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Archive for January, 2016

Book Printing: An E-book vs. Print Book Update

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

I just read an interesting article on the future of print books and eBooks. It is called, “Is it the end of the road for eBooks?” (Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times, October 03, 2015).

For a number of years as a commercial printing broker and afficionado of ink on paper, I had been saddened by the news of the death of print. Sales of digital readers were soaring, and everywhere I looked, bookstores were closing. So I have been pleased to read in Makhni’s article that print books are going strong and e-book sales have been waning.

Makhni’s History of the Print Book

“Is it the end of the road for eBooks?” takes a brief trip through history, starting with writing on paper. (According to Makhni’s research, “Socrates warned everyone against writing because it would ‘create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls’ and make people ‘not use their memories.’”)

The article then moves on to the printing press. (According to Makhni’s article, “Writer and thinker Johannes Trithemius said it would make people lazy. Writing and copying builds character, he said, and that would be completely lost.”)

And finally, Makhni’s article comes to the eBook, noting the huge initial ramp-up in eBook sales and the demise of many large booksellers. But then things changed.

What’s Happening to eBooks Now?

“Is it the end of the road for eBooks?” casts light on the slow-down in eBook sales, noting that “new figures collected from over 1,200 publishers worldwide seem to indicate that eBook sales fell by 10 per cent in the first half of 2015.” In addition, Makhni says that “while the sales of e-reader devices hit an all-time high in 2011, that number dropped by about 25 per cent in 2014.”

Moreover, publishers are constructing or acquiring more printing and storage capabilities for print books, and new book stores are opening. What gives? Makhni notes that only the print book has survived the digital onslaught, unlike newspapers, television, music, and film.

Makhni believes that eBooks should be priced considerably less than print books based on their cost to create, store (free), and transport (also free) compared to their hard-copy cousins. This, Makhni says, points to the greed and mismanagement of the digital book phenomenon, which in many cases has set eBook prices at or above those of print books, making their adoption less enthusiastic.

In addition, Makhni challenges the assumption that younger readers who grew up in a digital world would still prefer digital books. This hasn’t been happening. “Digital natives” still seem to prefer eBooks for traveling and print books for home use. In addition, even for younger readers, reading a back-lit screen tires the eyes more than reading a printed page.

Finally, Makhni notes that the “eBook should be able to do far more than just look up words, take a few notes and mark something with a highlighter.” The capabilities exist, but they have not yet been applied to their fullest to distinguish the eBook from the print book.

What I Think About the Future of Digital Books

Having read Rajiv Makhni’s thoughts and assertions in his Hindustan Times article, “Is it the end of the road for eBooks?” I am in total agreement with him.

That said, I would go further. I think that an individual’s preference for the ease of using an e-reader or the tactile nature and simplicity of reading a print book will determine the individual purchase of one over the other. However, I think that other factors will influence the large-scale adoption of eBooks or their demise:

  1. Makhni believes “all-you-can-read digital library services, subscription models and lower prices may still tilt the scale.” I agree.
  2. I have seen on-screen magazines that include links to videos and podcasts (or even audio pronunciations of single foreign words). This multi-media approach to book content may well breathe life into a declining eBook universe. Playing to the strengths of digital is wise. There are certain things print books will never be able to do, such as involve the sense of hearing or fulfill the reader’s desire for moving images.
  3. Paperback books containing words (and no images) on cheaper paper may migrate to a digital format, but I’m seeing more and more showcase quality print books reflecting augmented color inksets (touch plates of various hues to expand the color gamut of offset lithography). Some of these are printed on textured paper to provide a unique and compelling feel in the hands of the reader. In addition, there are an increasing number of paper cover coatings that simulate various smooth or rough textures, to mimic everything from the surface of a football to the hairs on the back of a spider. These, digital readers will never replicate.
  4. The V-screen (also known by many other names) installs a miniature video screen inside a print book or marketing brochure. It captures the best of both worlds: print and digital. This may benefit both technologies.

Final Thoughts

In spite of the statistics quoted in Makhni’s article, I think that we’re only experiencing the infancy of digital readers and eBooks. Along with Makhni, I believe that the “value-added” attributes of eReaders must be expanded for the eBook to thrive.

