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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Custom Printing: Evaluating Printing Estimates

I spent some time yesterday reviewing a detailed printing estimate for a brokering client of mine. It was for a print book, but it just as easily could have been for a brochure, booklet, poster, or any other job.

As much as it requires me to pay particular attention to detail, and check and recheck math computations, I am actually pleased when I receive a line-by-line custom printing estimate because it leaves nothing to interpretation. I know that the printer has either addressed every nuance of the job specifications I provided, or he has omitted something that I need to address. It is right there in front of me.

Since analyzing commercial printing estimates is something all print buyers must do, I thought it prudent to share this book printer’s bid with you and discuss some things to look for in your own work.

The Client’s Project and the Estimate for the Job

First of all, the job in question is a 5.5” x 8.5” print book, perfect bound with French Flaps. I have mentioned the project in prior blog articles. It has a press run of 3,000 copies. The book will be printed on 55# Sebago Antique text stock, 80# Somerset Matte text for an 8-page photo insert, and 12pt. Tango bristol stock for the cover.

The estimate I received from the commercial printing vendor describes all aspects of the project, including trim size, page count, quantity, preliminary work, proofs, paper stock, presswork (ink colors), binding, terms, and distribution (extra freight costs). These are broken out in detail in the first half of the estimate.

After the descriptions, all of this information is further broken down into a pricing grid. (This is the vertical axis of the grid, reading downwards):

  1. Preliminary
  2. Plates
  3. Presswork
  4. Paper
  5. 1-color Insert
  6. Covers
  7. Binding
  8. Total (exclusive of freight)

Reading horizontally, across the pricing grid, are the following headings:

  1. Makeready
  2. Run/M
  3. 3,000 copies

Analyzing the Printer’s Estimate

Conceptually, the estimate comprises the following: labor and materials, of course, but also preparation for the printing and finishing processes plus the actual runs of the press and postpress operations. (That is, makeready costs are separate from—and in addition to–the costs of the production operations themselves.)

Preliminary work involves taking my client’s art files for the cover, insert, and text (in PDF format, as stipulated earlier in the estimate), preflighting them, and imposing the pages into press signatures.

Preliminary work also includes proofing, which is defined earlier in the estimate as a Spectrum proof for the cover (the highest level of color proof the printer offers), a Level 2 proof for the b/w photo signature, and book blues (position only proofs) for the black-only text.

On the pricing grid, preliminary work is separate from plates, but both line items are only noted in makeready costs. This is because no matter how many copies of the print book are produced (at least at this short run-length), these costs will be the same. The prepress processes are done once for the whole job, so the cost for makeready is the same as the total cost for 3,000 copies.

Presswork and finishing operations, on the other hand, have a makeready charge, a cost per M, and a total cost for 3,000 copies. So do all the other line items: 1-color insert, Covers, and Binding. In all of these cases, printing equipment or finishing equipment must be set up before the actual operation can be completed. So a computation of the total pricing for one line item is as follows: the makeready cost + [cost per M, or per thousand, for the run length x 3 (for 3,000 copies)]. Of course, all line items must then be added along with the freight cost to get the total estimated job cost.

What the estimate doesn’t tell you is that the printer can deliver 10 percent overage or underage–over or under the 3,000 total. This is noted later, in the boilerplate contract following the pricing, although it is a “trade custom” and therefore reasonable and to be expected. It does, however, vary from printer to printer, up to this 10 percent total amount.

In the case of this bid, paper is listed and described earlier in the estimate (not in the pricing grid) at a particular price at a particular date. This is because paper prices go up and down like the stock market. Printers don’t want to lose money, so their estimates reflect the cost they paid (or will pay) for the paper used for your job only. If your bid goes “stale” (i.e., is several months old), your printer can re-compute the paper pricing at the then-current price. Usually this price adjusting only pertains to direct costs (such as paper).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This is actually an ideal custom printing estimate because it is so thorough. Everything is spelled out, including where the printer’s responsibility for the job ends: “FOB printer’s loading dock.”

Not every estimate will be this explicit, although (more often than not) print book bids will usually be spelled out in this detail. Some estimates for smaller jobs may just appear as a total cost typed into an email reply to your request for a commercial printing bid.

I urge you to do the math yourself, working out the “makeready cost” plus the “run cost per M,” since in my experience many bids have errors. If you find an error, bring it to your customer service representative’s attention immediately.

Finally, remember to review the boilerplate contract following the job description and pricing breakdown. It will describe what kinds of art files you can submit (and what the printer can charge you if your files are not press-ready), overrun/underrun limits, payment and credit terms, etc. It is a contract. Once you sign it, it’s binding.

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