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What To Know When Shopping For A Printer

Seven critical areas to keep top of mind.



By Deborah Caldwell
01/12/2011

Publishers are no longer simply magazine creator-they're multimedia brand builders. Printers, meanwhile, are no longer just ink-on-paper product manufacturers-they're also content distribution platform providers. And no one is sure these days where one function ends and the other begins.

And make no mistake, printing contracts are changing. Distribution costs-not just printing or paper costs-are now the critical expenses publishers must deal with when they negotiate with printers, says Steven Frye, president of Frye Publication Consulting. That's because digital technology has made it easy for printers to create a perfect printed product. But distributing magazine content to multiple platforms, both conventional and electronic, is now far more complicated.

"There's a love-hate relationship between publishers and printers and the new electronic reading devices now," says Frye. "Publishers and printers are trying to survive together with technology that's new to both of them."

So what do you do if you're about to negotiate your first printing contract? Frye and other production experts shared their tips.

Gather specifications. How many titles do you own, how many issues do you produce per year, how many pages do they run, what format are they in, how much turnaround time will you allow your printer from production to distribution? These are basic but critical questions.

Pay attention to paper costs. In the old days, production directors were in touch with paper suppliers on a regular basis, so everyone knew the price of paper. Today, publishers often buy paper from printers. That means publishers don't have a clear sense of how much paper actually costs and can sometimes fall victim to price inflation by printers. One way to handle that problem is to ask your printer to tie the paper price you'll pay to an industry index such as one provided by RISI, says Keith Hammerbeck, corporate director of media operations for Advanstar.

Paper storage prices. If you buy paper from your printer, you should not pay storage prices. If you supply your own paper, you must negotiate storage prices upfront, Hammerbeck says. He adds that printers shouldn't charge publishers to store paper as long as the supply is two months or less.

Overrun allowances. This is a line item that can slip through easily, and you won't notice you're overpaying. But Hammerbeck says you can push printers for a very small overrun allowance; if you bargain hard, you can negotiate with a printer to charge you nothing, a tactic that forces the printer to manage spoilage and remain efficient.

Postage. This is another biggy, often a much larger expense than paper. If you use co-mailing, the process by which your printer combines the mailing of your magazine with that of other titles, you should make sure your printer guarantees you a certain level of postal savings-say, 10-20 percent, says Hammerbeck.

Digital add-ons. Frye says publishers need to be very careful about the kinds of digital services they are willing to buy or use, because they are also services they may have to give up. Printers are offering advertising, marketing, design, circulation and planning tools, as well as development of web sites, e-magazines and apps. Leaving a printer may now affect departments that before would never have been affected.

One example is P.I.C.A., a free proprietary tool offered by Publishers Press. This service allows publishers to map the issue, choose impositions, select paper, create cost estimates and more. The problem? If you leave the printer you leave the service.

Other printers provide great postal services-and if you leave that printer, you lose premium postal management. If possible, Frye urges publishers to negotiate digital services separately from printing contracts because publishers should try to have the right to keep them even if they switch printers.

Payment terms, pricing formats, length of contract. Push printers for a longer payment timeline. Don't hesitate to ask them to describe their pricing in the format you determine, so that you can compare one printer to another based on the same pricing format. And push hard to keep your printing contract to the fewest years possible. Printers want to extend contracts to 5-7 years but the printing world is changing every day. Getting locked into a long contract could mean higher costs and lagging technology.

"Tell every printer that you are going to do the best job you can to make every printer win your printing contract," says Hammerbeck. "Make it easy to gain their business." But, he adds, be vigilant.

By Deborah Caldwell
01/12/2011







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