Printing & Design Tips: SEPTEMBER 2008, #86

Go with Your Instincts

You’ve chosen a printer with due diligence for a complex job, a convention tabloid, for instance, to be printed in a city half-way across the country. You were a bit anxious at first, due to the distance, but the samples, references, and estimate were first-rate.

Then, as the convention approaches and you request a press proof on the stock you plan to use, things between you and the printer get a little strained. The proof winds up being printed on a stock you didn’t specify, your phone calls are not returned in a timely manner, prices start to rise dramatically relative to the first estimate you received six months ago. It’s almost convention time. What do you do?

The short answer is: Go with your gut instincts, always have a back-up plan, and analyze the problems dispassionately.

Anyone can make a mistake, so printing a press proof on the wrong stock can happen. If you were explicit (in writing, in your request for quote or your e-mail), consider requesting another press proof—at the printer’s expense—on the proper stock.

So the revised schedule you submitted six months into the process (a month from the convention) caused the price to double. Perhaps it is a short enough time-frame that the printer will need to use double the number of presses, stitchers, and personnel. It’s a good time to check with other printers with comparable equipment to make sure the price is still reasonable. Perhaps you could also expand the schedule again and ask for a revised price from your initial vendor.

Maybe you have also upgraded the paper, so it is reasonable to expect an increase in the price you received six months ago, but how much of an increase? Is the revised price still close to double the initial bid?

This is the time to confront your printer directly. Yes, it is reasonable for the initial estimate you received to have gone stale in six months (most printers only hold pricing for 30 or 60 days). But double is a big jump. Yes, paper prices are rising, but paper is only a portion of the cost of a job (even on a long run), so doubling the total printing price is excessive. This is the time to mention that the other printer you just checked with offered a much lower price, and that although you want to continue with this printer, you need to explain and justify to others in your organization exactly why their price is so much higher than the other printer’s price.

Look at what’s happening objectively, and look for red flags: Remember the printer isn’t returning phone calls or sounds distant and less enthusiastic than before when you do reach him/her. The printer makes mistakes on press- or prepress-tests and seems unprepared during the “test-run” prior to the upcoming “live run.” Maybe the printer criticizes the schedule at this point, saying it is ridiculously short. Maybe the printer blames you for not being clear about the scope of the work. Prices change, or the printer says things like, “The first price was just an estimate to get started.”  At worst, the printer may actually say, “Maybe this isn’t going to work,” or “Maybe you need to find another printer willing to deal with this job.”

At this point you might ask yourself why you want to go with this printer in the first place—even if they did have stellar references and samples. Perhaps it was the best printer with the most appropriate equipment six months ago when you flew out to another state to check out convention printers. Perhaps you don’t want to fly across the country again a month before the convention to find another printer.

In defense of the printer, sometimes for a large job, such as printing several issues of a convention magazine, the scope of the job becomes clearer as the months of preparation and testing proceed. A printer half the continent away will not care about your work as much as your local printer with whom you do daily business, because after the convention you’re gone. Why should they do a huge amount of work only to have you disappear after the four issues?

Maybe the printer had expected to receive the job and print it for the price they provided, without spending six months doing endless tests for you—for free.

As the job progresses and the printer realizes they are not suited to the job, they lack the capacity, the scope of the job exceeds their initial expectations when they had provided the first estimate—they may develop a bad attitude, or raise the price. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad printer. It does, however, mean it is time to act decisively.

What should you do, and what should you have done when you were visiting printers in the first place?

Prior to checking out the local printers, be as explicit as you can, in writing, not only about the four issues of the job at the convention, but about the tight schedule and all the preliminary testing work you expect from the printer. (Let the potential printers know up front that the job may be larger than it looks.)

On your first trip out to the convention state, formulate a back-up plan. Don’t choose only one printer; choose the ideal printer and a capable second option. If the relationship with the first printer sours or it becomes clear for some other reason that you need to make changes, you won’t need to travel out to the convention state again. (At this point you may also consider alternative technologies. If the job is sheetfed, perhaps a heatset-web printer can do the job as well.)

In short, don’t get angry; don’t get your feelings hurt. Consider it a blessing to have found out early, and have a back-up plan. After all, it’s better to find out you and your convention printer are not a match before the actual convention begins.

[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.]