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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

Book Printing: a Handful of Ways to Save Money Buying Print Services

Monday, October 4th, 2021

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If your job involves either buying commercial printing services or designing print products, your experience over the years will teach you that some custom printing processes cost a lot. It’s easy to spend money quickly on a print job. However, you can also be mindful when designing or specifying a print project and make choices that actually save you money.

The Best Book Size

In this light, a colleague recently contacted me regarding the best size for a particular print book. The question was posed from a marketing perspective. Which format would sell better: 5.5” x 8.5”, 6” x 9”, 8” x 10”, 8.5” x 11”, etc.?

I told my colleague that I didn’t have the experience to speak to the marketing aspect of the question but that I could address the commercial printing aspect.

I said that the goal would be to lay out as many pages on the front and back of a press sheet as possible, side by side in a standard press-signature format. Of course, this would necessitate knowing the size of the press and press sheet, as well as the space needed for bleeds, printers’ marks, and the press gripper (which grabs the press sheet and feeds it into the press).

The overall approach would be as follows: for instance, a 40” press will accept a standard 25” x 38” press sheet. If you draw out on a piece of paper a sketch of a press sheet with a width of 38” and a depth of 25”, and then draw four pages across and then another four pages immediately below them, you have a diagram of a press sheet containing a sixteen-page signature (four pages across on top, four across immediately below, and the same on the back of the sheet for a total of sixteen pages). Without bleeds, printer’s marks, and room for the press gripper, you will have just used 22” x 34” of the total 25” x 38” sheet (11” x 2 pages down and 8.5” x 4 pages across). So you will have a little wiggle room for the bleeds and other printers’ requirements.

My Colleague’s Question

So, to return to my colleague’s question, you can do the same kind of math for any of the other page sizes, based on the size of the press sheet. Your goal is to group pages in multiples of four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four. Remember, you’re dividing by the two sides of the press sheet. Moreover, since some presses are as large as 50” (rather than 40”), you can get more pages on a press sheet if you’re designing smaller pages. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily do the math without involving the printer. Just ask about the ideal page size and the number of pages in the “most efficient” press signature based on this approach.

And remember, if your page size yields a print book that feels good in the reader’s hands but that wastes a lot of paper (i.e., maybe you’ve chosen an unusual page size, and you can’t quite fit as many pages on both sides of a press signature without a lot of unused space around the pages), you’re still paying for the unused paper that lands on the trimming room floor.

Marketing Thoughts

Now here’s one marketing perspective. The size and weight of the print book make a difference on several counts:

  1. If it’s too heavy (maybe an 8.5” x 11” format), the book may be uncomfortable to hold when reading.
  2. If the book is too large in its length and width, both the envelopes used to mail copies to clients and the postage may cost more than you expect.
  3. If the booklets need to fit in a display rack for marketing purposes, their size will matter. Find out where and how the print books will be displayed.
  4. If the print book has a small format (let’s say 5.5” x 8.5”) and therefore has grown to 600 pages in length, it may be very difficult to trim. (More on this later.)

Oblong Books

My colleague’s colleague (a writer and publisher) recently printed another book, which had an oblong format (wide and squat rather than narrow and tall). Sometimes this is called a “landscape” rather than “portrait” orientation. The publisher was amazed by the high printing cost and vowed never to design an oblong print book again. He had assumed that the same book dimensions would cost the same to produce in either an upright or oblong format. Ouch.

Why is this not true?

To go back to the pages laid out on a press sheet (from the prior example), since facing pages touch at the short dimension in an oblong book, and since the double-page spreads are significantly wider than for standard upright pages, you might not be able to lay out as many pages on one press sheet in one press signature.

(A wild guess might be that four pages will fit on one side of the sheet and four on the other, rather than eight per side, or that eight pages will fit on each side of a press sheet rather than sixteen. In this case, you would need twice as many press runs, significantly increasing the overall commercial printing cost.)

