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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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: Four Print Jobs, One New Client

I recently had the opportunity to provide pricing for four new custom printing jobs for a prospective client. It’s a writers’ organization that provides educational and promotional services. This group was open to my interest as a commercial printing broker since I have produced perfect bound print books for one of theipackager members for almost ten years now.

My Prospective Client’s Printed Products

This particular client has an interesting mix of products:

  1. A twice-yearly catalog. Currently it is 8.5” x 11”, saddle stitched, 40 pages, with a press run of 11,000 copies.
  2. A twice-yearly perfect-bound book of poetry, in 8.5” x 11” format, with a length of 140 pages and a press run of 1,000 copies.
  3. A once-yearly, 80-page, perfect-bound book with a format of 5.8” x 8.3” and a 150-copy press run.
  4. A twice-yearly promotional letter with a #10 envelope, a #9 envelope, and a business reply card (BRC). The press run is 3,000 copies with a match mailing.

The first thing my prospective client asked was whether I could suggest a single printer that could do all of these jobs. I said I thought that would be unlikely (or at least somewhat limiting) for the following reasons:

  1. When I looked closely at the sample catalog, I saw that it had been printed on what looked like a newspaper stock (rough and a bit dingy; that is, the whiteness and brightness of the stock, along with the coarseness of the halftone screens and occasional press roller marks, suggested that it had been printed on a dedicated newspaper press, not a conventional offset press. Most printers that own a newspaper press focus exclusively on groundwood products like newspapers and catalogs.
  2. The book of poetry was easy. Almost any printer could produce this print book, although based on the press run I assumed it would be printed most economically via offset lithography.
  3. The 80-page book would need to be produced via digital custom printing, since it had a press run of only 150 copies. To use offset printing for such a short run would make the unit cost prohibitive.
  4. The promotional letter required a lettershop. A lettershop focuses (often primarily) on producing large volume mailings (3,000 is small) along with inserting services, addressing via inkjet, processing the mail, and entering sorted and metered promotional pieces into the mail stream.

Under the circumstances, my client understood that I could find a better match for the jobs if I found the proper printer for each job (with the best equipment and pricing) rather than looking for a one-stop shop.

How I Approached the Bidding Process

As with anything else in life, the best approach is to break down a complex job into successive logical steps. So that is what I did.

  1. I identified at least two printers I trusted to do each of the four kinds of work. In some cases I chose three, but I also was on a bit of a schedule, so I wanted to get at least something back to my prospective client relatively quickly. I knew I could do more shopping if I could keep my client’s interest (i.e., provide good initial bids and quality samples).
  2. I composed a list of specifications for each job, everything from the finished size and press run to the paper specs and use of color, binding, etc. I sent these to my client for her approval and additions or changes.
  3. I composed a spreadsheet noting the overall price (including shipping) and unit cost for each vendor’s job estimate. I did this so I would have one spreadsheet with which I could determine both a cost comparison and also a comparison of the specifications. (Different printers provided not only different pricing but also slightly different specs on the jobs, and I wanted a way to see exactly how the costs—and what they were based on—compared. That way I could determine what additional information I would need from each vendor.)
  4. I sent an RFQ (request for quotation) to each printer and waited for their response.

What I Received from the Printers

The first thing I found was that one of the newspaper printers I had chosen “no bid” the job. It didn’t fit their schedule or equipment. It is possible that the size of the catalog was a problem (8.5” x 11”), since the other printer offered 8” x 10.75”, full color throughout, saddle stitched, as an alternative.

I knew which newspaper press my client was currently using (she had told me), and I also knew that local newspaper printers were few. Therefore, I chose to accept this printer’s specifications and pricing for my vendor pricing grid.

Depending on my client’s reaction to the price and the format, I knew I could always expand my search. After all, an especially attractive price might induce my client to change the format slightly.

One of the other printers (whom I had worked with for almost twenty years) didn’t respond to my initial RFQ or my follow-up email, so I assumed they were not interested (too much work or other issues). It was unfortunate, since this printer could have produced the offset work (the 1,000-copy poetry book), the promotional letter and mailing, and the digital perfect-bound print book.

A third printer offered especially attractive pricing on the promotional mailing and the digitally printed book, but unfortunately they were high on the offset printed poetry book.

A fourth printer was expensive overall.

A fifth printer that focused exclusively on print books was the low bid for the offset-printed book of poetry. Fortunately they were not just lower but almost half the price of the next lowest bid. My guess was that they did not have to subcontract anything (they had all necessary equipment in house), and since they are in the Midwest, they may also have a lower pricing structure based on their local economy.

Then I updated the spreadsheet.

Next Steps

It is a truism that almost every bid from every printer includes a mistake, an omission from the RFQ, or a substitution, so I went through all bids again and again. Then I went through them again, comparing everything to the original specification sheets my client had approved. Each time I found something else, and so I made a list of questions for each vendor. Some of these had to do with paper substitutions (not a problem as long as the paper specs–such as the brightness, whiteness, opacity, caliper, etc.–matched my requested paper). Other issues had to do with missing specs (including the cost of inserting all elements of the promotional campaign in envelopes, for instance, but not including the cost of address inkjetting).

I sent email lists of questions to each vendor, and again I waited.

Then I incorporated the adjusted specs and/or adjusted pricing into my master spreadsheet, so I could still compare each vendor’s price (overall cost plus unit cost) to the other vendors’ prices. When all was said and done, and when I had checked everything twice more, I wrote to my client. I presented the pricing spreadsheet and a list of specifications the winning bidder had sent me for each job (so my client would see any changes in specs the printer had made before bidding). I also listed the changes I had found plus my reactions to everything (random thoughts, views about each printer’s strengths, response to any changes printers had made to the specs, etc.).

If my client shows interest in the pricing, I plan to have the printers send out printed samples for her to review.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This is a complex process. That said, it may be a process you yourself must engage in during your work day. Consider the following:

  1. Not all printers will bid on the same specs. Look for changes in size, paper specs, color, cover coating, etc.. Look for any omissions, such as omitted physical proofs or missing shipping costs. Make sure you have composed a detailed, complete specification sheet (review it multiple times) before approaching the printers for the initial bids. Then compare the spec sheet to all estimates multiple times. Remember that your printers will probably provide their own version of your specs in their bids. Also, each printer will list the specs in a slightly different way (different wording as well as—in some cases—specs slightly different from the ones you had submitted for the bid).
  2. Quality is better than quantity. Only get bids from printers you trust completely.
  3. Realize that for specialty work—such as newspapers—your printer may very well change the specs. He may have a newspaper press that prints only certain trim sizes (for tabloid or broadsheet work). So keep an open mind. He may also be able to position full color on only certain pages of a newspaper as well. You may need to sacrifice color and page format for price, or you may choose to pay more (at another vendor) for more options.
  4. Remember that price is only a starting point. It is very important that you like the printed samples and that you feel comfortable interacting (via email and phone) with the printer. After all, you need to know that the final printed product will meet your needs.
  5. If possible, with a new printer, start with a small job and then build up to larger, more complex jobs once you and the vendor trust each other and have a good working relationship.

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