Negotiating with Printers
Production directors describe their bidding process and contract priorities.
Choosing the right printer is, arguably, the most important decision a production director has to make.
âIf my printer produces a beautiful product with no quality complaints or grumbling art directors, meets our distribution schedule and stays a step ahead of our needs, then Iâm given an A-plus by my management team,â says Fran Fox, senior director of production/manufacturing at Dwell. âIf, however, he flounders, then I flop.â
This is what makes the bidding process âas important as the end result,â says Fox.
And thatâs why Charlie Cole, production director for PennWell Corporation, starts his bidding a year or more before a new contract is due. âThis gives me time to look at all the possibilities,â he says, âand also to put it away for a few weeks and come back to it later on.â
Cole starts by narrowing the field down to five or six vendors who can handle his companyâs volume. The next step is to secure a non-disclosure agreement clearly delineating what will happen to proprietary data once the process is over. âIn our case, we want it destroyed, or everything we mailed out physically sent back to us,â says Cole.
Analyzing a set of bids can become incredibly complex when printers collapse multiple components into one price, or when various printers refer to services or items inconsistently. âMake sure youâre getting cost broken out as much possible so you can convert prices and compare apples to apples,â says Michele Garth, a production manager at Northstar Travel Media.
Cole sets specific instructions on how he wants data presentedâin part to evaluate how well the vendor follows directions. âWatch out for printers who want to change how you do business or evaluate bids,â he says. Cole requests a progressive invoice, with paper, mailing and manufacturing on separate statements.
The cost of making changes, or for ancillary items such as inserts, cards and supplements, should be included in a bid packet to avoid dramatic, unexpected increases later on. Garth also recommends paying attention to whether or not tax is included on the bid, and how that percentage may vary based on the vendorâs location.
During the bidding process, Cole evaluates the printersâ attention to detail. âA printer who is not familiar with our business should have questions,â Cole says. âIf they donât, I really critique their quotes and what theyâre doing.â
Choosing the Right Printer
Every publisher, Fox points out, has three clear priorities when it comes to printing: Pricing, schedule and quality. âWhile everyone says each is equally important,â Fox adds, âthese priorities carry different weights in different organizations. Knowing which of these have wiggle room and which donât in your organization is the first step.â
While price is an obvious concern, Fox is leery of giving apparent cost savings too much import. âI want all my vendors to make money off my business,â she says. âI want them to be happy enough to bend over backward for us when things go wrong. And in production, things always go wrong.â
Cole says bids should be within about two to four percent of each other: âIf one bid is 20 percent lower, it looks attractive, but heâs going to try to make your project profitable by charging you elsewhere. Also, if he goes bankrupt, your work can get stuck in his plant.â
For Fox, getting a sense of a vendorâs approach to customer service is a special priority during the bidding processâone that is easily overlooked. âOnce the printer is selected and your successful negotiations on price, quality, schedule and contract terms are ancient history, itâs customer service that will make or break your publicationâs satisfaction with your vendorâs, and ultimately your own, performance.â Some questions she looks to see addressed include: Does the customer service rep (CSR) have a history of successful troubleshooting? If youâre not satisfied with your assigned CSR, can you request a new one without trouble? Do your CSR, bindery supervisor, press crew and other representatives feel theyâre on your team, or do they feel youâre lucky to be printing at their plant?
Cole suggests looking closely at what each printer is geared for. A long-run printer isnât going to be good at short-runs, he says, and vice versa. âIf theyâre talking to you about selling press time and binder time, theyâre a long-run printer,â says Cole. âIf they are talking about selling you make-readies, itâs a short-run. In todayâs market, it may not make sense to have everything in one place.âÂ If working with multiple printers, he says, itâs vital to make the terms clear. âFor example, if printer A is your long-run printer, a run will go to printer B automatically if it drops below a certain amount. That way theyâre not fighting over the work, and youâre not in the middle.â
That need for flexibility extends to particular services, too, such as co-mailing. In some cases, printers will charge penalties for missing a co-mail deadline. âThatâs not right,â Cole says. âIf you miss your pool, youâll get into the next available one. There shouldnât be any penalties.â Cole also suggests considering whether or not co-mailing is worthwhile at all, on an issue-by-issue basis. âIn my experience, certain magazines only save you $300-$400 per issue. If you delay your mailing by sometimes three to four days, maybe you could have used that time on the front end to sell another ad.â
Setting Contract Terms
Once a printer is chosen and an initial contract is set up, itâs important to remember that negotiations can still be made. âThe most important thing is to ask,â says Garth.
Setting quality benchmarks at this point is key, says Fox. Also key is setting standards for termination, in case an important element is breached.
For Cole, setting up guidelines for communication is essential. âIf a publisher calls the printer directly, their guidance is to direct the publisher back to the production manager,â he says. The print order, he adds, is a bible for the process. âEverybody sees the print order before it goes out. Once it goes out, thatâs what theyâre going to do, down to the detail.â
Establishing a fair paper consumption level is another crucial term to set. âA printer may have a really good paper price but kill you on consumption,â Cole says. âYou want to make sure itâs locked in that if you run this form in this configuration, youâre only allowed this much paper to do it. Anything beyond that is the printerâs problem.â
Some negotiating points to evaluate, Fox advises, are the benefits of entering into longer contracts, the possibility of a two percent quickpay discount or varying the number of net days for payment.
Bundling other services, such as digital edition distribution or ad portals, may help bring cost downâthough, as Cole reminds, itâs essential to weigh the real benefits of a âone-stop shopâ by looking closely at the cost of each service and comparing it to the competition. Ultimately, he says, itâs imperative not to rush. âPrinters will push you and say, âWe gotta have this done.â Thatâs when I back off from that printer. I set dates for decision points and say, âDonât call me until this date.â If theyâre good, reputable printers, theyâll be patient.â