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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 Case Study: Getting Bids for a Coffee-Table Photo Book

Normally I can get prices for my print brokering clients rather quickly and easily. I work with printing companies of every sort (printing services that specialize in books, large-format banners, marketing collateral, etc.). But a unique project came to me recently that posed challenges, a small book of photographs. The photographer had solicited pricing from various on demand book printing suppliers she had found on the Internet and had opted instead for higher quality and a lower unit price.

Specifications for the book printing run

My client wants to print a 6” x 6” case-bound book, 200 pages in length, with process color throughout, in a press run of 500, 750, or 1000 copies. The cover will be printed and will have no dust jacket. The text will be printed on a silk-coated text sheet. My client also wants a “ribbon placeholder” (like you see in Bibles and appointment books). This is a coffee-table book requiring the highest production values.

Focusing only on book printing suppliers

For estimates, I chose eight book printers that I had worked with at one time or another. I only approached book printers, since I knew they would be proficient in the case-binding component of the job, and since I knew they would provide the most competitive pricing (i.e., they would be cheaper than commercial printing services).

I compared my short list of printing companies to a list of book printers across the United States that I had found online. To be safe, I just used the list to jog my memory. I only approached book printing vendors I had worked with before and trusted completely.

Surprised by the response to the bid requests

To my surprise, five of the eight book printing suppliers “no-bid” the job due to the process color usage throughout the text. The majority of book printers either produced black-text-only books or primarily black-text-books with process color inserts (one or only a few signatures printed in color with the balance of the text pages in black ink or black and a PMS color).

One of the three printing companies that did provide a bid, planned to produce the job in Mexico to remain competitive, and stipulated a thinner text sheet than I had requested. This book printing vendor also could not add headbands and footbands to the book, but could add the ribbon placeholder (by hand, which would be expensive). All changes to the specs were suggested by the printer to keep the pricing competitive (i.e., this is what their Mexico plant could handle, and this printing plant was their best bet for the job).

The two other printing companies bid on the specs exactly as presented. However, their prices were twice what I had expected. Here’s why:

  • Process color throughout is very expensive.
  • It’s more expensive to print a press sheet and laminate it to chipboard than case bind a book in fabric and then add a printed dust cover.
  • The ribbon placeholder would be hand-work, which is always more expensive than an automated procedure.
  • The endsheets of the book would be printed (heavy ink coverage), which costs more than adding unprinted (white or tinted) endsheets.

I was actually surprised to find that, for one custom printing vendor, the makeready estimate alone exceeded the cost of makeready for a 700-page, black-only-text, case-bound book they had just printed for another client of mine—by 50 percent–due to the specs noted above.

A few printing options for my client

I received two suggestions from printing companies that approached the job in a different manner. One printer bid the job in a 5” x 5” format (rather than 6” x 6”) on uncoated Finch Fine paper. This printer’s price was a little over half the high bid (granted, based on slightly different specs).

A few printing companies that had “no-bid” the job actually came back to me with suggestions. One offered to print the job on a web-fed inkjet press. A different printer suggested a sheetfed digital press based on electrophotographic technology (i.e., color xerox). In both cases, I said I would need to see outstanding printed samples.

Finally, a printer that had “no-bid” the job came back to me with a price for a perfect-bound version, instead of a case-bound version. The total cost of the perfect-bound option, even with color throughout, would be less than a third of the high bid for a case-bound option.

What we learn from the eight vendors

  • Printing process color throughout a book is very expensive. Not all book printing vendors will do such a job. Most are used to producing only color inserts.
  • Hand-work (the ribbon placeholder) is expensive.
  • Printing heavy-coverage ink on book endsheets is expensive.
  • Headbands and footbands seem to be best for longer books (more pages).
  • Laminating a printed cover sheet to chipboard is expensive. In some cases it’s cheaper to cloth bind the book and add an extra printed dust cover.
  • It’s wise to ask the printer what technology is more economical based on the page count and press run: digital or offset.
  • This is not an exact science. The printing companies made changes to the specifications based on their own equipment (size and format of their presses) in an attempt to do the work in-house and keep their prices low. You may approach other printing companies and have a completely different experience than I did.
  • Ask a lot of printing companies to bid on your job, and keep your specifications fluid as long as possible. You may have to change certain specifications to keep within budget.
  • Finally, keep looking. There may be a printer out there that can do your “exotic” job for a good price.

A final stroke of good fortune

The printer with the highest price just contacted me today, as I was finishing this article. His plant had looked at the job again. Instead of printing the book on a 40” press (28” x 40” press sheet), they could print the job on a 51” press (38” x 51” press sheet). This would allow for larger signatures (more pages per signature and hence fewer signatures, fewer press runs, fewer plates, fewer wash-ups, etc.). They would drop their cost by almost half.

So now my client has a number of options.

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