So why not turn everything on its side on the press sheet? Good idea. But maybe that will change the orientation of the paper relative to the paper grain. After all, you want the paper fibers to be parallel to the spine in a print book, or you may have trouble turning the pages easily. Or, as another option, maybe your printer can use paper with the grain going in the perpendicular direction.

As you can see, things get complicated, and complication drives prices up. The best solution is to ask the book printer about such things early in the design process. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t design an oblong book. You should just understand the potential cost ramifications.

Ways to Save–or Spend–Money

As with most things in life, buying commercial printing often requires trade-offs. Often this also involves paying a higher cost for higher quality. But not always.


For instance, it costs less to saddle stitch a book than to perfect bind it. But perfect binding gives you a printable spine and (presumably) feels more professional to the reader. Maybe you still want the perfect binding, and you’re willing to pay more for it and then pass the cost on to the customer.

Or let’s say you’re printing an ultra-short press run of 50 books. (A client of mine prints 50 galley copies of a book for reader reviews, and then prints 1,500 to 2,000 more copies—with a more elaborate book design–incorporating the readers’ suggestions.) Preparing a large perfect binder for 50 copies will be expensive. Possibly the 50 copies would cost the same (considering makeready and spoilage) as 200 copies for the binding component of the job. In this case it helps to know a printer with a tabletop perfect binder, which is made especially to bind short runs of books economically. (So in this case in particular, it helps to know what equipment your vendor has and to also have a good network of potential printers for your jobs.)


Here’s another actual case study from my colleague’s colleague. He produced a 600-page book (noted earlier in this blog article). It was too large to be comfortably trimmed by the printer. So the printer’s automated trimming equipment had to be slowed down significantly. This caused workflow bottlenecks and raised the overall price. Maybe my colleague’s colleague had actually been lucky. The next step would have been to hand trim each print book. For a long press run, this would have been extraordinarily expensive.

Mechanical Binding

For short-run books (let’s say a book for 50 people attending a convention session in a hotel), GBC binding (also referred to as plastic comb binding) is ideal. You don’t need to pay makeready and spoilage costs for an automated perfect binder (or bind 1,500 copies to reap reasonable per-unit bindery costs).

However, GBC binding is done by hand on a little machine (hooking the pages onto the plastic combs). Handwork is expensive and takes time. So for 50 copies, your unit cost will be high. And if your press run goes up (let’s say to 500 copies) and you still choose GBC binding, your overall cost (as well as your unit cost) will be high.

Cover Coatings

Maybe you asked your printer to film laminate the covers of your books. Let’s say he doesn’t have in-house laminating capabilities but he can aqueous coat your print book covers in his shop. Consider this seriously. (Substitutions are often a smart option, for cover coatings, paper choices, etc.) Making your printer subcontract out the lamination might well cost you a lot more than accepting the printer’s in-house aqueous coating capabilities. It might take less time, too.

(A good rule of thumb is to ask for specific results, such as a gloss or matte cover coating, rather than to ask for a specific technology, like laminating, UV coating, or aqueous coating. It’s also a good idea to ask for samples. Always make decisions based on what you can see and feel, whether it’s a choice of press papers or cover coatings.)

The Takeaway?

What can we learn from my colleague and her colleague? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Ask your printer about the most efficient page sizes and press signature configurations based on his presses and the press sheets they accommodate. You want the largest press signatures produced with the fewest press runs.
  2. Develop relationships with a handful of printers. Learn what equipment they have and learn how this determines ideal page size, press signature size, cover coating capabilities, etc. Be able to choose a particular printer for a particular job based on your knowledge of the equipment he has in his pressroom and bindery.
  3. Study all of these subjects in depth. The more you know, the more effective you will be at economical print design and print buying.

Custom Printing: The Current Wild West of Print Buying

Sunday, September 12th, 2021

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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.

Commercial Printing: Is the Job Your Printer Just Delivered Acceptable?

Wednesday, August 4th, 2021

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“Acceptable” is a slippery word. In the case of offset and digital printing, acceptable delivery has more to do with whether you can tell your custom printing vendor that you are satisfied with the product and he can bill you for the job. It’s a question of quality, and you have an important decision at this point, which you should not make lightly.