I believe this will actually happen over time, and I think that along with the advances in digital and offset printing, this will lead to more options for consumers and better products in both the digital book arena and the traditional print book arena.

I think eBook prices will come down (they will need to for the platform to survive), and I think we will have more options rather than fewer, with each providing its own unmatched experience.

Custom Printing: Yes, It’s Cool; But Is It Readable?

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

My fiancee and I were at an open air mall the other day. I can’t remember why, but I do remember that she commented on a sign for an all-night, store-front medical building. It was unreadable, she said.

The signage in question was what is known as channel lettering: three dimensional letters crafted out of metal and plastic and then lit from within. The process is very expensive. I have a friend who owns a sign-making company that produces such work. It is a cut above digital signage (banners and such). These are permanent fixtures, like the CVS sign or any other number of signs in your very own local mall. They identify the business and brand it, presumably for multiple thousands of dollars.

So readability is vital.

A Description of the Sign

The sign contained two words. The first I don’t remember—although I do remember the eerie blue glow of the letters. The second was either “Physicians” or “Doctors.”

Granted, the fact that the second word was the more important, and the fact that it identified the service provided, was a blessing. Probably this was because the lighting was bright white and the typeface was simple and readable.

However, the fact that the blue, lit-up channel letters were not as legible actually detracted from the branding. In the middle of the night, if you were ill, you might drive up to this store-front doctor because you could see the reference to “doctor” in the sign, but it would have been in spite of the signage.

What You Can Learn

A lot of things you design in the course of your career will be seen under different physical conditions. This might include different sizes, or different lighting conditions based on the time of day. There might be a whole host of variables that will change the impression your viewer walks away with, from one exposure to your design work to another.

For instance, if my fiancee and I had arrived at the mall in daylight, the channel lettering of the doctor’s sign would not have been lit. We would have seen the sign and its surroundings more clearly, and the intense blue light would not have distracted us.

What this means is that a design project needs to be viable not only on the computer screen but also, perhaps, in a physical mock-up. Maybe a small version of this doctor’s sign would have helped identify the legibility problem before thousands of dollars had been spent to fabricate the channel letters and install fluorescent lights.

How this Relates to Custom Printing Projects

You can, and should, apply the same principles of legibility to design projects for commercial printing, such as a logo. For example, you may craft a beautiful logo mark that looks great on your computer monitor (a huge rendition on a back-lit screen) in Adobe Illustrator. But then when you reduce the size significantly to place it on the company business card, it may just look like a blob of ink.

If you have used a typeface with thin letterforms (perhaps a Modern face with a lot of contrast between thin and thick strokes), portions of the letters might even disappear altogether when the logo is shrunk down for the business card.

Conversely, if you have just designed a logo and then applied the mark to business cards, letterhead, and such, you may be disappointed by its appearance on large magnets for the doors of company cars or by its appearance on large format print signage.

The Solution

  1. Design all the components of the identity system at one time, if you possibly can. Print them out at 100 percent of the final size, and then look at them as a group. Consider whether they all go together. Consider how both the large and small versions look.
  2. See how the components of the identity system will look in black and white, as well as the colors you have chosen.
  3. If you’ll be producing channel letter signage, consider making a small version first. Then see how it will look in daylight (un-lit) and night lighting (fully illuminated). I’d even suggest starting with photos of the store’s environment and then inserting the signage virtually (using Photoshop) to get an idea of how the overall finished product will look in the physical environment itself.

The more thoroughly and successfully you can simulate the ambient conditions (lighting, surrounding signage, and foliage) before committing thousands of dollars to actual sign production, the more effective your final result will be.

Book Printing: Digital Yearbooks Are in Vogue

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

In a world that is increasingly digital, it’s comforting to see that some things will still live on: say, printed photos, for instance.

I just read an article about a commercial printing firm (a printing broker, actually) that specializes in photo books and that has just expanded into digital yearbooks. It’s called Picaboo, and I just read about it in an article by John Lippman entitled “Picaboo, I See a New … Yearbook.” (Valley News, September 20, 2015). This Redwood City, California, vendor, as quoted in the article, notes:

“…the preservation and organization of images, especially ones that mark life passages, on paper remains a strong desire among consumers.” (Kevin McCurdy, chief executive and co-founder of Picaboo)

With all the hoopla about digital databases of images and digital frames that cycle through a whole series of images, there apparently is still a market among all ages of consumers (even the young) for photos printed on paper. Perhaps this is because we have fewer and fewer rites of passage in this culture, and images on paper feel much more permanent than the evanescent digital-only images. This lends a sense of importance to those photos we choose to make permanent from those events that shape our lives.

