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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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Book Printing: Seeking Quality, Service, and Price

It is a truism that in custom printing you can have any two of the following: “Quality, Service, and/or Price.” In the recent past, however, to be competitive in a tight commercial printing market, the motto has become more like “Free, Perfect, and Now” (which also happens to be the title of a book by Robert Rodin).

I have been doing some preliminary research for a 600-page case bound print book that I have brokered for a number of years. During this time, one company has won the bid every year. In fact, since my client has been so happy with the quality of the printer’s product and customer service, she asked that I just give the printer the job last year rather than bidding it out.

Some people might think this isn’t fair, not giving other printers the opportunity to bid. I would disagree. In this case the relationship between the book printer and my client had become more of a partnership, in which the goal was for both the printer and my client to “win.” And the reason the relationship had morphed into a partnership was that the printer consistently provided quality books, responsive service, and timely delivery.

Granted, I had solicited bids for the prior five years and this same printer had been low bid, so the financial side of things had been addressed as well.

Experiencing Printer Pricing Sticker Shock

This year my client asked me to bid out the annual casebound book job to a number of book printers. She had a new boss, and she wanted to show due diligence, making a case that the book printer was still cost-effective.

Unfortunately, the printer’s prices had risen. Why? Because he had disposed of an antiquated press. Oddly enough, this short-run (1,000 copies), black-text-only, 8.5” x 10.875” book had fit exactly on this particular press, which had accommodated 64-page signatures. Printing the long casebound book in 64-page signatures rather than 32-page signatures had yielded a phenomenal price (due to the reduced number of makereadies and press runs needed to produce the project). Unfortunately, for a press run this short, it was not possible for the printer to provide the same discount on the new equipment.

What to Do Next?

In response to my client’s request for additional bids, I uploaded specifications to the PIE custom printing web server and also contacted about five printers I have worked with that specialize in print books (specifically web-fed offset printers, so I would not be comparing sheetfed printers’ prices to web-fed printers’ prices). Some of the printers I hadn’t worked with in decades, so this was really the same as an initial vendor contact in these cases.

The bids arrived, and I carefully reviewed them and created a pricing grid to compare the various line items, shipping costs, and costs for foil stamping dies for the decoration of the book cover.

In a number of cases I noticed that the book printers had substituted paper stocks for the book paper I had requested, or they had left out the additional price for foil stamping dies or for shipping. In each case I contacted the printers in question and requested updated pricing.

I also contacted the printer who had produced the book for a number of years. I had developed a relationship with the printer and wanted to give him a head’s up that he might lose the job this year based on price. I asked if he would shop around for a better deal on paper, or make any other suggestions that might lower the cost. I didn’t want to cut into his profit. I just wanted him to consider options for the supplies and book production workflow.

Switching Paper Is an Option

Since some of the print suppliers had ready access to the printing paper I had specified, and some did not (i.e., it was a house stock for only some of the printers, so they could buy it in bulk at a discount), I opened my mind to alternative stocks. Many of the printers’ estimates had noted the specific press sheet they had chosen as an alternative stock. Some had not, only noting the weight and caliper of the paper. So I asked for clarification.

To avoid show-through from one side of a page to the other, I had specified a 60# opaque sheet. I did some research online to make sure that the opacity, caliper, smoothness, and brightness of any paper that any of the printers had substituted would be adequate for my client’s book. Since it is an annual publication, I wanted to avoid any sense of lowered quality on any of these specs.

Requesting Samples and References

I also asked the printers whose estimates had clustered at the low end of the pricing grid to send me samples and references. I wanted to make sure that if the original book printer who had done the job for years could not find a way to cut costs, I would still have a back-up plan.

The jury is out. We’ll see what happens. I plan to present all bids to my client and, if the original printer’s bid is close (but not the low bid), I plan to ask my client to consider not only cost but also proven quality and service over a number of years in deciding which book printer to choose.

What You Can Learn From This

  1. Always have a back-up plan. If you don’t bid out an annual job yearly, but instead choose to stick with a printer that has become a partner, at least check the pricing against other vendors’ estimates periodically.
  2. Never assume a print bid is correct. In particular, check for paper substitutions and added costs, such as foil stamping dies. When in doubt, ask for clarification.
  3. Check for freight costs and responsibility. “FOB Printer’s Plant” means you are responsible for the books starting at the printer’s loading dock. That includes both the cost of freight and the potential for any damage.
  4. Prices may look good in a bid, but until you see samples, you really don’t know what you’re buying. That’s why it’s good to also call up some of the references. Ask how the printer responds when a job has problems. Does he make good on the job?
  5. Proven relationships are golden. Don’t make your decision solely on price. Often the low bid is low for a reason.

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