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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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Custom Printing: What to Do When a Job Goes South

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A good working relationship with a printer is like a marriage. It takes work. It also doesn’t always go the way you want it to. Sometimes a job goes south. This doesn’t mean it’s time to get up and leave. It just means you need to find a solution that works for both you and the printer. I think most people would not necessarily acknowledge this, since it’s human nature to be angry and get into blame when something goes wrong.


I used to be a lot harsher, back in the ‘90s when I was an art director and production manager at a government education nonprofit foundation. I remember sending back a delivery of stationery in which the two colors of the logo were out of register. I told the first printer I didn’t want to see a bill, and I sent the job to another printer. Maybe this was, in fact, the right approach. After all, this stationery was for the CEO of the company.

Another time, I sent back a job in which a photo had been flopped (printed backwards). This didn’t show up in the blueline proof (we didn’t yet scan our own photos). The image had been “right reading,” but in the final print job it was “wrong reading.” The photo included the company’s logo pictured prominently (and backwards). I asked for this job, a newsletter, to be reprinted. Now that I think of it, maybe this was the right approach.

Unfortunately, we started to get a reputation among the printers we used (I and the three designers who worked for me). Some printers were hesitant to work with us.

I was slightly more than half my current age. I’ve mellowed a bit since then. Now I prefer a mutually agreeable solution.

How Bad Is Bad?

About 15 years ago I brokered a book printing job for (as I recall) the Embassy of Chile in Washington, DC. The problem was that all the pages in all of the print books were wavy (as opposed to completely flat). My client at the embassy had followed my suggestion and had checked random samples within all of the cartons of books. So there was a reasonable expectation that the problem was pervasive.

This time, instead of sending everything back, I called the printer and asked for suggestions. He said I should turn the cartons of books over (to change how the books lay in the cartons in order to adjust their weight distribution) and then wait. Within a week’s time they had flattened out. The pages were no longer rippled or wavy. My client was very happy and more than a little impressed (as was I by the book printer’s ability to solve the problem).

(My guess at this point was that the covers had been printed via sheetfed offset lithography and the text blocks of the books had been printed via heatset web offset lithography. The books were probably bound and trimmed without letting the text blocks absorb ambient moisture after traveling through the heating units of the web press and then being cooled abruptly by the chill rollers.)

The reason for the problem was actually less relevant than the fact that the book printer solved my client’s problem. Moreover, the print books (while not great when they had wavy pages) were still usable for initial distribution (of a few copies), and as soon as the waviness had relaxed, everything was good to go.

But what if the waviness had never gone away?

How bad is bad? This was fixable. Another project was not. The covers of the print book I brokered for another client were “painted” (heavy coverage of a solid color) with full-bleed black ink from which the cover photo was knocked out. It was rather dramatic.

Unfortunately, the book-cover lamination was added before the ink was completely dry. The slightly wet cover ink gassed out (gave off a gas), which produced bubbles that lifted the lay-flat laminate off the press stock. Again, it was bad in different ways, but for the most part it affected all copies.

So I had the book printer take off the covers and reprint them, wait longer this time for the ink to dry, and then rebind and retrim the print book. Unfortunately the trim size was then slightly smaller than originally intended. In itself, this could have caused horrible design problems. Design elements could have been too close to the trim and been chopped off (or, on an intuitive level, they could have felt like they were too close to the trim). I myself had actually designed the book and had left adequate margins, so everything was good.

The printer was not happy, but he wanted my future business (this is why it’s good to nurture mutually-advantageous commercial printing relationships with your vendors). He also had to trim every book by hand one at a time (not really by hand, since he did use mechanical trimming equipment, but it was a slow and arduous process).

In this case the printer’s cost in lost revenue was less than the cost to reprint the entire book. My client would have accepted nothing less (and certainly not just a discount). Why? Because she was selling the print book and it was ugly (i.e., unusable and unsalable) until the problem had been remedied.

Another client regularly reprints her (approximately) 2” x 3” color swatch books, which people use to choose colors for makeup and clothing that complement their complexions. I forgot to adequately explain to the printer how the job was to be laminated. In haste I made a mistake. So I paid out of my pocket to have the job reprinted.

In this case it was not the printer’s problem. It was mine, as my client’s broker. Unlaminated cards would not have been salable (would not have suited my client’s needs). The problem was pervasive (it affected all color swatch books). There was no other answer but to reprint.

What to Do

Boom. The job arrives. Look at it immediately. With a critical eye. Don’t put this off. You haven’t accepted delivery of the job until you have checked it and responded to the printer. That’s how I’ve always looked at this process.

If there are problems, alert the printer immediately and start to check random samples in a number of the cartons to get a good sense of the extent of the problem. You don’t have to check every item. You will start to see patterns. For instance, maybe the problem is only in samples taken from one carton. Maybe the color shifted in a handful of press sheets, and the pressman didn’t catch the error.

Then document everything with photos and a written description of the problem and its extent.

For instance, recently the client with the color swatch books had color shifts in her finished books. She did what I just suggested and told me the problem was evident in 10 books out of 200. Five percent. They were usable. One client complained.

We settled on free shipping for the next reprint plus an agreement to use a different digital press and a more robust sample-press-sheet checking process. My client was happy (above all else, this is the goal). How did we arrive at the amount? Ten books at I believe about $15 each (total cost of the job divided by 200 books). A fair trade: the shipping cost for free.

I had another issue once with a printer in Canada. He was producing a magazine regularly for one of my clients. As I recall, he had to reprint a press signature of the magazine for some reason. We agreed to “split the difference,” to share the cost of the extra press run. Without my remembering the details (it was 23 years ago), I do remember that in this case the reprint was necessary and not clearly the printer’s fault, so the resolution was fair. Both parties (the printer and my client) were not happy but also didn’t feel taken advantage of. My client printed the magazine at this vendor’s shop for many issues going forward.

(In your own work, another approach might be to ask the vendor about reprinting the job at his actual cost rather than at your normal cost including the printer’s mark-up.)

Overall, this is a judgment call. Do the research into the problem, its cause, and its extent. Then decide what will make you whole. Can you accept the job at a discount? Or do you need a reprint?

Overall, the goal is to get a satisfactory printed product and also to be able to continue one’s long-standing, mutually beneficial working relationship with the commercial printing vendor. This depends in large part on the lines of communication and mutual trust you have nurtured over a number of custom printing jobs.

A printer friend of mine calls a job printed for a client who has never printed with the company before, who probably chose the printer based solely on price, and who is not likely to work with the printer again a “drive by.” This is what you don’t want to be and understandably so. It actually benefits you as well as the printer–over your time working together on multiple print jobs–if both you and the printer “win” rather than if one of you loses.

That’s why I say it’s like a marriage.

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