The Path to the Tarpits
Editor's Note: We recently asked several printers to reflect on the state of the workflow that exists among them and their customers, publishing companies. The responses tell a lot about the state of the relationship that exists between publishers and their single most important supplier, printers. There was concern about coordination, about deadlines, about unfair expectations. And there was also much that was positive.
One response was so detailed, so specific, so scathing, that we asked the author for permission to publish it. Because it is so frank, we have elected to publish it anonymously.
From our perspective, the coordination of efforts on the publishing side is a huge and growing challenge. But there is another factor at work in this too: The capabilities of publisher production staff are declining.
The recession between late-2000 and mid-2002 was the first shoe, and the continuing M&A activity among publishing companies is the second. Between them, in round after round, experienced and knowledgeable production staff were among the first people sacrificed. That meant that a great deal of experience and institutional memory was lost in wave after wave.
Meanwhile, the relentless march into the PDF workflow as an emerging industry default continued, and pressure to shorten printing cycle times in order to increase the window for advertising sales (we hear that it is driven by editorial concerns less than 10 percent of the time) increased as publishers were financially strapped. So what has been the result? Less experienced, untrained or poorly-trained production people. And fewer of them. What do we, as printers, experience as a result?
The quality of incoming files is getting worse. It is the rare publisher that can manage incoming files from advertisers well and reliably distill them into PDFs. We've been forced to preflight every PDF file we get, and only a small percentage survive preflight intact, not requiring changes to make them run reliably.
The top executives in publishing companies tend to be removed from the consequences of structural decisions they make, and the scheduling pressure they choose to put on the printer. They don't connect the high staff turnover with the steady flow of ad errors (and makegoods) and their regular failures to meet their scheduled dates.
Advertising-sales organizations are emerging as the ultimate decision makers within publishers. One effect of that is that we won't make a new-business pitch any longer without insisting that the ranking executive in charge of advertising be included in the process from the beginning.
Makegoods on the Rise
The pressure for makegoods has tripled;at least. Publishers are accepting ads in whatever format the advertiser chooses to send them. In one case, a monthly title of ours has us in contact with an average of 40 advertisers per issue, dealing with files that cannot be reliably translated into ink-on-paper. In the eyes of the ad-sales staff, any problem must be the responsibility of the printer.
We cannot even get publishers to improve when we hand them the resources. Production departments are so overworked and understaffed that even arranging to install a software tool we provide our clients free of charge to manage the layout of each issue, requires multiple scheduling attempts.
Adding insult to injury, nearly all publishing organizations are now badly under-capitalized. That means that the credit extended by their primary vendor, their printer, is often being treated as a ready substitute for working capital and an alternative to financing that would have real interest expense tied to it. In case after case, we find that we have more money at work in the publisher's enterprise than the publisher has invested.
We are also seeing all of the related information flow from a publisher creating problems in the process. Mailing lists come to us late, which makes us rush to get a postage estimate created quickly so that funds can be on deposit when the mail is ready to drop. Lists are being managed as a secondary or tertiary responsibility of the production people, which delays a print order, making paper-management harder. Proofing (hard or soft) is treated as a low-priority annoyance and proofreading becomes a "once over" exercise with the expectation that the printer will make the publisher whole for anything the publisher fails to catch.
Needless to say, our approach is to scramble and back up our clients as well as we possibly can, even when the expectations are based in inexperience or are unreasonable. The saddest casualty of the changes we've observed over the past five years is the decline in a partnering mindset or partnering behavior between publisher and printer. We're fast approaching the point where we're going to have to start watching our own backs as a first priority rather than those of our publishers, which has been our practice heretofore. But embracing clients whose behavior is cavalier at best and mercenary at worst is poor business practice, and will simply pave the path to the tarpits for us.