With this concept in mind I thought back through my 45 years’ of buying commercial printing, looking for examples of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable quality, and I also found a list of things to check in Getting It Printed, by Mark Beach and Eric Kenly, one of my favorite books on custom printing.

What to Check Upon Receipt of the Job

“Completeness”(Getting It Printed)–If you collect prior mock ups of a print job and paper samples, you are in a good position to start your review. First of all, as Beach and Kenly’s book notes, check for completeness of the product. This is especially important for a multi-part project, such as a promotional package with multiple inserts in an envelope, but it also pertains to projects like books and brochures. Is everything as you expect? This includes tints, reverses, photos, trim size, everything you noted on your job specification list. Also check for any spot or flood coatings (like UV and aqueous). The goal is twofold. Did you get everything you expected, and did you get everything you’ll be paying for?

“Quality” (Getting It Printed)–Is the level of quality as you expected based on prior work from this printer and/or the printed samples the company provided? Look at the accuracy of colors in photos, consistency of tint screens, evenness of the trim on a page, thickness and consistency of the cover coating on a print book, quality of the binding, precision of register of each spot color to the others. This is not just subjective. There are tolerances that are considered “industry standard,” within the “printing trade customs,” and you may want to Google this or look for it on the back of your commercial printing contract in the terms and conditions section. Some post-press procedures such as trimming are not as precise as the press work, so you will need to be forgiving in some cases. Again, it helps to have a grasp of industry standards/tolerances. If you see something you don’t like, though, don’t make assumptions. Ask your printer about it directly. Also, if you find an error, check a number of random boxes of your delivery to get a sense of how extensive the problem is. Flaws may or may not be in every copy. Often they are not.

“Paper” (Getting It Printed)–Depending on what paper you have chosen, it may be easy to miss this one. Make sure the cover stock is as thick as you had specified. Make sure the interior paper of a print book is as you expect. Check whiteness, brightness, caliper. Is everything as you had requested?

“Quantity” (Getting It Printed)–Beach and Kenly suggest that you count the contents of one or two cartons to make sure you received the correct number of copies. Usually the total is also written on each box. Don’t assume you have everything. This is the time to check and to contact your printer if anything is amiss.

“Alterations” (Getting It Printed)–Whether you make changes on the proofs or request changes on press (if you attend press checks), all of these alterations will show up on your bill. It is a good rule of thumb to only make absolutely essential changes, ask about their cost prior to approving them, and then compare your final invoice to these agreed upon charges.

“Extra Charges” (Getting It Printed)–If any charges show up that you didn’t expect, ask about them. These may include higher freight costs (probably reasonable, but do ask for shipping manifests if anything seems amiss) and overage (can be up to 10 percent overs/unders according to industry standard, but this is usually noted on the printing contract).

“Schedule” (Getting It Printed)–Did the printer meet the agreed upon schedule? Your contract may stipulate a discount for missed delivery deadlines.

“Shipping” (Getting It Printed)–Beyond noting any discrepancies regarding shipping costs (as mentioned above), it would be wise to make sure all copies were delivered as expected (proper destination, proper copy count).

“Taxes” (Getting It Printed)–Some businesses will be tax exempt for various reasons. Maybe you’re selling the products and collecting the tax yourself. Or maybe you’re a tax-exempt charity organization. Make sure your printer has your appropriate paperwork and licenses early in the commercial printing process, and make sure the tax is noted on (or omitted from) the bill correctly.

“Arithmetic” (Getting It Printed)–Don’t assume that the printer’s math is correct. All it takes is an errant keystroke in a spreadsheet program to make a mistake. Add everything up yourself.

Beach and Kenly also note that paper prices fluctuate (paper is a direct cost, which can be passed on to the customer for the amount at which the commercial printing supplier bought the paper stock).

The “Analyzing a Job for Payment” list in Getting It Printed seems to me to be a good one. However, I’d also be mindful of your own situation and pay attention to any potential problems specific to you. Also, Beach and Kenly are approaching this quality check from the position of having both the product and the invoice in hand. In many cases, if you have established credit terms, your printed products will be delivered a while before your bill arrives. In this case, don’t wait to check and approve the job. Check it immediately for those items noted earlier in the blog. Then, when the bill arrives, recheck the relevant information.

