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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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Archive for the ‘PrintBuying’ Category

Commercial Printing: A Few Thoughts on Printing Trade Customs

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

Photo purchased from …

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.
  2. We live in a litigious society. Don’t take it personally. Just understand why a printer might not want to sign something like this.
  3. 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.

Custom Printing: The Importance of Adequate Lead Time

Sunday, August 16th, 2020

Purchased from …

“The luxury of time.” Who has it anymore? Everything is a rush. Under the assumption that mistakes occur when you rush through something, if you buy commercial printing for a living, it’s vital to consider all facets of the job you’re producing and leave adequate lead time for each component.

In some cases your delivery date is flexible. Great. That’s a relief. But in other cases, for example a marketing initiative, if your job finishes just in time to get into the mail stream late, such that your prospective buyers (let’s say attendees at a conference) get the self-mailers just after the conference ends, you’ve failed. You’ve done two things, actually. You have missed the chance to sell the conference to so many thousands of prospects, and you’ve wasted money on copywriting, design, production, custom printing, finishing, mailshop work, and postage.

The Article

In this light, I just read a blog article on, the website of a local printer. The article, “Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect,” was written by Samantha Philipson and published on July 20, 2020. It not only addresses the need to plan ahead and start early when you’re shepherding a commercial printing job through the manufacturing process, but it also provides some general time frames to get you started.

My best advice to you is to consider these times, most of which will vary based on options you choose (some printing and finishing activities take longer than others), but equally important, I would encourage you to discuss your personal print production needs with your commercial printing supplier. (If you have several, pick the one you trust the most.) Do this early in the process.

Trust me. I spent almost a decade as an art director/production manager, and nothing makes you lose sleep like getting behind on a print project. Talking with your custom printing vendor early also takes into consideration his schedule. Maybe his plant is busier than usual, and a job that took a week last year might take longer this year. Chances are, if you discuss your project early, he can put you in the schedule now, with a turn-around time even faster than you might expect. After all, he doesn’t like surprises any more than you do.

General Time Frames

“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect” addresses the following aspects of a print project:

“Design/Copywriting Services” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

The article suggests a month for copywriting and design. I would add to that commensurately if the job is longer (perhaps a print book). When I was an art director, the writers/editors took several months to write our nonprofit educational foundation’s government textbooks. Then the designers took a month to a month and a half to design the book and produce press-ready art files. (This included all of the various rounds of proof corrections.) Then the printer took six weeks to print, bind, and ship 60,000 perfect-bound print books.

Smaller jobs fit nicely into the time frame Ironmark printing suggests. I would just encourage you to separate the various elements: copywriting, design (and I would actually separate out final art file preparation, since it involves extra steps that go beyond the design component of the job), prepress, printing, finishing, delivery, mailing, etc.

Also, the best thing you can do is (once you have created a schedule) discuss the schedule with the designers, writers, and editors. Then amend it as needed based on their feedback.

“Paper Size” and “Print Quantity” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Samantha Philipson’s article doesn’t specify time for all print jobs in this section, but it does note that the size of the press sheet and the number of press signatures (let’s say one 16-page signature per press run, depending on the size of the page and how many pages will fit on a press sheet), will determine the amount of time the job is on press. (For smaller jobs, like a mailer, speed is all about how many copies of the mailer can fit on a single—hopefully large—press sheet.)

Going back to the textbook I used to produce (as mentioned earlier), this (approximately) 352-page, 6” x 9” perfect-bound book comprised eleven 32-page signatures. That’s eleven press runs plus the cover even before any binding work could commence. In contrast, Samantha Phillipson’s article mentions the printer’s producing 5,000 postcards in two days or 10,000 in three. So, you see, more complex jobs take much longer to produce. Again, this is the best reason of all to discuss your job with your custom printing provider early.

“Stickers or Labels” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

According to Philipson’s article, these add a day to the schedule. I would also add that other items that require a printer to order and receive supplies not normally kept in stock (such as a specific paper you want to use) will also add time. So ask your printer about this. In some cases, by using materials he already has on the pressroom floor, you can save not only money but also time.

“Number of Pieces per Item” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Philipson’s article suggests that you consider the number of items in a promotional mailing. If you insert an invitation into your envelope along with a reply card and reply envelope, plus an informational card, the “inserting” step of the mailing will take longer. In most cases, inserting can be automated; however, if there are unusual size or placement needs, this might become hand work, which not only costs more but also takes longer. If your press run is long, this could cause an unforeseen delay.

