on the website on 2/6/17. It appears to be a press release from Xerox, since I cannot find the name of the writer. If you Google the article, it’s entitled, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home.”

Even the title makes me feel warm inside. Here’s the premise of the article:

  1. Trade book publishers have been inkjet printing the text pages of black-ink-only trade books for some time now. This has improved inventory control. That is, publishers don’t run out of books, but neither do they need to buy books to cover the highest sales expectations. This means fewer inventory overruns and less waste, plus less overhead expense for inventory. Longer runs of the books are still best suited for offset printing. (Keep in mind that this pertains to the black-only text blocks, presumably not the covers.) (If you want to research this process, the technical term is “production” ink jet printing. This distinguishes it from inkjet products that are not trade books, educational books, and the like.)
  2. For books with 4-color interiors, inkjet color printing has not caught on. This is disappointing news, since it would be an ideal response to the seasonality of much of the 4-color book interior work. For instance, the American Printer article, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home,” notes that cookbooks are in demand around Christmas and Mother’s Day, color textbooks for higher education are in demand at the beginning of the school year, and children’s books sell well around Easter and Christmas.
  3. When a book publisher produces process-color print books overseas to fulfill expected orders at these specific times of year but runs out of inventory, he or she can’t just order more books from Far East printers and receive them in a timely manner. At best, it would take weeks for a reprint, not just a few days. This can mean either needing to over-order books initially or running out of books and losing sales later on.
  4. This short-run, inkjet-printed text-block paradigm for interiors of 4-color books would be ideal for solving the problem of seasonality in four-color book interiors. However, to date, there have been problems. Pretreated paper for currently available inkjet production presses has cost more than off-the-shelf coated paper, and there have been fewer paper options available. In addition, the quality of the printed product has not been of the same caliber as offset printed four-color work.

The Potential Solution

As I noted before, this article is most likely a Xerox press release. The article, “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home,” goes on to list the benefits of the upcoming release of High Fusion Inks for use on its Trivor 2400 platform. This will “enable high-quality color inkjet printing on untreated commodity offset coated stocks with no pre- or post-print coatings.” “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home” continues, noting that “These stocks often cost 15 to 20 percent less than specialty inkjet treated stocks and can help providers standardize on fewer paper stocks to better manage costs.”

Clearly this is sales literature. However, it also has far-reaching implications. When the price of the inkjet-printed books drops due to lower paper costs, and when the quality of the printed product improves (which is directly related to the paper, since the color inkjet printing process can already exceed the color gamut of 4-color offset printing if you use the right expanded ink set), then the case for bringing production inkjet for color book texts back home improves significantly.

Color quality aside, along with the cost of the paper, there are still a number of additional benefits to bringing the commercial printing of color books back home. “The Case for Bringing Color Trade Book Production Back Home” notes:

  1. Lower freight charges compared to shipping costs from the Far East.
  2. Minimized administrative and handling costs (to this I would add the elimination of the complexities and stresses of importing goods).
  3. The ability to control costs by more tightly controlling the supply chain.
  4. The ability to fulfill those orders that would be lost to a several-weeks-long reprint schedule compared to a few days’ reprint schedule for a locally-sourced ink-jet book.
  5. To this I would add the reduced cost of inventory.

Overall Impressions

Once production inkjet can compete with offset commercial printing in terms of image quality and printing paper price, this will be a game changer. I have looked closely at some inkjet printed color books, and I have seen the difference between these products and offset-printed color books. But I have also seen spectacular color inkjet work. I know we’re close. This might just be the right equipment at the right time. If so, it might just make the business case for bringing this commercial printing work home again.

Custom Printing: Direct to Object Inkjet Printing

Monday, February 27th, 2017

I read an article today in Print+Promo magazine about direct to object custom printing, and then I followed up with further research online. The idea intrigues me: printing directly on an object, like a mug, or a metal water bottle, or, as the article notes, even a football helmet. Label-less printing. The idea is not completely new to me. After all, I’ve seen videos of mugs and bottles (essentially regular cylindrical shapes) being spun around in a jig while images are screen printed onto the products. I know you can also use flexographic technology to print directly on objects.

