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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: Prices for Short Runs of Long Books

A print brokering client of mine is a husband and wife publishing team. Usually they print one or two new titles a year, mostly books of poetry, fiction, and essays. I’ve written about them in these PIE Blog articles before. They both appreciate the finer points of a physical print book, so all of their projects include French flaps (extensions on the front and back covers that are folded inward toward the inside front and back covers). They also have soft-touch laminated covers (a coating that gives a nice rubberized feel to the matte cover), a press score running parallel to the spine, and faux deckled edges on the text block (actually a “rough front” trim).

This client team appreciates quality.

Another way they show this commitment to quality is to initially print 50 or 75 copies of a “galley” proof of each print book (prior to the final run with the French flaps and such). The galleys go to “readers,” who review the books and make suggestions, which can then be incorporated into the final print books.

The Pricing (and Then the Revised Pricing) for the Print Books

Just recently, I requested pricing for 75 copies of each book and provided this to my clients as a benchmark prior to the actual design and layout of the books. Keep in mind that these are 5.5” x 8.5” format, perfect bound books: relatively standard, with standard 70# offset text paper inside and 12pt. covers. The text blocks are black ink only without bleeds. The covers are 4-color process with bleeds.

After I provided my clients with their pricing for the three galley books, their book designers (a different designer for the text and the covers) produced the book art files. In all three cases, the page counts increased significantly (upwards of 100 pages in one instance), and the press runs dropped from 75 readers’ copies to 50 readers’ copies.

I collected this new information, revised the specification sheets, and went back to the book printer’s sales rep for revised estimates. When the prices arrived, the sales rep and I were both surprised by how much the prices had jumped. In fact, the unit costs were almost double those of the first estimate.

Why Did the Prices Go Up So Much?

After the initial shock, this is what I did. I took one of the three book estimates and analyzed the pricing. I multiplied the initial press run (75 copies) by the number of pages (256 pages) and came up with 19,200 pages total. Then I multiplied the revised press run (50 copies) by the the revised page count (382 pages) and came up with almost the same number of pages (19,100 total book pages printed).

This was a bit of a happy accident, because it showed that even though the book was much longer, the total amount of digital press work needed would be about the same. Almost exactly, actually.

Then I compared the initial price ($462.00) to the revised price ($727.00), and determined that the first estimate for 75 copies would cost $.024 per page while the revised price based on the lower press run and higher page count would be $.038 per page.

At this point I asked the sales rep to have his estimating department explain the discrepancy (to his credit, the sales rep had initially called me and offered to do this). We agreed that we wanted to know whether the pricing was accurate (or a mistake). And, if it was accurate, why was it so much more than the initial bid? All of this would occur before I went back to my client with the revised pricing.

Possible Answers

Here are some possible reasons that the increased cost per page might not be either an accident or an unreasonable charge:

  1. Due to the short press run, these three books will be printed digitally, as opposed to by offset lithography. This is true even though the text block of the example discussed above (one of three books) is almost 400 pages. In spite of this book length, the press run is only 50 copies for initial reader review.
  2. Offset commercial printing requires a huge amount of make-ready: that is, preparatory work to get the printing, binding, and any other operations in print book manufacturing ready. For each process, the make-ready precedes the actual run. It contributes to the overall cost, but since offset printing runs are usually very long (perhaps 5,000 or 10,000 copies or more rather than 50 copies), this larger amount of money attributable to make-ready can be spread across the 5,000; 10,000; or even 100,000 copies of the press run. In fact, the longer the run, the less each copy costs, and the less impact the make-ready charges have on the cost of each print book.
  3. In contrast to offset printing, digital printing has relatively little make-ready. But it still has some. The prepress operators and pressmen still have to set up each individual step in the process: everything from producing the digital proofs (if they are printed on an inkjet or laser device) to printing the actual run of pages to all binding, trimming, and packing operations.
  4. This make-ready expense is increased if multiple finishing operations are necessary (anything that follows putting ink or toner on paper). In addition, there is the spoilage that occurs during these extra steps. For instance, after the pages have been printed, the books need to be perfect bound. And to complete all manufacturing processes with a total run of exactly 50 books, more text blocks and covers must be produced to allow for spoilage (in this case, books damaged during the perfect binding process). The same potential for spoilage exists during all printing and finishing operations, and addressing this inevitability (by initially starting with enough copies to accommodate the loss) drives up the overall print book manufacturing cost.
  5. In my client’s case, the page count for each of the three print book titles went up, but the press runs dropped from 75 copies to 50 copies. What this means is that the cost of make-ready (time spent setting up all pre-press, press, and post press operations) and spoilage (books damaged during production) is above and beyond the cost of the actual 50-copy press run (referred to as “make-ready” vs. “press run” on some estimates).
  6. In my client’s case, this cost of preparation or make-ready will now be spread over 50 books, whereas this cost initially (on the first book production estimate) was to be spread over 75 books. When you compare this process to a 10,000 copy press run (or more) of an offset printed book, you can see that a much greater portion of the make-ready cost gets allocated to the unit cost of each of the 50 copies (produced digitally) vs. each of the 5,000; 10,000; or 100,000 offset-printed copies.
  7. This is a hypothesis (albeit a legitimate, potential reason for the increased cost). Plus, the books will be significantly longer than initially expected.
  8. That said, the only way to know for sure is to have all three revised estimates re-checked, which is what the print sales rep has offered to do.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. The initial human response to something like this is disbelief and possibly anger. But that’s not productive, so if this happens to you, just ask for a check of all specs and pricing and an explanation of the increased unit cost. After all, your printer is a business partner, not an adversary.
  2. The more additional operations you must do (prepare files in prepress; print the job; fold, trim, and bind the job; etc.), the more money will go into make-ready. If you need die cutting as well, or foil stamping, this make-ready portion of the job will increase even more.
  3. The more steps in the process, the more spoilage will occur (and the more copies will be needed to compensate for this spoilage). Some processes, like perfect binding, may also cause more spoilage than others.
  4. When in doubt, ask your printer to break down your cost by “make-ready” and “cost per run.”
  5. Without printing more copies than you actually need, requesting a higher (vs. lower) print run will reduce the cost per unit of the make-ready portion of the total expense.

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