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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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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Book Printing: What to Look for in Digital Print Bids

A new potential client just requested pricing for a 220-page print book with a press run of 30 copies. It is 6” x 9”, perfect bound, printed on 60# white offset text stock with a 12pt. C1S cover, black ink inside (without bleeds) and 4-color process ink on the front and back cover.

Thirty copies. That’s an ultra-short press run, especially when compared to the 60,000-copy press runs I used to buy for a local non-profit when I was their art director/production manager. Times have changed.

My initial goals with this new client are to win her trust and then win her business. She has other options, including and especially on-line commercial printing vendors that will take responsibility for printing her book—at their expense—as the orders come in. In addition, they will store and inventory any overage, and fulfill all book orders. Given their size, they are often the first choice of those looking to buy a book like my client’s. They have an extensive clientele with a high level of trust, and they can do all the marketing for my client’s book with their extensive reach.

Why would my client choose my services with a brick-and-mortar printer?

First of all, my client gets my hand-holding, my knowledge base of custom printing gained over a 40-year time frame, my advocacy with the printer should anything be unsatisfactory (I will make sure the printer corrects whatever is wrong), and, with some of the printers I frequent, my client will also get more choices (paper choices, for instance) than she might get from an on-line printer.

But there’s still the issue of money. After all, these on-line printers don’t necessarily need to be paid up front. They will foot the bill for the custom printing, secure interested clients, and then pay my client a portion of what they make on the print book (based on the price my client sets).

The use of other people’s money (in this case, the on-line company’s money) is a powerful incentive. Then again, not having total control over a job and not getting the entire proceeds of a print book sale may be a disincentive for others.

The Book Bids

Within this context, I started receiving bids over the past few days. I don’t have all of them, but there are enough to see a pattern and also to draw some inferences about both on-line and brick-and-mortar printers for ultra-short-run books like my client’s.

First of all, I expected the 30 print books to cost about $400.00 to $500.00 based on prior experience with a client with similar needs. The client in question is a book publishing team: a husband and wife who print a short run of reader’s copies (or galleys) first and then follow up with a longer press run of offset-printed books with French flaps, deckled edges, and such. They want their books to not only look spectacular but also provide a tactile experience. They want the books to feel good in their readers’ hands. This publishing team still believes in the art of the print book, as opposed to the non-tactile experience of reading an on-line digital book.

This husband and wife’s initial run of press galleys is very similar to my new client’s 30-copy press run of her 6” x 9” perfect bound book. In most cases the publishing team’s books are closer to 300 pages (as opposed to my new client’s 220-page book), but there is enough similarity for me to consider $400.00 to $500.00 to be a reasonable, educated guess for the target price.

When the bids came in, the first printer offered to print and ship the book for $345.00. The second bid came in at $541.00, and the third book printer came in at $530.00. The fourth printer no-bid the job because he did not have in-house perfect binding. The fifth printer had recently gone out of business. And the sixth bid exceeded $1,400. All vendors had bid the job on various sizes of an HP Indigo digital press.

What Did I Learn From This Series of Bids?

I learned the most from the printer that had gone out of business and the printer with the low bid.

To start with the printer that had gone out of business, I had done a lot of work with this vendor for a number of years since they had provided such good service and such an exemplary printed product. That said, their prices had been high. But for certain clients of mine who had complex jobs, it was worth the extra money for the extra attention (nothing good is free).

A few years ago I had visited this particular printer when they had bought a new, much larger Indigo. Their work was exemplary, but my fiancee was concerned that they would not be able to support their new purchase.

Interestingly enough, this printer’s bids for similar work were higher than most. Due to the high pricing, and since ultra-short-run print books like these are relatively easy to produce (very few variables compared to the other work I had sent to this printer), I had not awarded any black-only text and 4-color cover books to this printer. The pricing was just too high. With this in mind, apparently this printer did not have the client base to support the purchase of their new HP Indigo, so they eventually raised their prices. When this understandably didn’t attract more customers, they had to close their doors.

To move on, the low-bid printer actually surprised me. I didn’t expect their prices to be as low as those of the third printer, the one that had printed all the galleys for the husband and wife publishing team. The third printer is a very small, mom-and-pop vendor. They do excellent work, but they have to subcontract out the binding, since they don’t own perfect binding equipment. Apparently this was driving up the overall price for book production, as well as lengthening the book production schedule and taking away from the printer some control over the process. This was reflected in the fact that they were no longer the low bid.

The actual low-bid vendor is a much larger firm. They do yearbooks, so they have all of the binding equipment in house (which most printers do not). Even though their prior prices for similar work had been a bit high, their price for this 30-copy print run of my client’s book was right on the money.

Why? I think it’s because they see the value of capturing some of the on-line commercial printing business. They realize that to get the ultra-short print runs of the self-publishers, they have to provide pricing that’s close to what the on-line vendors offer. Based on this round of pricing, I think this vendor wants to do just this. Plus, of course, they have the in-house binding capabilities. Without this equipment in house, they would not be able to compete.

That the other bids are so close does not surprise me. It just confirms that I chose the right printers with equipment appropriate to my client’s job and with similar profit margins (which makes sense, since competition would encourage similar printers to charge similar amounts for similar products).

What You Can Learn From This Experience

  1. Take the time to collect and study printers’ equipment lists. Learn how to determine what kind of press is best for your particular job. (In this case, nothing beats an HP Indigo for an ultra-short color digital print job.) Usually this learning curve takes time, so it never hurts to send out bid requests to a number of printers. Then you can see which bids cluster together, study the printers’ equipment lists, and get a sense of what equipment will be appropriate. Also, it’s good to find gurus at the various print shops and ask questions. Finally, never stop reading and studying everything you can find on all aspects of printing.
  2. Collect all of the bids you receive, and after you have vetted them for accuracy and completeness, set up a pricing spreadsheet to identify the trends. There will usually be the low-ball price and perhaps a high bid, but most of the other prices will cluster together. Don’t trust the low bid. If you’re interested, ask pointed questions and request printed samples. Sometimes this vendor is charging too little. Perhaps they are doing too much work for too little profit per job. This can’t last forever. Sometimes the quality will suffer. Sometimes the vendor will go out of business. Also, note that the high bid is often not sustainable. This vendor may go out of business unless they offer something that sets them apart from the others (superior quality, special knowledge, and extra hand-holding during a job). Clients will need a reason to pay top dollar.
  3. This kind of awareness will come with time. The more you pay attention to the nuances, the more you will learn.

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