Printing and Design Tips: March 2021, Issue #236

Don’t Forget to Ask Your Printer these Questions

I recently acquired an old book from the early 1990s on writing, designing, and printing marketing materials. I was amused to see how much has changed over the last thirty years (regarding the technology), but it was also thought provoking to see how the process of print buying has in many ways stayed the same. The book is called Print That Works. It was written by Elizabeth W. Adler.

One of the sections on print buying included the following points to address with your printer. I have selected a few of these, and I will expand upon them a bit as well:

1. "What kinds of pieces is this print shop especially good at producing?" (Print That Works, p.327)

2. "Do you have the right equipment to do my job efficiently?" (Print That Works, p.327)

3. "How much of the job is done in-house? What is farmed out?" (Print That Works, p.327)

All three of these questions point to an important (and yet not always articulated) general rule. Not all printers have the same equipment or specialties.

For instance, you may have 60,000 copies of a recurring 4-color magazine to print. For this you would need a printer with a heatset web (i.e., roll-fed) press that has an oven through which the paper flows immediately after passing through the inking units. This allows you to print process color work on gloss-coated paper. For a long-run publication, this would save you money when compared to a job estimated on a sheetfed offset press.

Most printers will not have a heatset web press, let alone a full-web rather than a half-web (much wider rolls can be used on a full-web press yielding larger press signatures). You would need to look specifically for this equipment, and you might be advised to start with printers designated as periodical printers or publication printers. If I had a catalog to print, I’d probably start my research with these same printers.

In contrast, if you had a book to print, you’d go to a book printer. These printers would be more likely to have the finishing equipment you would need (such as perfect-binding equipment). If you need to case bind a book, you might want to look for a printer with extensive binding capabilities.

(That is, relatively few printers have enough case binding work to justify the materials, labor, and equipment expenses related to case binding. Most printers will "job out" or subcontract this work. In fact I know of two local binderies that do most of the binding work for a large number of commercial printers. That is, they are trade binders for business-to-business work.)

Is it a problem to work with a printer that does not have certain equipment you need (perhaps even die cutting, laminating, or other post-press capabilities)? Not really. I work with a lot of printers that subcontract out at least some of the work. But you have to keep in mind that anything subcontracted to another vendor will be marked up. It will cost more than if your printer had the equipment in-house because he bears the risk of someone else’s doing the work (for which he, not the subcontractor, would be responsible). That said, it would also take longer, and the printer would lose some control over the process.

Therefore the ideal situation is for the printer you choose to have as much of the equipment on the pressroom (and post-pressroom) floor as possible.

Above I mentioned book printers and publication printers, but there are also printers who generalize (like a general surgeon rather than a heart surgeon), and these are known as commercial printers. Others focus on digital printing: laser printing or electrophotography, inkjet printing (short run printing and even web-fed inkjet printing for periodicals), and large format (or grand format) inkjet printing (for building wraps, car wraps, etc.).

In addition, there are printers that focus on direct marketing materials. These are great for printing, finishing, inserting (putting the letters and all accompanying brochures and attachments in envelopes), addressing, and doing all the USPS paperwork, bagging, tagging, etc., to enter the entire marketing job into the mailstream. These are often called lettershops.

In all of these cases, you’re paying not only for the equipment (ask for an equipment list, and you’ll get a handle on what the printer can do in house) but also and more importantly you’re paying for the expertise. A lettershop, for instance, knows everything you’ll need them to know about adhering to postal regulations, choosing papers, and designing mailpieces to reap the best postal discounts. A commercial printer or book printer may not.

Granted, each kind of printer may have a cursory understanding of multiple printing specialties, but for the greatest depth of knowledge, go to a specialist. It will save you money and heartache.

What’s the best way to find such printers? Ask other printers you trust.

Print That Works then goes on to list a number of other relevant questions to ask your printer:

1. "Is there any reduction in price for long-term contracts? (Such as a year’s worth of newsletters)" (Print That Works, p.327)

2. "Do you have a house stock?" (Print That Works, p.327)

3. "Can you recommend a less-expensive but similar-looking paper?" (Print That Works, p.327)

All of these questions illustrate the benefits of negotiating. Your printer likes repeat work. If something comes into the printing plant at the same time each month, requiring the same amount of work, that regularity is worth something to the printer. Many, if not most, printers will come down a bit on price if you can sign a contract (not just provide a verbal agreement) for a certain number of issues over an extended period of time. Your printer can often get discounts from paper suppliers for such repeat work (i.e., a larger paper purchase for a lower unit cost), and this is part of the savings he passes on to you.

The other part of these questions pertains to substitutions. Your designers may have a personal preference for a particular brand of paper, but in many cases you can get a discount for having your printer purchase paper with the same specifications but under a different brand name. In fact, it’s wise to specify paper weight, brightness, opacity, caliper, whiteness, (and other characteristics that can be found online in paper buying articles) instead of a particular brand. Another approach would be to tell your printer you’re open to paper "substitutions." Just make sure you see printed and unprinted paper samples before your job goes to press. Avoid surprises.

Here are a few more questions from Print That Works. These pertain to samples.

1. "(If you are considering using special effects such as duotones, metallic inks, die cuts, or embossing): Do you have any examples?" (Print That Works, p.327)

2. "(If you are concerned about how the ink will look on a particular sheet of paper): Do you have any samples that show colors on this sheet?" (Print That Works)

Both of these questions from Adler’s book reflect the following rule of thumb: Nothing demonstrates a printer’s technical skill like a printed sample. A printed sample shows you whether your printer can do the job well and whether your choice of paper will be appropriate.

More specifically, let’s say you have chosen an off-white paper (a yellow-white rather than a blue-white or bright white sheet), and your project includes a lot of photos of people. On such a press sheet, the faces might look jaundiced due to the prevalence of yellow in the coloration of the paper.

If you’re not sure, but you trust the printer, you can always offer to pay extra for some kind of test, whether it’s an ink "drawdown" (just ink on paper) or a complete sample (a prototype, which would also be known as a press proof, a one-off job on a small press). Such a proof would be expensive, but for a long run of a complex product, it may be worth the extra expense to see exactly what you’ll get. But ask your printer first. You may be able to simulate the effects with digital printing, which would be substantially cheaper.

So what’s the takeaway?

Your printer knows far more about how to create what you’re looking for than you do. If you have developed a professional relationship of mutual trust, then depend on your printer’s wealth of knowledge. Show him samples of what you’d like, and have him show you samples of what he can provide. Printed samples speak volumes.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]