Despite the rise of the digital age, and now more than two decades after the earliest days of the Internet, print is still all around us. Stacks of catalogs continue to arrive in our mailboxes each week, and newsstands continue to overflow with print magazine titles. Sure, it’s true that digital media are commanding more and more attention these days, but print is still very much a major player in publishing, and it’s hard to imagine our world without it. The reasons for the perseverance of print are many and complex, but suffice it to say that print is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
So if you’re a publisher of any kind, from magazines to annual reports to catalogs and beyond, you’ll likely have to make yourself familiar and comfortable with the printing process (and our blog post on our “Top 10 Printing Tips for New Publishers” is a good place to start). As part of the printing process, you’ll need to educate yourself on how to plan for and request print bids. This post will help walk you through this aspect of the publishing business.
Digital vs. Offset Printing
If you’re printing small quantities of your design piece (for example, in the case of a prototype magazine issue to distribute to advertising prospects along with your media kit), you may want to consider using digital printing to output your project. While, in our experience, the quality of digital printing isn’t always quite as precise as with offset printing, a digital press is usually much more economical for shorter runs — and turnaround times can be shorter as well.
For most print runs, however, offset printing has long been the industry standard in terms of quality. Offset printing is also divided into two different general press types: sheet-fed presses and web presses. You may hear your printer representative use these terms in conversations about your project, so it’s helpful to know the difference. A sheet-fed press prints on individual sheets of paper (hence the name), while a web press prints on a continuous roll of paper that is fed through the machinery, resembling a web of sorts (again, hence the name). These very large paper rolls, bought in bulk, are typically more efficient to produce, and those savings are typically passed on to the publisher. Due to economies of scale, sheet-fed presses are generally reserved for shorter offset runs (runs that are still too large, however, to be practical for digital printing), whereas web presses typically come into play for longer offset runs and publications with higher page counts. There are other differences, but these are the key points to be aware of when pricing your project out with different printers. (Keep in mind that not all printers will feature the same equipment, so bids may vary significantly based on the appropriateness of your publication for a printer’s particular setup).
Determining Your Print Specifications
Printers will need a number of pieces of information about your project in order to prepare an accurate estimate, so it’s best to figure out the specs prior to getting in touch with them. And you should be getting bids from multiple printers (perhaps 3-5), to ensure the best possible deal and fit for your project, so you should probably prepare a spec sheet to send to printers. Here’s a brief overview of what you should include:
This spec is pretty self-explanatory — just make sure you cover your bases and order enough to meet all of your distribution needs. It’s a good idea to request quotes based on multiple quantities, so you can decide on the final numbers closer to press time, based on your budget, mailing lists, etc.
Especially for advertising-based magazines, knowing the final page count ahead of time isn’t always feasible. So when you bid your job, you may want to ask for estimates on multiple page count options (for example, 36 pages vs. 48 pages vs. 60 pages). Also, due to the different ways in which presses are set up, some page counts may be more efficient (in terms of cost on a per-page basis) than others for a certain printer. Some printers, for example, may have more favorable pricing for a 64-page magazine than a 60-page magazine. These kinds of factors vary from printer to printer, so be sure to ask what the “ideal” page counts might be for each, in terms of budget. And remember that for most publications, the total page count must be divisible by four (e.g., 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, etc.).
This spec is also pretty straightforward — it basically just means what the finished size of the magazine will be when closed (also known as “trim size”). The most common trim size we use in our clients’ magazine designs is 8.375″ x 10.875″, but you may want to ask your printer if there’s a specific size that would be more cost-effective to print and mail. And if your magazine is intended for newsstand distribution, you’ll need to comply with those page size specs.
Most print projects these days involve what is known as four-color process printing. Some more budget-conscious projects may involve less than four colors, but for our purposes, let’s stick with four. The four colors referred to in the name are cyan, magenta, yellow and black, also known as CMYK (the K stands for black, presumably to avoid confusion with blue). Using combinations of these four colors in tiny dot patterns, printers can replicate a vast array of millions of colors, making four-color printing a versatile, efficient solution for almost any printed piece.
In some cases, you may have a very specific color (for example, a corporate color that must be accurate for branding purposes) that will need to be included as a separate step in the printing process. These colors, widely known as “spot colors,” “Pantone colors” (for the company that produces them) and “PMS colors,” are available in thousands of hues, selectable from specialized color swatch books that most professional designers will have on hand. Spot colors are usually called for only in certain situations, and they will add cost to your print bill, so use them wisely and sparingly.
If you’re new to publishing and printing, the term “bleed” may be new for you. When a magazine or other publication is printed, it’s not printed exactly to the final size, but rather on a larger sheet/roll of paper, which will then be trimmed to the final size (hence the term “trim size”). Trimming isn’t always a perfect process, so printers require a bit of extra space to be printed along the outside edges (i.e., all edges not touching the gutter at the center of the magazine) to allow for imperfections in the trim and avoid potentially unsightly white gaps along the trimmed edges. This extra space, known as the bleed, typically ranges between 0.125″ and 0.25″, depending on the tolerances of the printer’s equipment. Most magazines and other bound pieces require what is known as a “full bleed,” which means having a bleed on all edges except for the gutter. Some smaller pieces, such as postcards, might not bleed at all, depending on the design — but for most publishers, full bleeds are the norm.
