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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: Assumptions About Web-Fed Inkjet Books

I made a really big assumption about a book printing bid recently that turned out to be totally incorrect. It taught me a lesson, or maybe a few lessons. I thought that sharing this case study might help you avoid making the same mistakes.

The Web-Fed Inkjet Book Printing Job

The job in question is a 450-page textbook with a press run of between 1,600 copies and 2,500 copies. It will be 8.5” x 11” in format for a sheetfed offset press (or 8.5” x 10.875” for a web press).

My print brokering client has considered both a two-color text for the print book and a four-color text, which would be considerably more expensive.

To get a wide sampling of prices, I approached about four book printing vendors in various sectors of the US with different equipment. I had printers look at sheetfed offset, web-fed offset, and web-fed inkjet custom printing on the new HP T230 inkjet press. I wanted to get a sense from a number of vendors as to where the cut-offs would be: the transitions from digital to sheetfed offset to web-fed offset, in which each technology would be more cost-effective than the others based on the book length and color distribution. And I wanted to hear several educated opinions on these questions.

I expected the inkjet press to be ideal for short book printing runs. I had heard about the Hewlett Packard T230. I knew it was very new and only in operation in a handful of print shops around the world. I had seen samples of its four-color custom printing, and I was impressed. It wasn’t quite at the level of quality of offset printing, but it was very close, and for certain jobs for certain clients, I thought it would be ideal.

The Book Printing Bids Started to Arrive

All the printers except one estimated the job on sheetfed or web-fed offset equipment. And one printer bid the job on both his sheetfed offset equipment and his digital HP T230 press. From studying the pricing, it seemed to me that for a 450-page book, the cut off for economical digital work was about 1,600 copies, give or take.

The web-fed printers’ pricing was better than the sheetfed pricing of the other vendors. This surprised me, but I assumed that the high page count of the print book combined with its short press run and ample color usage made a heatset full-web press the ideal equipment for this book printing project.

Here’s the Error I Made

I had bid the book out as both a two-color text option and a four-color text option. In either case, the cover would be four color process.

In the case of the sheetfed offset printers and the web-fed offset printers, the prices for the two technologies were consistent enough (two-color text compared to two-color text) and different enough (two-color text compared to four-color text) that I felt confident in the companies, the processes, the prices, and my own judgment.

However, when one of the printers with both sheetfed and digital web-fed inkjet capabilities offered an especially low price for digital book printing, I made the following assumptions:

  1. I assumed that 1,600 copies of a 450-page book was the sweet spot for that particular digital press. After all, the price was amazingly low.
  2. I assumed that a web-fed inkjet press would always have access to four ink colors. Therefore, since even a two-color inkjet book printing job would use process color builds to simulate the accent PMS color, I believed the price I had been given would reflect the use of four color process inks anywhere in the text.

Granted, the digital pricing was an email addendum to a sheetfed offset printing bid. The email said the printer would offer a digital process, for 1,600 copies, for substantially less than offset, if my client would accept the slightly lower than offset quality. What the email didn’t say, and what I erroneously assumed, was that the price was for four color throughout the text, when it was really for a four color simulation of a two-color job.

What I Learned from the Mishap

I learned the following from this experience, fortunately not at anyone’s expense (either mine or my client’s).

  1. Unlike a web-fed or sheetfed printing press, which might have either two or four (or more) ink colors available, a web-fed inkjet book press has four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks) accessible at all times.
  2. However, the ink coverage for a two-color job (simulating black and a PMS as a highlight color: for headlines, for instance) is much less than for a four-color job. (A four-color inkjet book printing job might, for instance, include full color images.) Due to the much larger ink coverage, the price is significantly higher than the cost of a two-color job simulated in the web-fed inkjet press’ process color inks. In short, more ink equals more money.

What You Can Learn and Apply to Your Own Print Buying Work

Be mindful, and learn from my mistake.

  1. Always ask your printer for clarification, in writing, particularly if the process or technology is new to you. (I made an assumption on an especially new and rare printing process–web-fed inkjet printing—based on prior expectations gleaned from using small desktop inkjet printers.)
  2. If the price is too low to be believed, assume that something is missing from the bid, or that you have misunderstood something. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

A Late-Breaking Update from a Trusted Advisor

Prior to publishing this blog article, I learned from a trusted associate exactly how HP T230 jobs are priced.

Apparently, on the HP T230 the cost of four-color printing is based on the amount of ink coverage per page; however, it is not based on placing process color on the full page but only on a “per-square-inch” basis.

The traditional four-color offset printing cost is based on placing one square inch of four-color ink (or more) on a page. One square inch of four color process ink (or more) would require pricing for one full page of four-color process ink, and therefore for one full press signature of process color (i.e., both sides of one full press sheet).

In contrast, on the HP T230 one square inch of process color reflects the use of only one square inch of four-color process ink, but not one complete page and not one complete press signature of process color.

This is a dramatically novel standard compared to traditional four-color print estimating.

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