Kevin McCurdy is also quoted in the article as saying that “people value simplicity and accessibility. Paper is simple and accessible for preserving memories, and gets your attention.”

The Value and Challenge of Yearbooks

Based on the success of photo books (and the belief that customers would cherish images in yearbooks that document important experiences), Picaboo expanded from photo books into digital yearbooks for both high school and college students.

The firm has noted the problem with traditional yearbooks as being the long turn-around time. Many activities in the last months of the school year (such as the senior prom and graduation) cannot be included in yearbooks due to the often 90-day turn-around from submission of print book layout files to delivery of bound volumes.

Particularly in an environment in which photo sharing applications have taught people to expect their images immediately, long book printing schedules have become a problem. Digital printing can be the solution, according to Picaboo. Picaboo can deliver print books in three weeks instead of three months.

In addition, orders for yearbooks in many cases must be submitted up to 12 months prior to publication, so there is often an overabundance of books the school must store or discard at the end of the year. Picaboo’s digital printing capabilities can solve this problem, too, since schools can order the exact number of books they need.

John Lippman’s Valley News article goes on to say that Picaboo considered a number of options when expanding outward from photo books, including wedding books, group sports books, and adoption books, noting that “all three involve deeply personal events in people’s lives that they document on their smartphones and for which preserving the memories in a paper-bound format is suitable.” (Kevin McCurdy)

What Picaboo does (and this includes both photo books and yearbooks) is provide an easy way for clients to create something both lasting and accessible using digital photos shot with cameras and smartphones. Even if digital photography has made taking pictures easier, and even if you no longer need to buy an envelope full of photo prints, there still is the problem of choosing, organizing, and presenting selected images in an attractive and useful format—rather than just shoving the envelope of photos in a drawer.

Picaboo has created online, cloud-based software that makes it easy to produce either photo books or yearbooks, which can then be digitally printed and shipped to clients in a timely manner.

What You Can Learn from Picaboo’s Success

I think there’s a wealth of information here to consider and apply to your own work.

  1. Certain things are primal. People seem to need paper copies of at least some images. They may not print all of their photos, but they want to print some of them. They want something physical and permanent to hold in their hands. This means photo books will be around for a while.
  2. I think it also means print books in general will be around for a while, for the same reasons. There may not be as many, and they may be more focused and expensive, with higher production values, but they will still be in demand.
  3. People need ways to document important transitions and experiences in their lives. Picaboo has identified high school, college, adoption, sports, and weddings as fitting this description. I’d also include religious occasions such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We may not have as many rites of passage as we once did, but we still have the need for order, permanence, and even celebration of some key events.
  4. Personal occasions such as these often, if not usually, dictate small print book press runs. The books have a high emotional value but a limited audience. Digital printing is ideal for such products, particularly as digital output quality improves in leaps and bounds year over year.
  5. Applying all of these concepts and observations to your work will help you determine what products to commit to paper and what products to keep in digital format. In addition, this approach will help you determine which jobs lend themselves to offset printing and which lend themselves to digital output, whether due to their schedule or the shorter length of their press runs.

Custom Printing: What Is an Infographic?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and based on my research, I think that’s because the brain can process images more quickly than text. Images, the brain processes all at once, while text enters awareness in a linear fashion.

The Challenge

An associate, client, and friend of mine from college (all the same person) who edits and designs print books for a number of US government organizations and NGOs (including the World Bank, EU, and UN), came to me with a project involving “infographics.” Having only a cursory knowledge of the subject from commercial printing trade journals, I decided to do some research.

One of the first things I found was that the subway map in Washington, DC, which I had considered immensely useful and easy to read for the last 40 years, was an infographic, as were many of the graphics I had seen, increasingly, in all number of magazines. The concept was “hot,” so my interest grew as I read more. I wanted to know why they were so popular.

What Is an Infographic?

In Wikipedia, which is where I often begin my research on a topic, I read that:

“Information graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly. They can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends.”