However, Xerox’s direct to object inkjetting leaves room for endless personalization. After all, with a silkscreen or flexo press, you print the same image again and again, but with an inkjet printer, you can vary each and every image.

The Xerox Press Release and the Printer Specs

The article was entitled “Xerox Introduces New Direct to Object Inkjet Printer.” It seems to be a press release from Xerox. However, if you go searching for the article online you will also find useful product literature from Xerox to amplify your knowledge. The articles make some intriguing claims:

  1. The printer can “spray ink on objects as small as bottle caps and as large as football helmets.”
  2. The Xerox equipment can print on plastic, metals, ceramics, and glass.
  3. “The machine is able to print on smooth, rough, slightly curved or stepped surfaces at print resolutions ranging from 300 to 1,200 dpi.”
  4. The equipment is “compatible with virtually any type of ink chemistry, including solvent, aqueous, and UV inks.”
  5. The design of the object “holder” is such that it can be easily adjusted for different sized objects, up to one cubic foot in volume (irregular shapes, too).
  6. You can print an area 2.8” x 13” in dimension using ten inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, white, plus five specialty inks).
  7. You can print up to 30 objects per hour.
  8. And as the final benefit, this is a “complete packaging solution [that] can eliminate the need for labels.”

(All quotes are from “Xerox Introduces New Direct to Object Inkjet Printer” or Xerox’s website.)

So, What Does This Mean For Printing?

Granted, this is relatively new technology, but the specifications promise a lot:

  1. The variance in the size of objects the printer can accept, along with the flexibility and ease of adjustment of the object holder, should make this printer easy to quickly configure for a multitude of objects.
  2. Since the printer will accept any kind of ink, you can eliminate problems with ink drying on a slick surface by using UV inks. Therefore, you can quickly print, dry, and hand off to customers items like mugs and water bottles—while they wait. This would be ideal for promoting a brand at a trade show.
  3. At 2.8” x 13”, the image print area is rather large, so your logo or message will be big and visible.
  4. This process can eliminate labels. This is a big one. On the one hand, everything I have read says that the growth areas in commercial printing are labels, packaging, and large format printing. Demand for these services is growing quickly year over year, and yet this technology might eliminate the need for custom labels. I’m not sure this would be true in all cases, but the technology is ideally positioned in a growth industry. In addition, this equipment will benefit the aesthetics of custom label printing, since printing directly on an object with no label leaves an integrated, elegant, and organic impression. The printed image becomes part of the object, not just a sticky piece of printed paper affixed to a product.
  5. In all the instances where I’ve seen custom screen printing used to decorate objects, the print surface has needed to be mostly flat (even if it is the round surface of a mug, you can still roll the cylindrical mug to provide a flat surface for the custom screen printing). However, according to Xerox’s product literature, the longer distance from the inkjet print heads to the substrate will allow for printing on irregular surfaces (the article references curved and slightly stepped surfaces). This will greatly expand the number and kinds of items onto which this direct to object inkjet equipment can print.
  6. The ability to use ten inks will extend the color gamut dramatically, presumably allowing designers to match almost any PMS color.
  7. The speed is respectable. Compared to screen printing (once the time has been spent to set up the process), digital printing can be rather slow. However, the ability to print 30 objects per hour makes this equipment more appropriate for longer digital production runs.

Time will tell, but I do think this may be a game changer.

Book Printing: Reap Savings with HP’s T410 Inkjet Press

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

I was helping a client recently with a high page count print book with a short press run: 500 copies of a 488-page, 8.5” x 11” perfect-bound book. The inside text was to be 4-color throughout. I assumed that due to the short run length, this would be a perfect fit for a digital press. Since I had worked closely with a printer with an HP Indigo, I approached my sales rep with the specs, but I was surprised by her answer.

