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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: Ensuring On-Time, Accurate Delivery

“We uploaded the art files to the printer only a day late. Why can’t the printer make up the time? Don’t they want our business?”

A print brokering client of mine asked these questions recently, reminding me that their print books needed to be in the book distributor’s possession on time, and not even a day late. (To be completely honest, I have exaggerated my client’s actual questions a bit in order to make a point: Schedules matter.)

It is important to remember that your commercial printing job (and in most cases your schedule, or drop-dead delivery date) is of utmost importance to you, but at the same time your print provider has many clients who feel exactly the same way about their projects. Some of these will flow smoothly through the process. They will arrive on time and then proceed through all the various stages of the process (prepress, printing, finishing, packing, and delivery).

Others will hit snags. Maybe your files will not pass preflight (perhaps there will be problems with the resolution of the photos). Maybe, when you receive the hard-copy proof, you’ll catch an error or two.

Errors like these, the ones you have inadvertently introduced into the process, will slow you down. These are different from errors the printer introduces into the process (such as a broken saddle stitching machine that slows down his bindery work, perhaps necessitating overtime work to compensate).

Error-Free Files

I had a client earlier this year who submitted three 5.5” x 8.5” print books to press. There was a simple editorial correction needed on one of the book covers. Because of this, the printer put all three books on hold while the cover designer made and uploaded corrections and while new proofs were generated and approved (fortunately they were PDF proofs, so no further time was lost mailing proofs to the client and then back to the book printer).

This revision process (for as small a correction as was needed) added a week to the overall production schedule. Did the printer need to take this much time? After all, the book printer’s actual production time was probably only minimal. While it’s true that fixing the problem most likely took very little time, it disrupted the overall workflow of the book printing plant. To minimize this, the printer focused first on the clients who had provided accurate, error-free files—on time—and then came back to my client’s three print books.

Not all printers are like this. Printing is a business, and different printers have different business models. The one in question has rock-bottom prices but provides stellar-quality products. Therefore, they are always booked. In fact, since the overall volume of book printing has been increasing year over year in the recent past, the turn-around time this book printer now offers is much longer than even a year ago.

Other Options

My client could go elsewhere. A reasonable choice. I work with another printer that’s huge. They are a consolidator. They have branches all across the country. They also do digital printing (which my client needed for these three titles due to their short press runs). But this printer’s business model involves limiting the choices for digital binding to keep their machinery costs down. After all, if they offered all types of binding (French flaps on the paperback covers, for instance), this would require additional machinery, which would require additional expense, which would drive up the costs the printer must charge customers.

A third book printer will do almost anything I need. They’re great. However, I have to pay a premium for this. Some of my customers prefer this treatment and are willing to pay for it.

So my client made his choice. He chose two of the three manufacturing goals (quality, price, but not speed). In effect, we paid for the discounted price.

Some will say that clients now demand more, and it’s possible to hit all three goals (quality, price, and speed). That sounds good, but in reality those printers who over-promise eventually go out of business.

For instance, I’ve had clients leave for other printers who promise more only to find that their schedules were not met or that the printed jobs were not of the highest quality. These clients then came back to me. In my case, as a printing broker, I try to advise clients not to do this because it takes time: going out, finding a new printer, having problems, and then coming back. This can also waste a lot of money.

Now I want to make it clear that the situation I’m describing is very different from working with a printer who is slow, sloppy, and/or inaccessible. Most are not. Some get into trouble precisely because they are trying to be all things to all people. They are charging less than the competition, taking in too much work, and turning it around with too few staff. Eventually they go out of business.

How do you know what’s really happening with a particular printer? You don’t. This is where experience comes in. If a long-standing relationship with a printer who has been a good partner hits a bump in the road, you can discuss matters, be frank, and come up with solutions. But if you’re working with a new printer, it’s usually smart to start slowly. Make your first few jobs small ones with flexible deadlines. Then you can build up to large, deadline-critical custom printing projects.

The Solution

After the first set of this year’s print books came too close for comfort to my client’s drop-dead delivery date, I came up with a solution for the next set of three jobs. I asked for the printer’s longest projected time frame for each component of the schedule based on the printer’s workload at that particular time (which was heavy). Then I listed them:

  1. Prepress and proofing
  2. Printing
  3. Binding
  4. Shipping and delivery

Then I added a week to the estimated prepress and proofing stage. Then I added a week to the shipping stage. Then I added a week to the whole process just for safety’s sake. Would I have done this for all printers’ schedules? No. In some cases my clients want to go go with the more expensive printers I frequent, and these book printers don’t often present this problem.

So in the simplest terms, I acknowledged reality. Then I made a conservative schedule. Not just a realistic schedule, but a conservative one, with wiggle room. With this in hand, I approached both my client and the printer, received their approval of the schedule, and made sure everyone had a final copy. This was our agreement. At this point it was set in stone, but I sweetened the pot by arranging prepayment. The printer needed half of the cost up front, but since my client “got it” (he understood human motivation), my client offered to pay for the entire order at once, up front.

Keep in mind two important things. My client had been exceptionally pleased with this book printer’s prior work. All books delivered for several jobs had been gorgeous. Also, this printer (and most others) require cash-only clients (as opposed to credit clients) to pay the first 50 percent prior to the onset of the job and the final 50 percent prior to its shipment. This is the norm (an accepted trade custom in commercial printing). So by paying both 50 percent, up-front payments together, my client showed good will, made it clear that the job was a real job, and didn’t pay any more than was required (he just paid it earlier).

Final Check of Art Files

When the text designer sent me final art files for the three print books, I carefully checked the individual pages in the PDF file and also the trim size (format) of the books. Two of the three had the correct format. One was slightly off-size–in error. I brought this to the text designer’s attention, and she quickly fixed it. (If I hadn’t caught this error, the printer would have caught it in preflight, and this would have used up precious time in the schedule. In fact, all three books might have been put on hold until the problem had been fixed.)

My client also caught errors on the cover of one of the three books. He asked whether I thought it would be better to upload the files now (one day past the submission deadline) and make corrections at the proof stage, or whether he should take the time to correct the files first. My response was that it was definitely worth taking the time now.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make a schedule. Pad it. Then get everyone’s buy-in. Then, don’t deviate from the schedule. Remember the consequences of missed deadlines.
  2. Realize that you can have any two of the following: quality, speed, price. Any vendor can make wild promises. Choose printers that under-promise and over-deliver. Don’t waste time looking for the perfect printer. It’s more than likely that you’ll spend a lot of money and time, and wind up back at your first printer’s door.
  3. That said, develop relationships with printers prudently. Start with small jobs and then build to larger ones.
  4. Have more than one person check your art files. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s always better to fix them before submitting files. Don’t wait until the proofing stage. You will not make up lost time.

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