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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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Commercial Printing: The Final Stages of Print Buying

Sometimes you just have to go for it and make a decision: Printer A and not Printer B. It’s a bit of a gamble, a risk, particularly if it’s a high-ticket item.

I’m brokering a job for a designer whose client needs a complex binder containing 32 wood sample chips. Each is 1” x 2” x .5”. There are four interior pages of samples. The back sides of these pages are text pages or photos. When the inside pages are folded in (like a double gatefold), you have a 3” high binder, roughly 11” x 11” in dimension.

These will be quite expensive. Each book (in a 100-copy or 200-copy press run) will cost between $40 and $80, depending on the kind of product ordered and the specific commercial printing supplier chosen. At the moment, two manufacturers have provided bids reflecting what has turned out to be two different approaches to the same job.

For a first job with a custom printing vendor, how can you possibly make such a decision? Particularly when between $5,000 and $10,000 is on the line (along with your reputation)?

I’ll bet that you’ve been in a similar situation, if you’re a print buyer, designer, or a commercial printing supplier needing to farm out some specialized work that you don’t have the equipment to do in house. How do you make a choice like this? One that’s not just a spin of the roulette wheel?

The Backstory

First of all, this is what I’ve done so far to get to the point of having two legitimate bids:

    1. I asked a colleague and friend with decades of experience in the field of custom printing. He has contacts at the (only a handful of) vendors who can do this kind of work.


    1. I submitted specs to the Printing Industry Exchange to see if there were any other vendors interested.


  1. I asked one other colleague, a printer.

All of this yielded only two solid estimates. Both vendors came from my discussion with the colleague who knows multiple vendors (and the industry in general) and who had also been a print broker. What I learned from this is that a print consultant or broker may well know more about the overall commercial printing industry than an individual printer will know. The individual printer may be more focused on his own print shop than on the industry (i.e., more depth, less breadth, of knowledge).

So what did I learn from this?

Always go through people you know, who know the field. Granted, at this point I can check references for these two binder manufacturers, but actually my colleague’s referral is all I need (based on his contacts in the field and his level of knowledge). In your own print buying work, you might want to also check references. Just keep in mind that it’s human nature for a vendor to give you references from people who are cheerleaders for their work.

The Next Steps

This is what I did after receiving two solid bids for my client’s floor-sample-binder. I requested photos from the two vendors to show exactly what their products would be like (materials and construction). I also asked that the two vendors send printed samples of their work to my client. These would achieve two goals:

    1. They would show my client the overall level of quality each vendor could provide.


  1. They would show whether each vendor understood my client’s needs (based on the job specifications, my client’s overall description of her needs, and her photos) as reflected in the samples they would send her.

(Keep in mind that I had initially sent both binder vendors a list of specifications, a description of the binder my client envisioned, still photos of binders she liked, and her video of a sample binder showing how it would open and close and where the text and artwork would print.)

Furthermore, there was only one main difference in the two offerings from the two vendors:

    1. The first offered a turned-edge binder with an offset-printed litho sheet wrapped around chipboard. Inside the binder were rigid wells (i.e., a build and a die-cut cover sheet) into which the wood samples could be placed (and maybe glued).


  1. The second vendor offered almost the same thing, but the wells for the sample wood pieces were cut out of foam (rather than chipboard) and then covered with printed litho paper with die-cuts for the wood samples.

The second vendor’s offering was a little more classy. However, it would also cost almost twice as much as the first vendor’s product.

So the take-away at this point is that we have two estimates, two ways of approaching the job, and sets of photos reflecting each option. Furthermore, we now have printed samples on the way to my client.

What’s next?

Next, Next Steps

Both manufacturers will make prototypes. These will cost approximately $200 each. In my opinion, in the entire job, no other $200 will be better spent. This is an investment. Not a cost. It will protect my client. She and the client she represents will have no surprises as to how all the various die cut pieces of paper will go together. It will be a hand made prototype, but that’s irrelevant. It will show exactly how everything will look and feel and operate. Any logistical issues can be addressed in a revised prototype (for another $200–again, well-spent money).

Between the printed samples and the prototype, my client will learn:

    1. The level of quality to expect.


  1. The good points and bad points of each vendor’s specific approach to the design issue (not the artwork on the binder but the binder itself as a physical, operating product).

My client, the designer, recently asked me which vendor I would choose. My response was that I would choose neither at the moment. And in your own print buying work, when faced with a similar progression from bids and photos to potential prototypes, I would encourage you to make the final decision at the last possible moment, when you have as much information as you can possibly collect.

In my own client’s case, I’d encourage her to have her client (the floor supply store) commission both vendors to create prototypes before choosing one or the other. Price plus reputation (based on my colleague’s advice), product photos, and the prototype will eventually make the overall decision of one vendor over the other relatively easy. And in either case, at this point, nothing but time and the cost of the prototypes will have been spent in gathering enough information to make a prudent choice. It’s still a little bit of a gamble but far less so than it could have been.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study?

Here are some things to walk away with and ponder when you’re buying commercial printing from a new vendor, particularly if it’s a custom product that will cost a lot to produce:

    1. Start with a description of the product you want.


    1. Turn this description into a list of printer’s specs: printing, binding, coating, foil stamping… (all prepress, press, and finishing operations). But also keep the general description from which you made the spec list.


    1. Take photos of any samples you like, and send these to potential vendors, requesting estimates and schedules.


    1. Review bids. Compare everything to everything. See what unique approaches different vendors offer to your design problem.


    1. Request and review printed samples.


    1. For anything complex, pay for a prototype. It protects you from any surprises. (It actually also protects the vendor from your displeasure, so it’s mutually advantageous.)


    1. Depend on references, but get these from people who know the field intimately: knowledgeable people you trust completely.


    1. Make your final decision later rather than earlier. The more information you have, the better.


    1. Proof early and often. That is, carefully and thoughtfully review the prototype, the printed samples, the printer’s template for your artwork (for decorating the product, in my case the binder), the PDF proofs of the art (or even physical hard-copy proofs if you want them). You cannot proof too much.


  1. Everything you see before you tell the vendor to go ahead and manufacture the entire press run will help you. If you take these steps, your decision of one vendor over another will, for the most part, make itself.

Then, all you can do is jump. At some point, that’s what you have to do. Just make sure your choice is a well-thought-out educated guess, not a gamble.

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