(Doug Newsom and Jim Haynes (2004). Public Relations Writing: Form and Style. p.236.
Mark Smiciklas (2012). The Power of Infographics: Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect with Your Audience.
Heer, J., Bostock, M., & Ogievetskey, V. (2010). A tour through the visualization zoo. Communications of the ACM, 53(6), 59-67.
Card, Scott (2009). Information visualization. In A. Sears & J. A. Jacko (Eds.), Human-Computer Interaction: Design Issues, Solutions, and Applications (pp. 510-543). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.)

The Wikipedia article goes on to discuss how vast amounts of information can be conveyed through these charts/images. They can help readers grasp trends, and visualize relationships among various elements and processes. Due to the structure of the charts, the reader can know immediately what information is the most important, see how it relates to other information, and come away with not only data but also insight into a process (i.e., knowledge).

So it wasn’t all about presenting vast amounts of information; rather the goal was to give the reader an intuitive, visually-processed epiphany. Ironically, the article did note that an incentive toward using more and more infographics was the decreasing attention span of readers and the easy availability of infographic-creation software. To that I would add the increasing speed of business and life and the need for an immediate transfer of vast amounts of information into the human brain. After all, what better way to do this than visually (since vision is our primary sense).

Back to My Client’s Job

So in this particular case, my client the designer hired me to help prepare infographics for a major government organization. She needed me to help her come up with ideas and images, which she would then use to draw the graphics for the print book.

Here’s how I prepared for our meetings:

  1. I read all the descriptions of charts and graphics the author had provided. There were 11 for this particular booklet. The author had drawn rudimentary boxes and arrows, but for the most part his charts were text on a page, without imagery and without a clear presentation of the relationships among elements within the graphics.
  2. I read some short articles by the author describing his thesis, as well as two chapters from his booklet. From these I could wrap my brain around four or five concepts (and a general theme) within his work. Almost everything in the samples I read pertained to these few concepts, albeit in minute detail.
  3. I reviewed several hundred images of infographics through Google Images, and I sent links to about twenty of these to my client. I chose infographics that visually demonstrated linkages, directions, causality, and such. Most of the charts and graphs (or “seeds” for these infographics) the author had provided could be tied to (a) processes over time, and (b) certain processes that were more efficient than other processes. Therefore, these were the kinds of infographics I looked for in Google Images. I wanted to give my friend the designer some starting points for her creativity.
  4. I noticed that all of the charts/graphs (infographic prototypes) that the author had given my friend the designer lacked any imagery. So I made a list of several icons and images I thought might pertain to his thesis. Again, my goal was just to spark the designer’s creativity. But I did want her to make the infographics “personal.” I thought they should include some humanizing element, and not just words, boxes, and arrows.
  5. I encouraged the designer to identify key words in the text of the charts and graphs. If she highlighted them in some way (all caps, increased size, reversed type when other type was surprinted, etc.), she could identify for the reader which concepts were most important. (I told her it was like buying a “pre-underlined textbook” at a thrift store. You could read only the highlighted type and still get the gist of the chapter—but faster than by reading the whole print book.)
  6. I encouraged her to add arrows and any other devices she could find to show relationships among ideas. In one case, for instance, she used a winding road with various icons and text to show progression of ideas and activities over a period of time (kind of like a board game).
  7. I suggested that she make sure the graphics contained white (reversed type), black (thickened rule lines around boxes as well as enlarged black type, and gray (color screens within the boxes). These could be used to group elements (and distinguish one idea from another) since they created visual contrast.
  8. Then she noted that she had purchased a series of graphic images provided specifically for the creation of infographics. Combining these with the samples I had sent her of other people’s infographic work, the designer developed her own series of 11 draft infographics, which we then batted back and forth: modifying, amplifying, adjusting, and simplifying as necessary.

Now we’ll see how the client responds.

What You Can Learn

You might want to take a similar approach to creating infographics. I’ll bet that sooner or later you’ll be faced with this task. It seems to be the new wave of graphic imagery.

Book Printing: Short-run/Quick-turn Options

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

As a printing broker, I’ve been providing book printing services for one particular client for about a decade. I’ve always taken the print book to the same shop because this printer has done such a good job for such a reasonable price. (Although periodically I have gotten multiple bids to prove this to my client.)