“Is a Die Required?” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

If your job has a unique shape (anything other than a rectangle), your printer will need to have a metal cutting die made. (Let’s say the cover of your perfect-bound print book has a cut-out rectangle on the front cover through which you can see the first page. This would require a die.) Philipson’s article notes that such die making would add a week to the schedule. I’ve found this pretty consistent among all the printers I’ve worked with. In part, the delay is due to die-making’s being subcontracted work. Again, it adds to both the cost and the overall time. Philipson notes that the extra week does not include the printing or finishing steps of the job.

“Digital or Offset Printing”
(“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Philipson’s article notes that three to five days would be reasonable for a one- or two-color offset printed job, whereas five to seven days would be reasonable for a digitally printed job.

I’d encourage you to ask your printer. The offset vs. digital turn-around times will depend entirely on the specific digital and offset printing equipment he has, as well as his schedule at the time. Some printers are set up to produce digital work faster than offset; for some it’s the other way around. That said, in my experience three to five days for a small job (simple with a short press run) and seven to ten days for a larger one (more complex but not a print book) would be a good place to start negotiations with your printer. Keep in mind that these are business days, not calendar days.

“Number of Folds” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

More complex folds take longer on the folder (part of this is making sure they are accurate, since the first bad fold makes the following folds even worse). Some complex mailers require multiple passes through the folder, and this also adds time.

“Finishing Options” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Philipson’s article notes that you should add one or two days for such finishing work as varnishing. To this I would add that complex varnishing techniques (like using both a spot gloss and spot dull varnish to make certain portions of a brochure cover stand out) also take extra time.

I’d also discuss binding methods with your printer. If you’re producing a textbook (as I did), perfect binding takes much longer than saddle stitching. In part, this is because a lot of printers don’t have perfect binding equipment in house and therefore have to subcontract the work.


Philipson notes that her printer can turn around digital proofs in approximately eight hours, but a hard-copy proof will take an extra day. In some cases a digital proof (on-screen PDF proof, which requires no shipping time or expense) is not enough. You need to see the actual color of the job. But if you do need a hard-copy proof, you need to set aside extra time for the proof to be delivered, checked, and returned to the printer. (However, if there’s a second round of proofs, I usually encourage clients to request a PDF proof for the corrections.)

Finally, “Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect” ends with wise words: “Build in extra time for any delays” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”). These can include delays on your end. (What if the main person who has to see the proof is on vacation when it arrives?) Or it can occur on the printer’s end. (What if the press is down or there are delivery problems?)

The two best things you can do? Pad the schedule, and communicate early and often with your commercial printing vendor.

Commercial Printing: The Final Stages of Print Buying

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

Sometimes you just have to go for it and make a decision: Printer A and not Printer B. It’s a bit of a gamble, a risk, particularly if it’s a high-ticket item.

I’m brokering a job for a designer whose client needs a complex binder containing 32 wood sample chips. Each is 1” x 2” x .5”. There are four interior pages of samples. The back sides of these pages are text pages or photos. When the inside pages are folded in (like a double gatefold), you have a 3” high binder, roughly 11” x 11” in dimension.

These will be quite expensive. Each book (in a 100-copy or 200-copy press run) will cost between $40 and $80, depending on the kind of product ordered and the specific commercial printing supplier chosen. At the moment, two manufacturers have provided bids reflecting what has turned out to be two different approaches to the same job.

For a first job with a custom printing vendor, how can you possibly make such a decision? Particularly when between $5,000 and $10,000 is on the line (along with your reputation)?

I’ll bet that you’ve been in a similar situation, if you’re a print buyer, designer, or a commercial printing supplier needing to farm out some specialized work that you don’t have the equipment to do in house. How do you make a choice like this? One that’s not just a spin of the roulette wheel?

The Backstory

First of all, this is what I’ve done so far to get to the point of having two legitimate bids:

  1. I asked a colleague and friend with decades of experience in the field of custom printing. He has contacts at the (only a handful of) vendors who can do this kind of work.
  2. I submitted specs to the Printing Industry Exchange to see if there were any other vendors interested.
  3. I asked one other colleague, a printer.

All of this yielded only two solid estimates. Both vendors came from my discussion with the colleague who knows multiple vendors (and the industry in general) and who had also been a print broker. What I learned from this is that a print consultant or broker may well know more about the overall commercial printing industry than an individual printer will know. The individual printer may be more focused on his own print shop than on the industry (i.e., more depth, less breadth, of knowledge).

So what did I learn from this?

