By D. Eadward Tree
The United States has more than 20,000 printing businesses. When it comes to producing magazines, you can probably ignore at least 98% of those.
Lots of printers can print magazines. (“Sure, we print magazines. We print everything,” says Vinny, that fast-talking friend of a friend who sells for a local printing company. “We gotta lot of open press time, so I can give you a great deal.”) But most magazine publishers need a printer that can do more than print.
Magazine publishers usually ask their printers to receive, process, and store page files from a variety of sources, including ad agencies that increasingly don’t know how to create a print-ready PDF. We need them to bind a variety of cards, cover wraps, and inserts that are supplied by other printers, then to print addresses onto some copies but not onto others.
Printers presort our subscriber files, keep us in compliance with postal regulations, manage the shipment of some copies to far-flung places, and put others into storage for future use. (See Tip #1).
Read on for 10 tips for selecting a printer.
Tip #1: Choose a publication printer, not a printer that happens to produce publications.
Unless you publish the simplest of magazines—with no externally produced ads, no mailed copies, no versions, and only local distribution—you probably need a printer with real expertise and deep experience with our industry.
Some publication printers specialize in producing magazines and catalogs. Others serve a more diversified set of industries, but have plants, employees, and equipment dedicated to and optimized for publications. In any case, you don’t want a printer who has to learn the magazine business from you; you want one that has worked with enough publishers to understand your needs and to offer new ideas.
Tip #2: Review—and reconsider—your magazine’s major specifications.
The time to think about changing trim size, page counts, circulation, frequency, or binding type is before you start talking to potential printers.
Tip #3: List your gotta-haves.
If your advertisers love the unusual gatefolds you offer, make sure the new printer can produce something similar. Newsstand shipments, polybagging, blow-in cards, regional and demographic versions, international distribution, and significant back-issue storage (and retrieval) are among the needs that some printing plants may not be able to handle.
Tip #4: List your pain points.
Write down your publication’s operational challenges, even if they aren’t directly related to printing. Where have things gone wrong? Where are you lacking expertise or spinning your wheels? What are your advertisers requesting or your competitors offering that you can’t? You’d be surprised what some publication printers can do for you, including the creation of digital editions, email campaigns, websites, and other products that have nothing to do with putting ink on paper.
Tip #5: Avoid doing in-plant color approvals.
Sending a staff member or contractor to the printing plant for “color OK’s” is a red flag for prospective printers: It indicates something is wrong with your page files, and it means extra press time and waste while press operators respond to vague feedback like, “This needs to be a bit warmer.” With today’s file specifications, preflight programs, and on-press color-management systems, printers can achieve the best color reproduction when they print “to the numbers” across all pages rather than trying to match proofs or a person’s preferences on specific pages.
Tip #6: Think beyond local.
Savvy publishers don’t fall for the myth that their printing plant needs to be located near the publisher’s offices. Even for regional publications, an out-of-town printer with a good logistics operation might not be at a disadvantage and may offer strengths that the locals don’t have.
Tip #7: Look for sweet spots.
Magazines are printed on a wide variety of presses, ranging from the size of a dinner table to larger than a mansion. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. A plant where the equipment and crews are dialed in to doing press runs in the hundreds of thousands is likely to struggle with print orders of 5,000. Likewise, a printing plant that has only sheet-fed presses might say it can handle a print order of 100,000, but don’t waste your time: A printer with offset presses should be far more efficient. Your best bet is to be in a printing plant that produces products that are physically similar to yours.
Tip #8: Consider paper.
Ask printers not just for their prices but also for their paper allowances—the amount of paper they will be allowed to use for a print job. There can be significant differences in allowances from printer to printer for the same job—sometimes because one printer would use a press that isn’t the best fit for your publication. It’s also worth asking prospective printers about paper alternatives; a printer that can use a lighter weight or lower grade of paper might be able to gain you substantial savings. If the printer supplies the paper, you’ll need to address pricing—not just today but after market prices rise or fall. And if you supply your own paper, expect to pay handling and/or storage fees.
Tip #9: Factor in postage.
The ability to garner postage savings is often the key differentiator between one printer and another. Choosing the right printer can reduce your postal bill by 20% or more. No matter how much open press time Vinny’s company has, he can’t cut his prices enough to make up for the lack of co-mailing or dropshipping capabilities.
Tip #10: Compare costs, not prices.
Even the simplest printing contract may have a price list with scores of items. Printer A may charge more for printing but less for binding than Printer B. One may use paper more efficiently, while the other may offer less expensive paper. And then there’s postage, which costs many publishers more than printing or paper.
The best way to make sense of it all is to total up all the costs of publishing an issue using each printer, from receiving page files, to producing the copies, and then to the mailing, storage, and shipping of the copies. Don’t forget to factor in the value of services and capabilities that some other printers don’t offer.
But don’t necessarily pick the lowest-cost option. The choice of a printer is too important to be decided solely on cost. The intangibles, like responsiveness and innovative solutions, go a long way.