Paper quality, thickness, look, feel, durability, finish and cost vary widely, so choosing the right stock for your project can be a daunting task. This is one aspect of a printing job where you should definitely seek advice from a knowledgeable printer rep. If you have a sample of a magazine stock, for instance, that you would like to shoot for in your project, be sure to send a sample to your reps to help them match that paper as closely as possible. Most printers buy stock in bulk, in varying grades and thicknesses, and they’ll probably be working from the particular brands they keep in inventory. To be sure your paper will look and feel as you want it to, it’s a good idea to have printers send you samples of that paper — and you may also want to ask them to send you a “dummy,” or “mock-up,” of your publication, so you can see what the finished product would feel like. For instance, if you’re publishing a 64-page magazine, a good printer can mock up an unprinted 64-page dummy to send to you for review — that will give you a much better feel for the end product than a single page will.
Keep in mind that you may want the paper stock on which the cover of your publication is printed to be thicker and of higher quality than the stock used in the interior, depending on your budgetary constraints.
For magazines, which are subject to use by multiple readers over an extended period of time, sealing the covers with a coating can help protect the paper and ink, as well as prevent the appearance of fingerprints. The three main types of coatings — varnishes, aqueous coatings and UV coatings — have their own individual advantages and disadvantages, and this topic could be the subject of its own blog post, as there are many factors to consider, including cost, durability, level of glossiness, yellowing over time, smoothness, etc. You probably don’t need to get too bogged down with all of the complexities of the different coatings, but it’s helpful to be familiar with your general options when discussing your project with printers. An experienced printer rep can walk you through the best choices for your publication type, intended use, shelf life, paper stock and budget.
Proofing and press checks:
After your magazine designer has submitted the final art (usually in the form of high-resolution PDFs) to the printer, the printer will prepare the files for press and require you to sign off on the art before the actual printing takes place. The proofing process can take several forms, depending on your budget, tolerance for color accuracy and confidence in the printer. In the old days, this step was often referred to as “bluelines,” when the client would receive a one-color (usually bright blue) ink proof to ensure that all design elements were placed correctly, and that no content was missing. These days, however, with the advancement of digital printing technology, full-color proofs are much more the norm. First, you can opt for a “soft” proof in PDF format, which can be viewed and approved on screen, via the printer’s printing management system. If on-screen approval isn’t your preferred option, you can request “hard” (printed) proofs, which come in varying levels of quality — and cost. Color laser proofs are usually lower in quality, printed on cheaper stock, and not intended for publications where color accuracy is vital. Higher-quality proofs, on the other hand, will represent the final product much more faithfully (each printer may use different proofing technology, so be sure to inquire about what your options are and what the associated costs would be).
If color is absolutely critical, or you prefer to maintain tight control over your printing, you may also request to be present for what is known as a “press check,” during which you visit the press in person, during the print run, to manually sign off on actual press sheets. While this is a great way to ensure quality, press checks can also add to the cost of a printing project, so weigh your needs against the additional expense and determine what makes the most sense for you.
Binding and finishing:
Magazines and other multipage documents typically make use of one of two main binding types: saddle-stitch and perfect binding (there are other binding types as well, such as spiral binding, but most aren’t suitable to magazines and the like). In saddle-stitch binding, the magazine is laid flat, then stapled from the outside (cover) toward the inside (centerfold), then folded to the final size — this type of binding has an upper page limit, depending on the thickness of the paper stock, so your printer will be able to advise you on whether or not saddle-stitching is appropriate for your project.
Magazines with higher page counts, on the other hand, usually make use of perfect binding, in which the gutter edges of the interior of the magazine are ground down a bit, coated with adhesive, and bound to the sheet containing the covers and spine. Perfect binding usually isn’t a practical option for smaller page counts, but again, your printer can advise you on specifics as to the best fit for your needs.
Mailing and distribution:
Established, knowledgeable printers should be able to assist you with mailing your magazines to recipients and, for newsstand magazines, coordinating distribution services on your behalf. Getting the magazines in readers’ hands is every bit as important as any other step in the publishing process, so take care not to minimize its importance. Find out what kinds of mailing and distribution services each printer can provide, and have each price those services as part of your project quote. Due to geographical location, some printers might actually offer a substantial cost advantage in terms of postage and shipping costs.
After Receiving the Print Bids
You’ve finalized your magazine print specs and submitted bid requests to several printers. Now what? When the print bids come in, take the time to compare the different quotes carefully, to ensure that they do in fact reflect the specs you submitted. Should they not, have your printer rep adjust them — this will allow you to compare the bids accurately, apples to apples.
Next, you should do some due diligence to find out more about each printer, including requesting objective client references. While one printer might seem to offer significant savings over another, an inexpensive bid doesn’t necessarily mean that vendor will be the best fit for your needs. As with all important business decisions, weighing the pros and cons of each printing vendor is essential to a successful long-term relationship.