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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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Custom Printing: The Current Wild West of Print Buying

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

I’ve just received five print book titles to price for two clients. Two of these books have French flaps (the 3.5” flaps that fold in on the front and back cover of a perfect-bound print book, making it look a bit like a case-bound book with a dust jacket). They are a poetry book and a book of fiction respectively, both 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound books. One is 272 pages plus cover; one is 72 pages plus cover. Each of these two has a corresponding “reader’s galley,” a book (without French flaps) for 75 selected readers to review and comment on prior to production of the final editions.

The galleys don’t need the same high-quality production values as the final editions. After all, they are editing tools. However, they must look good enough to pique reader interest, since many of the 75 readers for each title have clout in the literary market.

In contrast, the final editions have to look spectacular, with beautiful design, flawless print quality, and such embellishments as French flaps and a hinge score. These will cost more to print but will also command a premium from regular print book buyers. The audience for these copies includes readers who like the feel, look, and smell of a physical book (compared to a digital book) and are willing to pay for this experience. For each title there will be 1,500 to 2,000 final-edition copies printed.

That’s four books. The fifth is a 220-page hardback book, 8.5” x 10.875”. It is a reprint of articles on governmental proceedings in Washington, DC. It goes to 300 subscribers who want a physical book rather than a digital edition. Each year the book gets shorter, and the press run drops.

The Case-Bound Book

Let’s start with the final editions, the case-bound books. These books used to go to a huge printer, a consolidator that owned many individual plants across the country. Each individual commercial printing plant would specialize in a particular kind of custom printing work: black-only text vs. color text, digital printing, long-run web-offset work vs. sheetfed-offset work. This particular printer started no-bidding the job as an offset product when the press run dropped below 1,000 copies.

I could have had the original book printer estimate the job as a digital printing project, but at that particular time this printer offered only limited binding options (i.e., not including the fabric used over the binders’ boards for the case binding, and the particular color and pattern of the endsheets, etc., for my client’s book). Why? Because it was no longer cost-effective to provide clients with unique, specific production materials when only a few customers would require them in a year’s time. Having one client buy the minimum run of binders’ cloth wouldn’t work either. It would make a job prohibitively expensive. So this particular printer had to standardize (i.e., pare down) its offerings.

You could say I was being obsessive in specifying a particular binding cloth, weave, and color, and a particular endsheet paper, but these books were specifically destined for paying subscribers who had bought the very same book (earlier editions) for many, many years. All editions had to look and feel the same, as the cost was especially high (due to the particular information the books contained about government proceedings and votes).

One year I happened to find a book printer that specialized in short runs. They were in the Midwest and didn’t realize how attractive their pricing was to a big city client on the East Coast. They could match the binding specifications (which was surprising, as noted before). So they printed the book (digitally) for a number of years with superior quality at a reasonable price.

Then Covid-19 hit. Estimates that used to take two days began to take two weeks (literally). Last year the production schedule stretched out at least four weeks past the agreed-upon date. And the quality went down. It was unpleasant, to say the least.

So this year (and I’m grateful that my client still wants to work with me), I found a new small printer. They can match almost all the binding specifications. (Keep in mind that, regarding printing as opposed to binding, most printers can produce the 220-page text, which is a simple digital print job.) If my client is willing to make a substitution for the endsheets, everything else in the bindery work will match. And the price, quality, and schedule are great.

This success is unusual for this particular time, during Covid-19 (i.e., given the smaller commercial printing staffs and less overall printing work, plus paper price increases). To be safe, I contacted a number of other printers as well, including the huge one I had worked with before. Interestingly enough, this printer now offers all of the specialized binding materials I had described.

Schedules are all over the map, from four weeks to 10 weeks after proof approval. To put this in perspective, back in the 1990s, I could get a six-week turn-around on 65,000 textbooks. And from 2000 to about 2019 I could get a four-week schedule (or less) on shorter press runs.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study (How This Pertains to You As a Print Buyer)

  1. Larger printers can often save you time and money, but they may call the shots in terms of schedule length and specific job parameters.
  2. These limited job parameters may include signature length or book length (80 pages but not 72 pages, for instance).
  3. These job parameters may include having only a short list of paper finishes, colors, or weights (60# offset stock but not 70# offset stock for books, for instance).
  4. Minimum press runs may start at a higher level than you need (e.g., 100 copies rather than 75 for my client’s reader galley proofs).
  5. Specific bindery materials, or anything else only you and perhaps a handful of other clients may need, may be unavailable.
  6. Paper prices will be higher (I have heard there have been four price increases in the last eight months). If you have a long press run of a long book (maybe 300+ pages), your paper costs can add up. This could be a problem.
  7. Due to Covid-19, staffs are smaller. So estimating—and printing–may take longer than usual. One printer went from two days to two weeks for an estimate. Plan accordingly.

Four Books for the Small Publisher

My clients, the small publishing house with whom I’ve been working for a decade, had been paying a premium for superior commercial printing quality and dependable schedules. After all, you get what you pay for. The particular printer in question produced the last set of galleys and final editions of my client’s poetry and fiction books.

This year they were hit with four paper price increases. Let’s say their overall book-production cost went up 50 percent. My client found the pricing for the galleys to be prohibitive, so I shopped the job around elsewhere and found a small printer with good prices and a reasonable schedule. The sales rep had called on me when I was an art director and production manager in the 1990s, so he and I have a sense of mutual trust. (Relationships, or knowing both you and the vendor will keep commitments, goes a long way, particularly now.)

This vendor can’t do the final editions because his shop doesn’t produce French flaps. My client, however, is pleased with the price for the galley reader copies of the book (not the lowest) as well as the schedule (which will provide enough time for reader feedback plus production of the final edition of books within the book distributor’s firm schedule). All she and her husband need to see are printed samples and an unprinted text-stock sample.

So now I’m still shopping for printers to produce the final editions. All RFQ’s (spec sheets) have been distributed. I have a little time. I’ve submitted specs to the Printing Industry Exchange server, and contacted vendors I have worked with in the past, plus some vendors these printers have suggested if unable to meet my specific needs.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study (How This Pertains to You As a Print Buyer)

First of all, please reread the “What We Can Learn” list in the prior section. All of these suggestions pertain to this set of four print books as well.

Here are some more things to consider:

  1. Not every printer can produce French flaps. (This is also an expensive procedure.) If you want the folded-in flaps (i.e., the cover) to be flush with the face trim (the cut-off of the interior text pages), you may have to trim the book twice (to avoid cutting through the folds in the flaps). The alternative is to ask for a short fold, which lets you see a fraction of an inch of the text pages (which, in my opinion, doesn’t look as good).
  2. It’s ideal, if you have two books that go together, to have the books printed by the same vendor. However, depending on their production specs, this may not be possible.
  3. If your printer says his production schedules change daily, plan for a cushion in your time frame. If your delivery date is firm (a drop-dead date, as with my client, whose print book distributor will reject books that arrive late), you may need to look elsewhere.
  4. Smaller book printers may be the answer. If they have the equipment on site and are lean and hungry, you may have found a gem.

Final Thoughts

It’s the Wild West out there due to smaller staffs, printer consolidation and bankruptcies, paper-price increases, and competition from online communications. Consider smaller vendors. And contact vendors you’ve worked with in the past. Their requirements may have changed. If not, they may know other printers who can help you out.

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