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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: Finding Your Optimal Minimum Print Order

A commercial printing client whom I have mentioned before regularly reprints a series of color swatch books during the year. They are a bit like miniature PMS color swatch books, but their purpose is to help my client’s clients choose colors for make-up and clothing based on their complexions.

These little books are approximately 1.5” x 3.5” in size, are 118 pages plus covers, and are bound with a single screw and post assembly in one corner. The printer prints the swatches, drills and round corners the pages, collates the pages, and then binds each print book prior to shrink-wrapping it.

There are 28 master copies with titles related to the four seasons. During the year my client reprints a certain number of copies of each master text based on the orders she has received from her clients. The most recent reprint, for instance, was for 81 books. For these she paid $1,862.00, or $22.99 per book. On another occasion, she printed 154 books for $2,809.00 or $18.24 per book.

Explaining the Numbers

The first question most people will ask is why the unit costs are different. Why should my client have to pay $18.24 per book for one reprint and then several months later, when she has another batch of customers interested in her product, why should she pay $22.99 per book? Moreover, how can she know what to charge her clients if the unit cost keeps changing?

First of all, the overall price at any level, whether 81 books or 154 books, reflects two things: fixed costs and variable costs. I never formally studied economics, but I have learned this over the years. The fixed costs reflect the activities needed to prepare the job and set up the print run. These tasks include loading and opening the job files for my client’s product, making any corrections, producing PDF proofs, and, after proof approval, reloading the job into the computer and preparing for the actual print run.

My client usually prints between one and six copies of each master print book depending on her clients’ needs. This is one of the reasons the job is printed on an HP Indigo press. That is, her job is produced digitally via electrophotography (laser printing). Fortunately this involves less make-ready of the press than offset lithography, but there is still some work to do before the actual custom printing process. After the set up is complete, the press run cost varies based on the number of copies produced: hence, the range noted above from $1,862.00 to $2,809.00 for 81 to 154 copies. The length of the press run itself reflects the variable costs because these change depending on the number of copies produced, ranging from $18.24 to $22.99 per book.

Ideally, my client will produce more rather than fewer books. This actually benefits everyone. The printer makes more, and my client pays less per print book (you can see graphs of this sort of thing in economics books, where the unit cost drops as the manufacturing run increases).

If my client wanted significantly more copies of each master book (and a printer would need to figure out the exact number that would be appropriate for this), it would be less expensive to produce the books via offset lithography rather than laser printing. In this case, the make-ready (all activities, in this case, related to getting the offset press ready to produce the first and then all subsequent copies of each page) would be more involved. It’s a more time consuming, and more complex, procedure to make and hang custom printing plates on the press, prepare the ink, wash up the press when needed, etc., than it is to run clean, contained digital printing equipment.

That said, there would be a large magnitude of an increase in the final number of printed pages, so the overall cost of the print run (in the multiple thousands of copies range) would yield a lower unit cost (fixed preparation costs plus variable job-run costs divided by the number of books in the press run).

As noted before, in your own work it is prudent to ask your printer where the optimal transition point would be in choosing digital laser vs. offset lithography for your print books. It will depend on the number of copies and the number of pages in your print book, as well as the commercial printing equipment your supplier has on his factory floor.

Your Minimum Order Based on Page Count and Press Run

My client just took orders and deposits from a handful of customers and now wants to produce a reprint costing approximately $1,000.00. That’s her target “spend.” So I asked the book printer how many final copies this would yield, assuming that there could be any number of copies of any of the 28 master print books.

Since the $1,862.00 press run yielded 81 copies, I guessed that $1,000.00 might yield 20 or 30 copies, at most, since a lot of the $1,000.00 would be committed to the make-ready costs.

So I was surprised to receive the following cost spreadsheet from the printer:

5 copies: $1,765.00
50 copies: $1,806.00
81 copies: $1,862.00

In his email, the printer noted that the high cost was due to the set up time and minimum charges for lamination.

Now upon further review, I also thought about the following. The round cornering is a die-cutting operation (a metal die cuts rounded corners on all sides of each color swatch card). So between the laminating of each sheet (done by an outside vendor) and the die-cutting, the job is more complex than initially conceived, and it also involves minimum orders for the subcontractor to avoid his losing money on a short run.

Therefore, the book printer advised that my client use the 81-copy press run as a target minimum order (an order yielding a reasonable unit cost and factoring in all preparation and clean-up costs). This would avoid the $353.00 unit cost for 5 copies or $36.12 unit cost for 50 copies (as noted in the printer’s spreadsheet above).

With this information plus the job history of printing 81 to 154 copies over the last year or so, my client could get a really good idea of how much each print book (each unit) would cost, depending on how much her overall “spend” was ($1,862.00 to $2,809.00 ), and she could determine an amount to charge her clients for each book that would cover the costs and also yield a profit. (On small orders, then, she would make less per unit; the cost to her clients would be closer to what the printer had charged her per unit. And on larger orders for clients, she would make more per unit.)

Again, it would behoove her to wait until the last possible moment to receive client orders and then place an order with her book printer. Larger orders would always be better.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I’d encourage you to do what I did. Get an economics textbook at a thrift store and study the section on fixed expenses, variable expenses, unit costs, and marginal costs (the cost of “one more unit” of anything produced). It will be much more interesting than it was in school because it will apply directly to your own print buying work, right now. Studying this will help you understand why longer press runs are better.

Learn the differences between digital printing (such as inkjet and laser printing) and analog printing (such as offset lithography, screen printing, flexography, or gravure). Pay particular attention to the steps involved in “make-ready” for each kind of commercial printing technology. This will help you understand the differences in fixed and variable costs for different jobs produced with different technology.

Discuss with your printer what the optimal transition point would be for your print book (whether you should print it digitally or via offset lithography). You will need to tell him the page count and number of copies needed.

Don’t assume the quality will be exactly the same for digital vs. analog (traditional offset). Ask for printed samples, preferably with whatever cover coating you have chosen (UV or matte laminate, for instance). Fortunately, digital printing is getting to the point that it usually looks great compared to offset lithography, but if your job involves 4-color images, it’s always best to review printed samples before making your decision.

And if you don’t like the samples of a digitally printed cover for whatever reason (different digital technologies, such as laser vs. inkjet, or different brands of digital printing equipment yield different levels of quality), consider hybrid printing. For instance, you may want to produce the text of your book digitally and then have the printer offset print the covers. It’s always smart to discuss all of these options with your print sales rep based on both price and quality, and to confirm your choice based on your review of printed samples.

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