What to Do If Something Goes Wrong

In my 45 years’ in the printing field a lot has gone wrong. In my experience, these are the best steps to take in such a situation:

  1. Contact the printer. If you’ve chosen the printer wisely (samples, references, as well as pricing), you will have a partnership relationship with your vendor rather than an adversarial relationship. This is why price is only one of many factors in choosing a vendor.
  2. Determine the extent of the problem. As noted before, check random copies in random boxes.
  3. Send your printer photos of the problem. You may want to follow up by sending him physical samples as well.
  4. Make sure no copies are distributed. If you have a problem with your job requiring a reprint (if it’s a printer error at the printer’s expense), and you use any of the bad copies, you’ll have to pay for them.
  5. Determine whether the printing problem makes the job unusable. Be honest with yourself and your printer.
  6. Ask the printer what he can do about the problem. Be open to a discount rather than a reprint.
  7. Focus on solutions, even though it’s easy to get caught up in blame.

Painful Examples

Here are some random examples from my 45 years’ in printing:

  1. I was producing a print book for a nonprofit organization about 30 years ago at a printer halfway across the country. They chose that instant to go bankrupt. Therefore, they couldn’t buy paper on credit. So my organization bought the paper and had it shipped to the printer. Then the book printer got behind schedule. So we agreed that for every day the book delivery was late, we’d discount the final bill by a certain amount. The job was completed and delivered. I never heard from the printer again after that.
  2. I received a box of letterhead for the president of the aforementioned non-profit organization. It was a new printer (the samples had been good). The register of the red and blue elements in the stationery was unbelievably bad. The sales rep was there when I opened the box. I asked him to take away the box and never send me a bill. I found another printer.
  3. A printer flopped a photo (printed it backwards, reverse image). The photo included text (on the person’s shirt). I asked for the delivered boxes to be retrieved and the job to be reprinted. Now, thinking back, since I’m 30 years older, I probably would have only requested a discount.
  4. A print brokering client called me and said the pages in all of his print books were wavy (not flat). Oops. I called the book printer, who said that storing the cartons upside down with weight on the books would remedy the situation. Thankfully it did. The waviness of the paper subsided.
  5. A client called me to say the film lamination on all copies of her print book was coming up off the paper. (I was at a pre-wedding event for my fiancee’s daughter. I remember it like it was yesterday.) Since I knew the printer’s CEO, who was reasonable, and since I had photos and physical samples, he had the covers removed and replaced, and the books retrimmed, at the printer’s cost. My client kept working with me, and I kept working with this printer.

The Takeaway

All printers make mistakes. All of them. It’s how they rectify the errors that makes you want to work with the printers again or move on. It’s like a marriage. Choose your vendors wisely, not just because their pricing is low.

Custom Printing: Trade Printers and Printing Brokers

Monday, June 14th, 2021

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Among my other gigs (writer, graphic designer, art teacher), I am a commercial printing broker. I find the printer with the most appropriate skills and equipment for a particular client’s job. Unlike a printing sales rep for an individual company, I have access to printers across the country. Many of them I worked with when I was a production manager/art director in a local educational foundation. I have been doing this for 20 years (of my 44 years in printing and publications).

Recently, I found a new printer for a client’s post-graduate catalog, a newspaper-like, saddle-stitched product. (As I recall, I found this printer through the Printing Industry Exchange website.) Their prices were outstanding. When I approached the printer to discuss the job and make sure they worked with printing brokers, I was told they only work with printing brokers and printers. They are a “trade printer.” They do not sell to the end-user (i.e., my clients).

What Is a Trade Printer?

A trade printer lowers the prices it charges in order to be able to sell through brokers and commercial printers, whom they know will mark up their services. Trade printers want to be competitive. If they charged prices commensurate to those of other printers, the commissions I would add as a printing broker, or the mark-up a commercial printing supplier might add, would price them out of the market.

