Printing & Design Tips: MAY 2009, #94

Categories of Printers: Publication, Digital, Screen

As with any other profession, there is a lingo involved in describing printers, words that designate various specialties at which certain printers excel. These classifications may be helpful to you when you cull through listings of printers to choose the right one for your job.

A “publication printer” is a printer of periodicals. Or at least that’s what they do best. This usually means the printer in question is used to strict deadlines and regular printings of your publication, perhaps more used to these deadlines than other printers would be. Publication printers usually have web presses, since magazine press runs are often longer than runs for other printed pieces. And publication printers are usually well-versed in postal service regulations. They understand ways to prepare your job so you will reap the greatest savings when you enter the periodicals into the mailstream. This means your printer can help you with everything from postal forms to postage escrow accounts, and will probably be able to make design suggestions to help you minimize your postage costs.

It is not true that a commercial printer cannot print your publication. Many commercial printers have regular titles that they prepare every month. It would be unusual, though, for a commercial printer to be able to produce and mail a magazine overnight or to produce a longer-run periodical. Their schedules just aren’t set up like that.

A “commercial printer” usually focuses on jobs like annual reports, marketing collateral, and the like. Unlike periodicals, these jobs do not come to the printer at the same time each week, month, or quarter. They arrive in a more random manner, so commercial printers’ scheduling habits usually differ from those of publication printers.

Due to the diverse kinds of jobs a commercial printer usually produces, such a printer may have a wider range of equipment than a publication printer. While a publication printer may just have a web press (perfect for you if your job is a long-run magazine), a commercial printer usually has various sizes of sheetfed presses. He can put your job on a press that is just large enough to accommodate the final flat-size of your piece without wasting space (or your money). Conversely, a publication printer would probably need to subcontract out the insert you want to include in your magazine (let’s say a short-run insert that would be most economically printed on a sheetfed press), since your publication printer may not own a sheetfed press.

Now the field of printer classifications gets even more complex if you want to print a tabloid on newsprint (a format of newspaper on the thin, cheap paper specific to this kind of product). Neither a publication printer nor a commercial printer would be appropriate for such a press run. Their web presses and sheetfed presses cannot handle the rolls of thin newsprint. Instead, you would need to contact a newsprint printer with a press designed for only this kind of publication. Usually such a printer would be owned by a commercial newspaper. Gannett, for instance, takes in a certain number of newspapers from local publishers and prints these when it’s not printing its own newspapers. This keeps Gannett’s presses from being idle (losing money) while helping out the smaller publishers in the area.

If your job is a 13-foot by 17-foot vinyl poster to be hung on the outside wall of your building to herald a promotional event, you’ll need a printer with a large-format ink-jet press. If your large-format poster is to be printed on a rigid substrate like plexiglass or board, you’ll need a flat-bed ink-jet press. Many publication printers don’t have high-quality roll-fed ink-jet printing equipment, and most commercial printers don’t have flat-bed ink-jet presses, so you’ll have to ask around for a silkscreen and digital printer that focuses on “point of purchase” items, trade-show graphics, and signage.

If your job is a case-bound book, you’ll need a book printer (preferably one large enough to justify owning case-binding equipment).

Or, you might be considering a marketing campaign with variable data added to personalize each copy of your brochure as it comes off the press. You would need a printer with a digital press (xerographic rather than ink-jet, this time) capable of printing different information on each printed piece (such as the names of all 50,000 of your prospects).

And don’t forget silk-screen printing if your job is a vinyl notebook or a novelty mug, hat, shirt, or pen.

So the long and short of it is, look closely for the right printer. Consider how your job fits into the following categories (a list which is probably even longer than I have suggested): commercial printing, publication printing, book printing, newspaper printing, large-format signage printing, variable-data digital printing, silk-screen printing, and novelty printing.

In your search for the right printer, use our service here at to get quotes from printers across the country and you can also ask the printers you work with regularly for leads.

When you find a printer who can do your job, ask for references. Request samples, and, whenever possible, start the printer off with a small, low-profile job to see how well your printer performs and meets deadlines, and how well you work together.

[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.]