She said the print book would be cheaper to produce via offset lighography due to the 4-color process work on each page. She said the “click charges” would be a killer when you factored in four clicks per page (C, M, Y, and K) for 488 pages. So she bid the book for me on her commercial printing company’s offset equipment.

What Are Click Charges?

Most printers lease their digital printing equipment. They don’t own it. Therefore, digital press manufacturers charge printers a fee (a per-click charge) to cover the cost of maintenance (repairing equipment on-site to keep “down-time” to an absolute minimum) and sometimes consumables (liquid toner, for instance). This click charge is usually added on a per-page and per-color rate (i.e., the number of impressions made by the digital press). Therefore, the commercial printing supplier passes this cost on to the customer.

So the printer to whom I had bid my client’s job was saying that assuming 500 copies of a 488-page book with four click charges per page for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, the price would actually exceed the cost to print the job via offset lithography.

How Does Digital Printing Compare to Offset Lithography?

A digital press (the HP Indigo in the case of the commercial printing vendor I was working with) produces four individual images (layered on top of each other) to create the full-color image on a blanket cylinder and then transfers the image from the blanket to the printing paper. Electrostatic charges hold the liquid toner (ink) on the blanket until it is transferred to the paper.

In a similar manner, an offset press prints an image, color by color, as the paper travels through the press, from inking unit to inking unit. The four printing plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) produce an image on each press blanket, and the blankets transfer the four process images onto the substrate (one on top of the other). Once the press sheet has traveled through all four inking units, the paper has received images in all process colors laid over one another. (Keep in mind that process colors are transparent, so the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black images don’t obscure one another. Rather they work together to create and enhance the full-color images.)

You could say that digital and offset commercial printing are similar in that both transfer the final printed image onto a blanket and from the blanket onto the printing paper. Therefore, it didn’t surprise me that a bid on the HP Indigo digital press for my client’s four-color, 488-page book would be high and would actually cost more than an offset lithographic press run of the job.

What’s the Alternative?

With this in mind I was pleased to hear from a colleague that custom printing work priced for the HP T410 digital press was based on the actual use of printing ink rather than on a per-click charge.

So I did some research. The HP T410 is a large-format, roll-fed book press. Essentially it is a web press (much like an offset web press). But in this case instead of using printing plates, the digital press prints book pages via its array of inkjet print heads (like a huge, roll-fed version of a desktop inkjet printer).

When you compare the literature describing these two presses (HP Indigo and HP T410), you will see that the drying of the ink is handled differently on each machine. On an electrophotographic digital presses (the HP Indigo, for example), the image is already dry when it is transferred from the blanket roller to the substrate (all four colors transferred at one time). Therefore, there’s a lot of flexibility in what printing substrate you can use, because the dry image won’t seep into the paper fibers.

In contrast, on the HP T410, an inkjet press, the specification sheet references float infrared (IR) scalable dryer zones as the drying method. So basically a specific frequency of light will cure the ink (presumably instantly, as with UV inks, which are cured under UV light).

Why Does This Matter?

My colleague noted that there were no click charges for this digital printer, that clients only had to pay for color by the square inch. With this information, I did more research. I verified his claim (the product literature confirmed that you only pay for the ink you use).

Now this is a novel and rather dramatic claim for the following reason. In offset lithography, if you put any process-color images on even one page, you are still paying for 4-color on all pages on that particular side of a press sheet. (This may be 8 pages of a 16-page press form or 16 pages of a 32-page press form.) In short, you’re paying a lot to “open” a side of a press form to process color. So if you’re wise, you’ll take advantage of the expense and put process color on (many) other pages of this particular side of the press “form” (one side of a press sheet that will eventually be folded into a press “signature”) in order to distribute the cost.

In contrast, on the HP Indigo, if you print any process color on any individual page of a book, you’re charged for all four colors (four click charges). This is true even if your 4-color image is a small logo.

But based on HP’s literature, if you’re using the HP T410, your charge for the same process color distribution will be higher or lower depending only on the size in square inches of the color printed image.