The book in question is a 600-page case-bound text with gold foil stamping on the cover and a two-color dust jacket. It is just under 8.5” x 11” in size (slightly smaller than true-size due to its being printed on a heatset web press rather than a sheetfed press).

This year, after keeping in close contact with my client for what seemed like months after the prior year’s deadline, I finally learned that the print book needed to be produced in three weeks instead of the usual six.


Needless to say, I was aghast. The book printer that had produced this text book year after year required six weeks due to the extensive work needed for case binding. Plus, the printer didn’t have in-house case binding, so the book would need to be produced in one location and then bound in another: hence, the six-week turn.

So I got creative and had an epiphany. Could I deliver a partial shipment in three weeks to be followed by the balance? My client was ok with this. She only needed 250 copies within the three-week period.

I approached the vendor I had been using. He said that since all printing and finishing operations had to be completed sequentially before a new step could occur (all books printed before any could be bound, for instance), my suggestion was not viable.

The 250-copy target for the three-week period got me thinking, though, and I started asking the printers I frequent about digitally printing the book. At 600-pages, case-bound, I assumed the job would be extraordinarily expensive.

I Approached Four Printers

With this new direction in mind, I approached the four printers I knew had the most thorough knowledge of current developments in digital printing.

  1. The first has an HP T230 (a web-fed, inkjet production press made for print books and marketing materials). This would have been ideal. Unfortunately, his plant had just been bought and was divesting itself of its digital equipment. So, his answer was “no bid.”
  2. The second is a book printer in the Midwest (halfway across the country from me). Freight would be costly (books are heavy), but the run was short, and prices in that particular location were lower than here on the East Coast. Unfortunately, his price for a 650-copy run was high (he had suggested printing 250 copies digitally to meet the three-week schedule and the remaining 400 copies via offset lithography within a 32-working-day schedule). The concept was good, but the combined digital and offset run cost too much.
  3. The third is a local book printer that has actively sought my business for months. I had liked the samples and responsive service. In addition, this book printer had just bought a large-format HP Indigo 10000, which would allow printing more pages at once, driving down the digital printing price and making it more competitive with offset. Unfortunately, the pricing was also high.
  4. The fourth has been a charm. Although we’re still in final negotiations, here’s what happened. This printer has in-house binding and digital printing equipment appropriate for the case-bound book’s black-only interior. Regarding the binding work, this printer could do the entire job within the tight deadline since all work would be done in-house. This book printer’s price was close to $10K less than the other vendors’ prices due to the in-house case binding. Bingo. I think what has made this even more compelling is that the sales rep has actively sought my business for over a year. Her samples have been stellar, and all the samples have directly pertained to my work (the sales rep has done her homework).

What You Can Learn

I’m far too superstitious to say this is a done deal. However, I’m very encouraged by the direction in which things are going. My client will get her print books in one-half the prior year’s time-frame. Here’s what you can learn from this:

  1. If a printer is courting you—with good samples and responsive service tailored to your particular work—consider the vendor for your job. Vet everything carefully, but if all works out, you may get a good deal and exceptional quality and service.
  2. If your job is recurring (like my client’s annual textbook), book printers may be even more interested (and flexible with prices and schedules). They know you could come back again and again, year after year, if you’re happy.
  3. Notice which sales reps are selling you their services and which sales reps are “helping you to buy” what you need. The latter are partners and consultants. They are in short supply and are valuable.
  4. Think outside the box, as they say. If your job has to be done yesterday, consider whether a partial delivery will work, followed by the balance of the job. Also, consider digital printing—but look at samples carefully. Not every digital press is an HP Indigo or an HP T230.
  5. Get everything in writing—from several vendors. Check all paperwork and emails carefully. Match them to each other. Then check them again.
  6. Look for equipment as well as print providers. Read printers’ equipment lists. Study up on the various new technologies. Look for the HP Indigo, Kodak NexPress, Kodak Prosper, and HP T230. Then ask for samples to see if they’re appropriate for your job.
  7. Look for in-house binding. Even the printer that had done this job the prior year would not have been able to match the specific qualities of the binding (particularly the cover cloth) for a digital book. In contrast, printer #4 could do everything in house and could therefore replicate the prior year’s binding almost exactly.

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