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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: Reviewing Your Printing Bills

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It’s time to pay the piper. Your commercial printing vendor has printed and bound your job and delivered it as requested. And you have just received the invoice via email. How do you confirm its accuracy to make sure you’re not overpaying?

In this light, a custom printing client of mine just produced 50 sets of colored chin cards. She usually produces a small color-swatch print book bound on a screw-and-post assembly to help clients choose colors for cosmetics and clothing based on their complexion and hair color.

These are a bit like small PMS color books. As a complementary item for her product line, this time she produced 8.5” x 11” laminated, colored cards based on the same proprietary color system. A client will hold selected cards under her chin to see how the colors on the cards either complement or clash with her complexion.

Each card has a die-cut half circle on the long side. A client’s chin goes in the die cut, and this allows the colors to come up a bit higher on either side of her face.

So from a printer’s point of view, these are 8.5” x 11” cards on 14 pt. stock, laminated on both sides, die cut on one of the 11” sides, collated but not shrink wrapped, 32 cards per set, 50 sets total, delivered to my client’s house (i.e., inside delivery, not dock-to-dock delivery).

My Client’s Overall Payment Schedule

Since Covid-19, things have tightened up a bit for the commercial printing suppliers with whom I work. Not all clients had been paying in a timely manner, so the following payment schedule has been in effect with most of my printers for almost two years for clients who do not have credit terms (i.e., have not been vetted for credit accounts).

Most printers want 50 percent payment up front (with the submission of art files) and 50 percent payment prior to their shipping the completed jobs to my clients. Some of the book printers have even begun to require 110 percent total payment prior to shipping to cover overage (from 3 percent to 10 percent of the total required press run). This is acceptable in the commercial printing trade to allow for spoilage during post-press bindery work.

Splitting the bill in this way can be confusing or frustrating for clients who don’t expect it. (Some printers even split payment into three parts, with 50 percent of the total due with art file submission, 50 percent due prior to shipping the job to the client, and a final bill to account for overs, corrections, and any shipping costs unforeseen in the initial bid.)

I can understand my clients’ frustration. However, I also see that Covid-19 has disrupted supply chains, and I know that commercial printing vendors must buy paper and other materials up front before a job can be printed. For them to stay in business, they must manage cash flow and make sure they receive all payment for all materials, manufacturing, and shipping.

My understanding the printer’s point of view helps me explain the new requirements to clients who don’t want to go through a credit check to establish credit terms (and since most of my clients are freelancers or proprietors of small businesses, most do pay in cash).

So this is the overall payment process.

My Client’s First and Second Invoice

To determine the accuracy of my client’s invoice, the first thing I did upon its receipt was compare the bill to the specifications I had initially drafted for the fashion color chin cards. (I had already matched my spec sheet to the printer’s estimate before my client had submitted the art files over a month ago.) My spec sheet and the printer’s estimate are invaluable tools in reviewing the final invoices for accuracy.

First I checked all job specifications, including size, paper, lamination, press work (ink colors and sides of the paper to be printed), kind of proof requested, and die-cutting requirements. All of this matched my expectations and also matched the estimate and the initial invoice. This was the “base price,” which was congruent with the “base quote.”

The second, follow-up bill included detailed shipping information and prices charged by the shipping carrier (at cost, not marked up). The prices were consistent with prior jobs of this size shipped a comparable distance. (I did not just assume the shipping cost was ok; I compared it to prior, similar jobs.)

The bill also included overs. The printer charged for two extra sets of chin cards, which is four percent of the 50 copies ordered. (This is very reasonable, since 10 percent is acceptable industry standard as the upper limit. Keep in mind that 10 percent unders are also acceptable, so in your own print buying work, if you need “no fewer than” a certain number, you will have to accept a higher potential (often negotiable) overage. Overage also occurs in simpler jobs because it’s not possible to stop an offset press on a dime. (It’s much easier to control overage on a digital press.)

What didn’t look right was an additional $55.00 for die cutting. Here’s why. My client had already printed this job. In the process she had paid $300+ for the die creation, which did not show up in the cost of the reprint. That’s good. However, if the $55.00 had been for make-ready on the actual die cutting of this job (as opposed to the die-making), it should have been noted in the original estimate. And it had not been so noted. Therefore, when I queried the print customer sales rep, she said I should have my client underpay by that amount.

The bill also included a 3 percent Visa convenience charge (separately, on both the original estimated amount and the final, supplemental charges). This is the norm. Some printers will accept electronic funds transfers from banks (avoiding this charge). Some will not.

Finally, the invoice included charges for two author’s alterations billed at $45.00 per hour. This is very reasonable. Depending on the location of the printer (and the cost of living at that location), hourly prices for client corrections can range upwards from $70.00 to $100.00. The best way my clients can avoid such costs is by carefully checking the job before its submission. However, things do happen. Everyone is human.

Once my client had checked the actual printed copies (i.e., reviewed random samples in the various cartons delivered) and approved the final bill (with the change in the die-cutting price I had flagged), it was time to “pay the piper.” She did so by Visa, as noted before. So all told she had to pay two separate bills. As noted before, other clients may have paid three. My client chose to pay the whole quoted price (exclusive of overs, author’s alterations, and shipping) up front and then pay the final, follow-up bill reflecting the overage, corrections, and shipping charges.

As an additional point of information, the second bill prominently noted the amount my client had already paid up front posted against the overall cost and reflecting a final balance (of about $300.00 on the overall $2,000.00+ job cost).

What You Should Look For

All of this is probably painfully boring to ponder. However, it is part of the process of buying commercial printing. It does you a disservice to assume everything on the bill is complete or correct. So it’s smart to look for these things:

    1. Check the accuracy of the initial quotation compared to your own spec sheet and the commercial printing vendor’s initial estimate (the base price). It is wise to develop your own spec sheet over time, tweaking it as necessary for one project or another, and one vendor or another. Complex jobs like print books will usually require a more complex spec sheet, as will jobs requiring complex finishing work or having complex shipping requirements.


    1. Check shipping specs and compare costs to similar projects with similar carton weights and destinations. If your initial bid notes “FOB printer’s dock,” your responsibility and costs begin prior to actual shipping, so ask about this when you get the initial job estimate.


    1. Note the reasonable percentage of overage/underage.


    1. Note any additions for author’s alterations. Although you pay for your mistakes, it is reasonable for you to expect the printer to pay for his.


  1. Check the math, particularly on book printing estimates and bills. Everyone is human, and I’ve received estimates with spreadsheets that had been inaccurately compiled, yielding accurate unit costs but inaccurate line items and therefore inaccurate total costs. Assume nothing. Check everything.

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