For my client’s print book, pricing the job based on the amount of color rather than on the number of color pages may yield a huge savings. We shall see.

What I Would Need to See First

My assumption is that not all printers have the HP T410. In fact, I would assume that relatively few printers do. After all, the concept of printing books on a web press using inkjet technology is relatively new.

However, if I can find such a commercial printing supplier, and if the samples of inkjet printed work produced on coated paper compare favorably to the electrophotographic digital printing of the HP Indigo, I will be pleasantly surprised.

And the cost may just make the difference for my client.

Custom Printing: Digital Signs, Posters, and NFC Chips

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

My fiancee and I were in the car at a stoplight today, and I noticed a large digital sign on the side of a building. It was promoting a local campus of a major metropolitan university. I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about the sign, and about whether offset or digital custom printing could be used to achieve a similar effect.

A Description of the Sign

First of all, the digital sign must have been about thirty feet wide and twenty feet high. Obviously from where I was (sitting in the car), I couldn’t measure the digital sign, but I will say that it was large enough to stand out from all other distractions. It was about twenty feet up on the side of a university parking building.

What I remember the most is the effectiveness of the sign’s illumination and the drama of its constantly changing imagery. Since I’m used to static signage, the first thing I noticed was that the digital sign provided a number of messages, from a general tagline for the university plus the university logo, to a Facebook icon sending you to the Web for further information, to a list of some courses of study the university offers.

Although there was no sound, the movement and visual variety plus the bright colors and the backlit screen grabbed my attention.

What Didn’t Work for Me

Unfortunately the side of the parking building was exactly perpendicular to the road. Therefore, anyone driving by the sign would need to turn her/his head to read the message, and this would put their safety at risk. (I was lucky. I was a passenger at the time, so I could look at the sign for as long as I wanted.)

Granted, a less-traveled road intersected with this main road creating a “T” at the parking building. Drivers coming up to the intersection and about to turn left or right could look directly at the sign. They would not need to turn their heads. Moreover, since the sign was bright, drivers would be engaged with the presentation and the message of the sign for a while, from the time they first caught sight of the digital image until they turned left or right at the intersection.

How About the Print Version of a Sign?

I thought about how a few years back I would have seen a large format print sign hanging from the building and been equally surprised and engaged if the sign were large and dramatic. To a certain extent we have become so accustomed to static signage that advertisers can increase our “engagement” with their message with the bright lights and movement of digital signage.

However, there are new technologies that can add an extra dimension to large format print signage as well. A technology called “Near-Field-Communication,” or NFC, will allow you to tap your phone against an NFC-chip enabled poster and be directed to an online interactive experience.

Much has been written in recent years about the power of multi-channel marketing, and a large format print poster that can send a viewer to a website for further information, to do research, to sign up for text messages or emails, to see a video, or to respond to the poster and leave a message, can be a powerful marketing tool. This NFC chip technology can create a more personal connection with a prospect and even initiate a dialogue.

Granted, if the digital sign on the side of the parking building had been a static, large format print image instead of a series of changing digital images, you could not have tapped your phone against the print signage. However, you could have achieved the same result with a large QR code printed on the large format poster. Scanning the QR code with your phone camera and a downloadable phone app could send you to a website for similar interactive content, videos, or a place to request further information.

What We Can Learn from This Experience

Here are some random thoughts:

  1. Anything that captures your entire field of vision will draw you into an advertising experience. (Think about the large size of a movie screen in a theater compared to the much smaller TV in your house.) Also, the darkness of the movie theater helps you lose yourself in the experience. For an advertisement outside in bright sunlight, you can increase its attention getting power by making it huge. In fact, a grand-format inkjet image wrapped around a building could actually attract more attention than the digital sign I saw on the parking garage building. The building wrap’s sheer size could make up for its static nature.
  2. Movement trumps static imagery in attention getting power. Back-lighting also trumps reflected light illuminating a poster. However, you can overcome these limitations by using QR codes and NFC chips to bring the viewer of the poster or other large format print signage into an Internet-based experience.
  3. Such a transition from the print poster to the website can do a few things even digital signage might not achieve. For instance, once a marketer has brought a prospective client from the poster to the website, she/he can request contact information from the prospect. The web-based portal can also track the online experience of the prospect. In this way a marketing executive can collect marketing data regarding the effectiveness of the signage: who is viewing it and when, as well as whether the prospects are responding to the offer and requesting further information. Print signage enhanced with NFC technology or QR codes can facilitate two-way communication between the company and the prospect.
  4. Field of vision is important. If you’re designing static posters, digital signage, or posters with NFC chips, you need to capture the viewer’s full attention. The digital signage on the side of the building, perhaps, would have been more effective if it had had two angled screens (one facing either side of oncoming traffic). For a static poster, it’s important to locate the image where it will be seen. Make sure it is large enough to completely fill the viewer’s field of vision. Either increase its size, or put it closer to the viewer.
  5. Since a conventional large format print poster usually consists of only a slogan, an image, and a logo, adding NFC chip technology to direct the prospect to the Web can give the viewer much more information than a large format print poster by itself.

Custom Printing: Consider the Cost of Digital vs. Offset

Monday, December 26th, 2016

I had a conversation today with the director of operations and the sales manager at a local printer. We discussed options for a digital print job for a print brokering client of mine.

A client had requested pricing for 500 copies of a full-color, 488-page print book. She had specifically asked for offset printing, assuming that the quality would be superior to that of the same job printed digitally on an HP Indigo press.

The director of operations at the printer had noted that he’d be pleased to take the (approximately) $30,000.00 (his “off-the-cuff” guess) required to print the job via offset lithography, but he wanted to remind me that the digital option was closer to $10,000.00 (again, his initial guess), and the quality of the final print book would be just as good.

A Momentary Discourse on Price

To be fair, this $30,000.00 price for offset printing is very high. It is only one price from one vendor, reflecting his particular equipment (sheetfed offset presses) and his print shop’s pricing structure. I had bid this job out to a number of other printers, some with web-fed offset presses and some with sheetfed offset presses. For shorter-run options, I had also requested prices for digital printing.

In various options addressed over almost a year’s time, the press run for this job ranged from 500 copies to 10,000 copies.

Pricing for offset-printed versions of the same job never came in below $18,000.00 for 1,000 copies. This low price was for a job printed via offset lithography on a full-size heatset web press. Pricing for sheetfed offset lithography was higher. And again, the “off-the-top-of-the-head” pricing from the director of operations noted above was high at $30,000.00. His presses were all sheetfed offset presses. So the overall collection of estimates from all printers did have a surprisingly large range.

(On another note, two of the web-fed offset vendors would not print fewer than 1,000 copies via offset lithography. But assuming the cost for the 1,000-copy range, and factoring in the percentage of the total cost that would be attributable to make-ready, I would assume no less than a $16,000.00 or $17,000.00 approximate price for 500 copies printed via web-fed offset lithography–from most other vendors. And, to reiterate, the greater portion of this amount would be for set-up costs.)

Why Is It So Expensive?

First of all, the issues related to this print book would be equally relevant if the job were a magazine, a booklet, or any other signature work (4, 8, 16, or 32 pages laid out on a press sheet, printed, and then folded and trimmed into a bindable stack of consecutive pages).

In this particular case what had driven the cost up was the “full-color throughout” specification. Each of the four plates (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) would be necessary for all 488 pages plus cover. Even if the book signatures were 16-page forms (with eight pages on either side of the press sheet), there would be more than 30 press runs comprising the 488 pages (actually 30 16-page signatures plus one 8-page signature, with four plates each).