So what are the benefits of using a trade printer? First of all, they might have exceptional (and/or specialized) skills and knowledge. They might have exactly the right equipment for a particular job: such as the ability to case bind an ultra-short-run of a print book with specialized binding cloth, foil stamping, and such.

Most printers do not do all work in house. Die cutting, foil stamping, and case binding are usually “jobbed” out to a trade printer (or a trade shop). When a printer subcontracts printing or finishing tasks, he usually works with a trade shop (a shop that only does work for other printing professionals) rather than a regular commercial printer.

If You Are a Printer…

If you are a printer, you are responsible for the quality of the product or process provided by the trade printer or trade shop (as well as your own portion of the job). You get the financial benefit of your mark-up, but you have to choose the supplier wisely. This is exactly the same as if you were a printing client choosing a printer (checking references, reviewing printed samples–due diligence, if you will).

For your client, your taking responsibility for everything is an advantage. You are coordinating both your printing work and the subcontracted work, so there’s no chance of “finger pointing” if something goes wrong. Your client will just look to you, as the primary supplier, to make everything right. This is highly valuable to your client.

If you’re a printer without specialized equipment such as die cutting, foil stamping, or case binding capabilities, you may have no other option than to work with a trade shop. In fact, in one geographical region, a large number of local printers might go to the same bindery subcontractor and get quality work for a reasonable price without needing to buy this finishing equipment and pay labor costs for specialized work that may be required only occasionally.

(Any printer’s goal is to run all of the equipment on their pressroom floor all the time. If a printer only has occasional case binding work, it would be a financial drain to have the equipment and operators sitting idle. So subcontracting some work to a specialist—such as a dedicated bindery—would be a smart move.)

If You Are a Commercial Printing Broker…

This category of clients who frequent trade printers actually includes more than just printing brokers. It also includes graphic designers who offer to not only design their clients’ jobs but also get them printed. It also includes marketing agencies that provide complete marketing services (concept to marketing campaign). Anyone who resells the trade shop’s services fits into this category.

Trade printers will not contact your clients directly unless you ask them to (to clarify job details, resolve prepress technical issues, etc.). If you want them to, trade printers will even send out the final printed product in “blind cartons” (that is, with no distinguishing company logos).

However, trade printers are not set up to run credit checks, review client references, or extend credit to end users. So what that means if you’re a printing broker is that you have to front the money for a job yourself. You cannot do what I do: get a printer’s price, add your commission, and pass the total amount on to your client; and then bill the printer for the commission after the client has taken delivery of the job and has paid for the job in full. You buy the printing, and then you resell it.

For me, the financial arrangements noted above make sense. I can’t afford to front the money, so I don’t use trade shops. A graphic designer working from home might be in the same boat. She/he might also not have the financial wherewithal to front money for a large job. Hence, she/he might use a regular printer instead of a trade printer. (Granted, she/he might not have room in the overall price for a large mark-up, but she/he wouldn’t be putting any money at risk.) In contrast, a marketing agency probably does have sufficient cash flow to cover paying printers (so in this case they can work with trade printers).

Another way to grasp this distinction is as follows. If you work with a trade printer, you actually buy the service and then resell it to an end user. So when I say I’m a printing broker, what’s really true is that I’m an “agent.” The financial relationship (when I add my commission to a printers price, pass it on to the client, and then bill the printer for the commission after the client has taken delivery of the job and paid all bills) is between the printer and my client. I am more of a locator of skilled personnel and relevant equipment, an advocate for the client, and a consultant.

Why Work with a Printing Broker?

When I was the production manager/art director of a nonprofit educational foundation in the 1990s, I worked primarily with individual printers. I knew what each offered. We built mutually advantageous professional relationships. But I also worked with one printing broker. I went to him regularly because he offered superb prices, quality work, specialty services (he used to do multi-part forms for the organization, for which I otherwise did not have a reliable, reasonably-priced source). He offered suggestions I hadn’t considered for various projects. As they say in management-speak, he “added value.”

