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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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Book Printing: Read the Fine Print in the Contract

It could be argued that nothing is more boring to read than a contract, except perhaps an insurance policy. However, if you buy commercial printing for a living, it behooves you to at least skim the contract looking for a number of key agreements between you and the custom printing vendor. It will save you money, undue surprise, and overall stress.

First of all, if you’re buying a commercial printing job like the printing of a brochure, you may never see a contract. I regularly get pricing for small jobs in the body of an email. Granted, even this is a contract, but the more lengthy contracts usually accompany estimates for book printing. I’m not sure why, although I’ve noticed this for the past (almost) 30 years I’ve been buying printing. Perhaps it’s because book printing costs tend to be high when compared to many final bills for commercial (non-book) print jobs.

What to Look For

I received a book printing bid today accompanied by a section entitled “Terms.” “Terms and Conditions” and “Printing Trade Customs” are other phrases to look for because these address such issues as who pays for delivery, who is responsible for damages during delivery, what kind of “overage” you can expect to pay for, and other, similar issues.

First of all, anything entitled “Trade Customs” or “Printing Trade Customs” or any similar language will be broad in scope because it will usually pertain to agreements considered reasonable across the entire commercial printing industry. It may help you to contact your printer, request such a listing, and familiarize yourself with it.

“Printing Trade Customs” boilerplate language usually addresses such matters as who owns the intermediate work of a print job (after you submit files and before the job delivers). When negatives of book pages were produced (prior to direct to plate) and these negatives were stored, a printer’s policy on this matter would be useful to know if you, as a print buyer, ever required reprints of a job.

Now, in a completely digital world, it helps to know for how long your printer will store your electronic files. For instance, a print brokering client of mine regularly reprints selections from her 28-copy color swatch book series. These are fashion color print books (like PMS swatch books but specifically for choosing fashion and make-up colors). Each book is 118 pages plus cover in length. For my client, it helps that the book printer saves all of my client’s master copies on his digital storage drives.

To initiate this last reprint, all my client had to do was upload one revised PDF file of one page for one of the 28 master books, and then approve the proofs for all master books and release the job to print. If the printer didn’t have a policy for saving customer art files for a certain length of time, my client would have to resubmit the 28-master-copy job each time.

So issues such as these are often addressed in the boilerplate printing contract language, and it is therefore wise to familiarize yourself with the wording and its meaning.

File Submission Guidelines

To get back to the “Terms” section I received today with a book estimate, this particular document addresses file submission guidelines (how to prepare PDF files for the text and whether to submit native InDesign files for the cover of the print book job). The contract sent me to a website describing all PDF parameters and presumably offering downloadable “plug-in” files to set up the documents in ways compatible with the printer’s prepress workflow software.

The document also notes that the first half hour of system time the printer must spend to fix any problems in my file is free, but that additional time will be billed at $50.00 per hour. This is noteworthy for two reasons. It shows that submitting accurate, press-ready art files will save you money, checking the files a few times to cull out the errors will save you money, and retrieving any problematic files from the printer to fix yourself will save you money. Fortunately, this particular printer will notify you if file repairs will exceed one hour of their system time.

Printing Issues You Didn’t Mention in the RFQ

You may have forgotten to mention the heavy ink coverage or bleeds when you sent specs to the book printer and requested an estimate. It’s easy to forget this. But in this particular printer’s “Terms” section, the printer notes that upon receipt of the files, if there are any inconsistencies between your specs and the actual job, revised pricing will be sent to you before the job begins.

Granted, it’s better to know this before you get the final bill, but you can always avoid this surprise (sticker shock) by specifying all bleeds, heavy coverage, halftones, die cutting, foil stamping, and anything else that might cost extra money. If you’re not sure of what to include, then it’s smart to print out a laser copy of your job (selected pages, if it’s a book), mark these up with notations on color usage, cover coating, bleeds, and such, and then send the hard-copy sample to the printer.

You can also send a printed sample if you’re looking for a special effect, like a particular cover coating or perhaps a sculpted embossing job.

More Boilerplate Contract and “Terms” Language

“Materials prices are subject to the market rate” means that if paper prices go up, you cover the increased cost. A good way to control this cost is to keep your bids current. Most bids become stale (out of date) within a certain period of time. (The estimate I received today says the pricing is good for 45 days.) However, even within this time, if there’s a spike in paper prices, I’ll have to pay for it (or my client will). This is all “industry standard” language.

The “Terms” section also notes that I can be charged for 10 percent overs or credited for 10 percent unders. If I absolutely need a certain number of copies of a job (i.e., no unders), I’ll usually have to accept more overs than standard. (In this regard, 10 percent overs/unders is the norm.) Some printers don’t charge for overs. Others only charge for a lower number, such as 3 percent overs.

It’s prudent to discuss this with your printer early in the process, particularly if you can’t accept fewer than your requested number. (Let’s say you have a 3,000-name mailing list and you order exactly 3,000 brochures, but your printer shorts you by 300. That’s a problem—but it’s probably still industry-standards compliant. So discuss this early.

Also, look for the word “tolerance” in your contract. This is an important word. It means the acceptable amount of error for a trim, for instance. Post-press cutting equipment isn’t perfect. For this particular printer (according to the contract I received), a 1/8” error is acceptable. To you, this means that you should keep any page numbers (folios) or any other printed matter away from the trim edge. Or you might lose it or part of it to the trimmer.

Also, remember that for successive folds and trims, folding and trimming errors become magnified.

“FOB Printer’s Plant” means the printer puts the job on the freight carrier truck at his press plant, but then it is no longer his responsibility. Personally, I like to have the printer arrange for the freight. Then the job is mine only after it has been delivered to me or my client.

Usually under “Terms” (as is the case with the contract I received today), the printer notes the cost of using a credit card as payment. In this case it’s three percent. This just means he is passing on to me what Visa charges him.

Finally, this particular “Terms” contract notes that if something goes wrong, the printer is only liable for the print job, not lost sales or any other damages. This is how this relates to you: If your job has to be somewhere at a particular time or it’s useless (let’s say a particular marketing brochure), it’s up to you to work out a schedule that both you and the printer can meet. If the job is delivered late, you can’t sue for lost sales.

What You Can Learn From This “Terms” Document

Be forewarned. This is just a sampling of information that could probably fill multiple books on printing contracts. I just pulled a few terms from the contract I received this morning. The best way for you to be prepared is to request such a document from your printer and read it carefully. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to get several contracts from several printers.

Also, Google “Printing Trade Customs” online and see what comes up. Think of all this research as an investment, and expect it to be a process you spread over a number of years, learning a little bit at a time. But do make it a practice to learn the trade customs. It will save you money.

“Plan B” is to be proactive. Write everything down. Compose your own spec sheet and job description. Print out a complete laser copy of the job (as mentioned before) with notations for color placement, tabs, die cuts, bleeds, cover coating, varnish, etc., etc, etc. Then collect any relevant printed samples, and meet with your printer to discuss everything.

In fact, the best thing you can do to avoid surprises is to consult your printer early in the process and follow up often thereafter.

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