This would involve a huge amount of plate-making and press wash-ups. That’s why the director of operations at the printer I spoke with had floated an initial ballpark estimate of $30,000.00. For a press run of 40,000 copies, this (or even more) might be worth it. (After all, the high price would be spread out over a substantially longer press run, yielding a lower cost per copy.) But for 500 copies, the price was staggering. And it was due to the plate-making and plate-handling expenses.

Options to Reduce the Price

During our phone conversation, the printer’s director of operations and sales manager suggested that we go back to the HP Indigo digital option with 4-color throughout the book. (To initially keep prices low, we had included only 60 pages of color. Many of the pages my client had designed to be black with a highlight color of blue had become black only.) My client liked the 4-color-throughout option, and she now had new funding for her project, which is why the budget for the print book had expanded.

The discussion with the printer’s director of operations and sales manager yielded the following options for me to share with my client:

  1. Printing the entire job via offset lithography with 4-color ink throughout
  2. Printing the entire job digitally on the HP Indigo with 4-color ink throughout
  3. Printing the cover via offset lithography and printing the text digitally

To this we would add an option for a soft-touch laminate on the cover. This would make the print book feel good in the reader’s hands, which is why someone would choose a print version rather than a digital version of this book in the first place.

I did, however, note that my client’s request for 4-color offset printing prices reflected her assumption that digital printing was of a lesser quality. So the printer offered to send me samples of the same job printed digitally on the HP Indigo and also via offset lithography on a traditional press. He believed this would convince my client that no quality would be lost in choosing the digital option.

(To put this in perspective, if the initial guess by the printer’s director of operations holds true, and the job estimate is for $10,000.00, the unit cost would be $20.00. Digital pricing from other vendors have ranged from $19.00 to $34.00 per book for a 500-copy press run. Ironically the highest price came from a popular online vendor. Again, ironically, another printer would charge closer to $26.00 per book for a digital version—and, based on this printer’s specific digital press, I think it would be of lower quality than the Indigo-printed job.)

How About Larger Offset Presses and Automated Plate Hanging?

Some printers do have much larger offset presses. This means that instead of 16-page press signatures, some printers can produce 32-page or larger signatures. This means a 488-page book can be produced with fewer press runs. In addition, newer offset presses have incorporated increased automation into the workflow. This includes automated, closed-loop color control and automated plate hanging. Such improvements have made short-run offset printing more competitive with digital printing.

What We Can Learn from this Case Study

This case study offers a wealth of information:

  1. Consider the press run when deciding on digital printing vs. offset printing. In this case a 500-copy, 488-page book was more appropriate for digital printing due to its short press run, high page count, and extensive 4-color ink coverage.
  2. Choose a printer who actively makes suggestions to give you the best product for the best price. This particular printer acted as a consultant and partner, making suggestions to help my client.
  3. Get samples. Nothing will convince my client that her print book will look just as good produced digitally as seeing a sample job printed both digitally and via offset lithography.
  4. Exploit the benefits of the technology you select. For instance, there will be an oversized, folded insert in the print book. In a digitally produced product, the insert can be placed anywhere (it will need to go between pages 18 and 19 to be ideally placed relative to the text). On an offset press it might not be possible to easily place an insert here. It might not fall between press signatures. More specifically, on an offset press you print 4-page, 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page signatures, but on a digital press you can print and bind in increments of only two pages. This is a benefit of digital printing. It’s wise to take advantage of it.
  5. Not all digital presses are of this high quality, but there are more and more out there. I used to only like the HP Indigo press. Now the Kodak NexPress and some other digital presses are matching or exceeding offset print quality. But to be safe, always request printed samples.
  6. Remember this approach is prudent for all signature work, including magazines, books, or any other multi-page job.
  7. There is a sweet spot (an ideal combination of color, page count, and press run) for economical and efficient digital, web-fed offset, and sheet-fed offset work. Ask your printer what he thinks would be appropriate for your particular job.
  8. New automation of offset presses is worth watching closely. This includes automated color control, automated plate hanging, etc. Such improvements will reduce costs (and probably also printing prices), making offset lithography more competitive with digital printing for shorter press-runs.


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