So here are some reasons clients might want to use a printing broker:

  1. The broker might also be a graphic designer, as noted earlier (i.e., one-stop shopping).
  2. The print broker might offer a wealth of knowledge/experience, perhaps offering design or prepress suggestions, paper suggestions, and suggestions on how to save money in the process.
  3. The printing broker might know where (in any number of states in the US) to get the best prices for the exact kind of specialty work that you are doing (maybe an ultra-short-run of posters with scratch-off coating on multiple irregular areas of the poster). (An individual printer has deep knowledge about his own shop, but a print broker has a broader awareness in many cases of the offerings of printers across the country or even the world.)
  4. The print broker might do press inspections for you (although this is usually only necessary for the most color-critical work now).
  5. If something goes wrong with a job—and things do go wrong occasionally—your print broker can be your advocate, speaking for you from a position of knowledge to get your printer to correct the problem or extend a discount on the work.

If your print broker just places an order for you and marks up the final price, perhaps you would do well to go directly to your own printers. But if she or he adds value in the ways noted above, a print broker can be a real asset.

Is it worth it to pay a premium? Actually, this doesn’t even need to be an issue. If your commercial printing broker gets lower prices than you can (perhaps from a trade printer or just from a lower-priced vendor in a part of the country with overall lower prices), and then adds value to the process with her/his knowledge and experience, you may just get the best deal of all: lower prices plus superior service, all in addition to the skilled, quality work of the custom printing supplier himself.

Custom Printing: What Print Buyers Look for in Printers

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

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When it comes to print buying, I know how I choose a printer. What I don’t know is how others approach print buying. So I found it intriguing to read an analysis on of NAPCO Research’s survey of 200 print buyers or print buying influencers. The article is entitled “Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection.” Written by Lisa Cross, this article was published on PIWorld’s website on 11/23/20.

First of all, what is NAPCO? According to “Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection,” “NAPCO and PRINTING United Alliance research teams develop research and economic models that solve customer business problems.” The article goes on to say that “NAPCO Media research teams survey, analyze, and monitor critical trends related to marketing, printing, packaging, non-profit organizations, promotional products, and retailing.”

So, essentially this survey analyzes and addresses both the printing and the (general) business technologies and processes the PIE Blog discusses every week. Therefore, for me, NAPCO is a “guru” to which I listen with rapt attention.

What makes the NAPCO survey interesting to me, actually, is that print buyers these days appear to be very knowledgeable, very savvy in terms of processes, technologies, and equipment. This didn’t used to be the case. Years ago when I started in the field, in the 1980s and 1990s, designers may have learned their craft of design expertly in college, but many if not most had little experience creating printable art files, understanding how offset printing was done, or knowing which technologies and specific printing equipment were appropriate to best (and most economically) print their projects.

Well that has changed, and Lisa Cross’ PIWorld article is very specific as to how. Here are some takeaways from her custom printing article.

Increasingly Savvy Print Buyers

According to Lisa Cross’ article, print buyers increasingly understand the processes they are buying from print sales reps. Perhaps this is through personal experience, but I would expect that having internet access (both to written descriptions of printing technologies and to online videos of these processes) accounts for a big part of this increasing knowledge.

Print buyers also learn online and in trade journals that they have multiple resources immediately at hand. They can buy these printing technologies and processes from any number of commercial printing vendors.

Because of this abundance of print buying options, “Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection” notes that savvy print sales professionals need to understand buyers’ new-found technical knowledge, the buying options they have, and their expectations for the vendors with whom they work.

To quantify this, NAPCO Research, as noted in Lisa Cross’ article, says that “over two-thirds of survey respondents (67%) report being extremely familiar with the printing processes used to print their company’s materials.” And “86% of print buyer respondents indicate they specify print processes and/or brands of printing devices used to produce their print work” (“Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection”).

These findings by NAPCO Research are completely consistent with my own experience in selecting the best print vendors for my commercial printing clients. Let’s say I’m looking for a printer to produce a client’s short-run poster job. Since it is a short-run job with critical color requirements, I might want to print the poster on an HP Indigo press. I might know a handful of vendors who have this equipment. I might also know whether their particular HP inkjet presses are of sufficient size to accept a large press sheet (and not just the smaller 13” x 19” size many digital presses will print).