Always go through people you know, who know the field. Granted, at this point I can check references for these two binder manufacturers, but actually my colleague’s referral is all I need (based on his contacts in the field and his level of knowledge). In your own print buying work, you might want to also check references. Just keep in mind that it’s human nature for a vendor to give you references from people who are cheerleaders for their work.

The Next Steps

This is what I did after receiving two solid bids for my client’s floor-sample-binder. I requested photos from the two vendors to show exactly what their products would be like (materials and construction). I also asked that the two vendors send printed samples of their work to my client. These would achieve two goals:

  1. They would show my client the overall level of quality each vendor could provide.
  2. They would show whether each vendor understood my client’s needs (based on the job specifications, my client’s overall description of her needs, and her photos) as reflected in the samples they would send her.

(Keep in mind that I had initially sent both binder vendors a list of specifications, a description of the binder my client envisioned, still photos of binders she liked, and her video of a sample binder showing how it would open and close and where the text and artwork would print.)

Furthermore, there was only one main difference in the two offerings from the two vendors:

  1. The first offered a turned-edge binder with an offset-printed litho sheet wrapped around chipboard. Inside the binder were rigid wells (i.e., a build and a die-cut cover sheet) into which the wood samples could be placed (and maybe glued).
  2. The second vendor offered almost the same thing, but the wells for the sample wood pieces were cut out of foam (rather than chipboard) and then covered with printed litho paper with die-cuts for the wood samples.

The second vendor’s offering was a little more classy. However, it would also cost almost twice as much as the first vendor’s product.

So the take-away at this point is that we have two estimates, two ways of approaching the job, and sets of photos reflecting each option. Furthermore, we now have printed samples on the way to my client.

What’s next?

Next, Next Steps

Both manufacturers will make prototypes. These will cost approximately $200 each. In my opinion, in the entire job, no other $200 will be better spent. This is an investment. Not a cost. It will protect my client. She and the client she represents will have no surprises as to how all the various die cut pieces of paper will go together. It will be a hand made prototype, but that’s irrelevant. It will show exactly how everything will look and feel and operate. Any logistical issues can be addressed in a revised prototype (for another $200–again, well-spent money).

Between the printed samples and the prototype, my client will learn:

  1. The level of quality to expect.
  2. The good points and bad points of each vendor’s specific approach to the design issue (not the artwork on the binder but the binder itself as a physical, operating product).

My client, the designer, recently asked me which vendor I would choose. My response was that I would choose neither at the moment. And in your own print buying work, when faced with a similar progression from bids and photos to potential prototypes, I would encourage you to make the final decision at the last possible moment, when you have as much information as you can possibly collect.

In my own client’s case, I’d encourage her to have her client (the floor supply store) commission both vendors to create prototypes before choosing one or the other. Price plus reputation (based on my colleague’s advice), product photos, and the prototype will eventually make the overall decision of one vendor over the other relatively easy. And in either case, at this point, nothing but time and the cost of the prototypes will have been spent in gathering enough information to make a prudent choice. It’s still a little bit of a gamble but far less so than it could have been.

What Can We Learn from This Case Study?

Here are some things to walk away with and ponder when you’re buying commercial printing from a new vendor, particularly if it’s a custom product that will cost a lot to produce:

  1. Start with a description of the product you want.
  2. Turn this description into a list of printer’s specs: printing, binding, coating, foil stamping… (all prepress, press, and finishing operations). But also keep the general description from which you made the spec list.
  3. Take photos of any samples you like, and send these to potential vendors, requesting estimates and schedules.
  4. Review bids. Compare everything to everything. See what unique approaches different vendors offer to your design problem.
  5. Request and review printed samples.
  6. For anything complex, pay for a prototype. It protects you from any surprises. (It actually also protects the vendor from your displeasure, so it’s mutually advantageous.)
  7. Depend on references, but get these from people who know the field intimately: knowledgeable people you trust completely.
  8. Make your final decision later rather than earlier. The more information you have, the better.
  9. Proof early and often. That is, carefully and thoughtfully review the prototype, the printed samples, the printer’s template for your artwork (for decorating the product, in my case the binder), the PDF proofs of the art (or even physical hard-copy proofs if you want them). You cannot proof too much.
  10. Everything you see before you tell the vendor to go ahead and manufacture the entire press run will help you. If you take these steps, your decision of one vendor over another will, for the most part, make itself.

Then, all you can do is jump. At some point, that’s what you have to do. Just make sure your choice is a well-thought-out educated guess, not a gamble.


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