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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: A Few Thoughts on Printing Trade Customs

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Assumptions tend to get us into trouble, as much a part of human nature as they might be. And in the arena of commercial printing, this is no exception.

I have been working with a client for several weeks to find a commercial printing supplier for his rather unique poster, an 18” x 24” piece on 80# cover stock that will be printed (4-color process, with bleeds), UV coated for protection, and then coated with between one and three passes of black scratch-off coating in selected spots.

Based on past experience, I found a printer rather quickly with whom I was comfortable going forward with this particular print brokering job. Then my client, who wants to protect his own business interests (quite understandably), made it clear that the printer would need to sign a non-compete agreement to proceed with between one and three separate poster printings.

The incident, which didn’t go well with the printer initially, got me thinking about all the assumptions we make about the commercial printing trade. Now, perhaps with the Covid-19 lockdown and other current events, it’s easy to become polarized with a vendor and miss an otherwise mutually advantageous custom printing partnership (for both the printer and the client).

First, I will tell you what I suggested to my client. Then I will list a few more–sometimes spoken, sometimes assumed–printing trade customs with which you should familiarize yourself if you buy commercial printing.

The Non-Compete Agreement

First, I asked my client to put in writing what he wanted, and felt he needed, to protect his design from competition. He wrote a short statement, which the printer’s CEO declined to approve. My client felt dismissed and planned to walk away from an otherwise advantageous deal. So I offered to ask the printer how he would amend the non-compete agreement to make it acceptable. He agreed to at least consider it. And my client and I were happy (provisionally) again. Of course, I did look for, and select, a back-up printer who could potentially do this specialized work.

So what can we learn?

    1. Everything is negotiable. However, not everything will be agreeable to both partners (printer and client). The best thing to do is ask for what you want (in writing), and then be willing to entertain options. At an impasse, you might do well to even suggest the counter-offer yourself.


    1. We live in a litigious society. Don’t take it personally. Just understand why a printer might not want to sign something like this.


  1. Look into other ways to get what you need. Both the printer and I, separately, suggested using copyright protection to do the same thing as a non-compete agreement.

Nothing has been decided. We’ll see what happens. It is, however, in the printer’s interest to get new work, and it is in my client’s interest to work with a printer who understands how to properly use UV coating over process inks, and then apply rubber-based scratch-off covering such that the product arrives in my client’s hands in pristine condition.

Overs/Unders (Overage/Underage)

Here’s another assumption. When you ask for 10,000 copies of something, that is what the printer will deliver. Actually, a printer, according to trade custom, can deliver up to 10 percent over or under this amount—and charge you, or credit you, for the cost as appropriate. This is because in most cases (in offset printing more often than digital printing) you will need to produce extra copies of a job so the expected amount of spoilage (already printed press signatures of a book, for instance, that will get damaged during the perfect binding process) does not unduly subtract from the overall delivery amount. Hence, the printer can deliver up to 10 percent more or fewer copies within the accepted standards of the printing trade.

This is often negotiable. Some printers I work with only charge for three to five percent overs/unders. Some give away overs for free (usually only on small jobs—almost never on print books). Other printers (most) will allow you to request “no unders.” However, in this case the printer can charge you for double the standard overage. So read the contract carefully.

Payment Terms and Credit

Things are tight now. Some printers have to fight to get paid. Understandably, most of my clients are “cash” customers. This means they don’t need to have the printer check their credit and “offer terms.” The terms are essentially payment within a particular time after delivery of the job, with a potential discount if the balance is paid by a specific, earlier time.

Cash is easy. As noted, it avoids a credit check. It does, however, also involve payment up front–not after delivery. The usual terms requested by the printers I frequent are 50 percent before the job starts and 50 percent before the job ships to the client.

In a world where we usually get something and then pay for it, this may be counterintuitive. It protects the printer because a lot of labor and materials go into producing a commercial printing job (for instance a $60,000 run of perfect-bound textbooks). This includes all of the activities of the people in prepress, the printer at the press, and the people in the finishing department (who do the folding, cutting, and binding). It also includes the cost of paper. Understandably, the printer doesn’t want to risk losing a lot of money, so he requires payment up front, as noted. So it’s a good idea to ask about payment terms early.

That said, it is also industry standard practice to ask the printer to send out samples of a printed job prior to final payment. You don’t get the whole job after just paying for half, but you do get to see the samples and make sure they are acceptable before the final payment, before the entire job is shipped to you.

On another note, you can often pay with your credit card. But, that said, if the printer incurs a service charge (let’s say a 3 percent “convenience fee” from a particular credit card company), the printer will understandably pass this on to you.

“FOB” and Delivery

Depending on where you look, this can mean either “freight on board” or “free on board.” “FOB printer’s warehouse,” or “FOB origin” means you own the goods–and are responsible for the cost of transport plus any damage that might occur during shipping to you–once the job leaves the printer’s loading dock.

As with anything else, everything is negotiable. You may want to ask for “FOB destination,” which means the ownership doesn’t transfer from the printer to you until the job is delivered. Either option might have a different price. Some printers deliver for free. (Actually the truth is that they work the delivery into their price.) Working with such a printer may well be worth the cost.

What Can We Learn from This?

Your specification sheet is a contract. You will sleep better at night if you approach it this way. Thirty years ago when I started buying commercial printing, I would review the printers’ contracts and estimates and notice that they were often incomplete. So I started making up my own all-purpose printing specification sheet to deal with everything. You may want to do the same. You can use it as a guide when you read your printers’ estimates and contracts.

You may also want to read all of the information on the back of the printers’ contracts. This “boilerplate” holds a wealth of information on what is, and is not, acceptable trade custom in commercial printing. This includes overs, unders, shipping, even damage and acceptable flaws in the final job (trimming tolerances, for instance). You may even want to Google these terms, or look for a book entitled Getting It Printed by Mark Beach. (This book has a section addressing such trade customs.)

As they say, “Caveat emptor.” Buyer beware. Forewarned is forearmed. The more you know about printing trade customs and what is and is not acceptable delivery, the better you will be at buying the highest quality commercial printing work for a reasonable price. Now the corollary, and the good news, is that most of the printers you will work with (particularly the ones with whom you cultivate professional relationships over time) will know these terms and conditions/printing trade customs, and when a problem arises, they will work with you to resolve it.

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