Apparently, other print buyers have similar experiences. According to the survey discussed in Cross’ article, “70% of respondents report that [the brand of equipment] is a key decision factor.” Presumably print buyers’ decisions are increasingly informed by their own growing awareness of current commercial printing technology, gained from readily accessible equipment specifications and product/process reviews, as well as their own buying experience.

Interestingly enough, according to “Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection,” this means that savvy commercial printing suppliers are increasingly taking into consideration their customers’ requirements for such equipment when making purchases for their plants. To a good extent this is because knowledgeable print buyers know they have options. They can buy from outside vendors or perhaps even print their jobs on in-plant equipment. They can print jobs via offset lithography or via digital inkjet or electrophotography.

Focus on Color Matching and Color Consistency

“Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection” also notes that savvy print buyers are increasingly looking for ways to ensure color consistency across multiple technologies (offset and digital, for instance, if they have both long- and short-run printing needs or a need for versioning and personalization).

When I was an art director/production manager in the 1990s, we used to attend regular press inspections for most of our high-profile custom printing jobs. Now, onsite press inspections are far less common (except, perhaps, for color-critical work like food, fashion, and automotive). To a good extent this is due to better on-press, closed-loop color control, which provides immediate feedback regarding color accuracy.

Nevertheless, print buyers still want assurances that the color will be accurate throughout a job and from one job to another, and since this depends on the skill of press operators (as well as the capabilities of their equipment), the new breed of print buyers looks for printer certifications. Two important color management certifications noted in “Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection” are G7 and ISO 9000.

Cross’ article also references print buyers’ interest in sustainability certification (presumably, such as a printer’s use of FSC-compliant—or Forest Stewardship Council-compliant—commercial printing papers).

The Value of Educating Print Buyers

If you are a custom printing supplier, according to Cross’ article, it benefits you to generously share your technical knowledge with your clients. Clients are most interested, according to the NAPCO Research study, in information on “the print production process…digital printing technology, and improving color quality and consistency.” They also want to learn more about “preparing print job files, substrates, digital enhancements, and combining print with other media” (“Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection”).

If you are a commercial printing vendor, educating clients benefits both you and them. This fosters customer loyalty and also helps ensure accurate, print-ready files. It “enhances relationships, while increasing production efficiency and productivity” (“Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection”).

The Importance of Personal Connections and Vendor Reliability

Savvy print buyers expect and require outstanding, responsive service. Again, this benefits both them and the print vendors, since jobs get completed quickly and accurately. The NAPCO Research study makes it clear that print sales reps need to understand both the technology and their customers’ needs in order to efficiently and cost-effectively solve their problems.

Job Submission, Monitoring, and Control

Print buyers want to understand how to best produce art files that will work the first time. They want to know how a job is moving through the various print manufacturing processes, and they want to be able to control not only the quality but also the cost. Furthermore, they want tight control over their brand.

NAPCO Research’s study of 200 print buyers and influencers found this reflected in the fact that “81% of print buyers prefer working with a print service provider that offers an online ordering tool” (“Print Buyer Survey Reveals Key Factors Influencing Provider Selection”).

The Takeaway

What can we learn from this article as print buyers and students of commercial printing?

  1. Study everything you can about custom printing. Start with online articles and videos.
  2. Then ask your print providers about anything you don’t understand.
  3. Ask printers for samples produced with the various print technologies. Closely observe any differences. (Look closely at the general color fidelity and intensity, tint screens and solid areas of color, photographs, type, etc.)
  4. Look for printer certifications, such as G7 and ISO 9000. Also ask your printers about the sustainability of their materials (FSA printing papers and soy-based ink, for example).

The more you know, the better you will be as a print buyer, and the higher the quality of custom printing you will get from your vendors.

Commercial Printing: A Few Thoughts on Printing Trade Customs

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

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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

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“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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