Printing & Design Tips: February 2005, Issue #43

Press Proofs

Press proofs are the most accurate proofs, since they simulate the final printed product using the actual ink and paper stock you have selected for your job. They are produced with actual plates mounted on a proofing press. The two other options, digital off-press proofs and analog off-press proofs, either are produced with products other than printing ink--such as films or powders (for analog proofs such as Matchprints and Cromalins) or dyes, toners, or ink-jet inks (for digital proofs). Furthermore, they are usually printed on paper stocks that differ in color or surface texture from that used for the final product.

Press proofs can show how the color of the actual printing paper will alter the ink colors and how the paper's texture will affect the "feel" of the printed product. They also reflect actual dot gain as well as show the true color of a duotone (since digital proofing devices only simulate PMS colors with 4-color process inks or toners).

Press proofs are unusually expensive, since you are essentially paying for two press runs. (You may pay $500 to $1,000 for a press proof on a five-color press, as opposed to $350 for a Matchprint or $50 for a high-end ink-jet proof.) Nevertheless, for certain jobs, press proofs are worth their weight in gold.

  • For example, consider a press proof for showcase work such as publications including photos of food, automobiles, fashion, etc., or for a longer press run in general.
  • Also consider a press proof if you are attempting a design or printing technique that may not show up accurately on a digital or analog proof and would be prohibitively expensive to reprint if it were visually unacceptable. In this case, a press proof might be your only cost-effective guarantee.

Keep in mind also that you can adjust the colors in a press proof as needed and then duplicate the ink settings during the actual press run. Off-press proofs -- the ones most print buyers request -- although improving dramatically each year, just aren't accurate enough in some cases.

Overs / Unders

What is the industry standard for overruns and underruns? Trade standards warrant that a printer can provide you with up to 10 percent more or less than you have requested and bill you for this number. If you need "at least" a specific number--say 10,000 copies--the printer can double the overage (2,000 copies, in this case) if you request it.

It is wishful thinking to assume that a printer will always give you overs just because you have received them in the past. You could just as easily receive an underrun. If you need a certain quantity to mail to a specific subscriber base, and you come up short, you will pay through the nose to go back on press. In general, it's cheaper to throw some copies away than to print too few.

Having said that, anything is negotiable. Some printers will agree to smaller percentages of overs/unders. You need to discuss this early in the process and, if necessary, shop around. This is the only way to avoid "sticker shock" when the bill arrives.

What is Merlin?

First of all, MERLIN is not King Arthur's sorcerer, at least not in the arena of publications management. This acronym stands for Mail Evaluation Readability Lookup Instrument.

According to the U.S. Post Office, MERLIN is "an automated acceptance process for presort mailings, previously verified by USPS personnel, removing human error from the equation." The MERLIN equipment verifies "presort/makeup, weight/piece count, barcode readability, tray/sack label accuracy, print reflectance, and mail piece attributes."

How does this affect you?
If your mail piece does not pass MERLIN's standards, you will need to either appeal the decision or pay the additional postage. Since that additional postage can range from 3¢ to 10¢ per piece, this can quickly add up. On the other hand, appealing MERLIN's decision is time consuming and can delay your mailing for several days.

How can you avoid this problem?
Leave time in your production schedule to fax a copy of your mail piece to a USPS design analyst for review. An analyst can be located through your local post office. Being proactive can help you get the best possible postage rates-and ensure that your mail piece reaches its destination in a timely manner.

[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.]