Offset printing has come a long way since the days of typesetting, film and color separations. Gone are the days of camera-ready art and Stat cameras — these days, at least on large presses, it’s all digital.
While the technology has improved a great deal over the past couple of decades, printing still consumes a large percentage of any given magazine publishing budget. As we’ve been reading in magazine industry news quite a bit lately, iPads and other eReaders haven’t exactly wowed consumers to the point that we’re swearing off the printed page. Tablets and other similar devices may add another outlet for publishers to deliver their content, but at this point we’re a long, long way from turning the traditional magazine publishing distribution model on its head. (After all, some of us still love our printed mags.) And we firmly believe that print is here for the long haul.
So for publishers looking to maximize their profitability, minimizing printing costs (without a significant drop in quality or reliability) is essential. At Picante, we’ve been dealing with printers for many, many years now, from small corner print shops to behemoth mega-printers and everything in between — so we wanted to share a few tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls while choosing a printer and getting your magazine ready for primetime.
1. Educate yourself on the printing process.
Modern printing can be a highly technical business, and all the details involved in print bids can be a bit intimidating, if you don’t know industry lingo or aren’t familiar with the process through which a magazine design makes it to the printed page. And knowledge is most definitely power in this case. With so much of your magazine publishing budget riding on a successful printing experience, do yourself a big favor and take a crash course, courtesy of Google — or find someone who can provide you with some guidance along the way. It’s not necessary (nor is it practical) to know every paper stock, coating and technical specification out there, but it is a good idea to have a general understanding of how the printing process works, from design, prepress, plating and ink transfer all the way through binding, finishing and fulfillment. And if you’ve never done so, contact one of your local printers (preferably a shop you’re getting a quote from) to arrange for a tour of their plant. Seeing the operations in action for yourself can be a great way to connect the dots and enrich your knowledge of how the magazine publishing industry works.
2. See the quality for yourself. While Googling in search of appropriate vendors for your magazine publishing venture, you’ll undoubtedly find dozens of slick, well-designed corporate websites that extol their respective virtues. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really tell you a thing about their quality standards, since print is, in its finished form, an inherently offline medium. To get a better feel for the quality of any given printer’s work, you literally need to see and touch their printed products for yourself. Request a packet from their sales rep, and most reputable printers will be more than happy to send you samples. While this doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your own magazine will print as nicely, getting some samples can be a good way to get an initial look at a printer’s general capabilities — and can keep you from wasting thousands of dollars on a subpar printer that isn’t up to your standards.
3. Check references. This step is perhaps more important than any other in the vetting process. Magazine printing can be a major investment, and as with most suppliers and vendors, success often hinges on how responsive, proactive, knowledgeable and accommodating the team is that you’re dealing with. When it comes to customer service, don’t just accept lip service — the best source of objective reviews come from a printer’s own clients. Request a few client references and contact them directly to get their impressions on how well the printer delivers on its promises. It’s not uncommon to find printers who produce a wonderful product but are more than a little frustrating to work with. And conversely, there may certainly be printers with an extremely helpful staff and a less-than-stellar printed product. Ultimately, you’re looking for the best balance of quality, reliability, service and cost, and references are a great way to get this information quickly. Again, doing your due diligence at this stage can save you headaches and, of course, lots of money that might otherwise be wasted.
4. Consider sustainable, environmentally friendly printing. Obtaining FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification for your magazine printing and using eco-friendly inks are two factors to consider in the planning stages. According to its website, the FSC “sets high standards that ensure forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable way” — in short, helping to ensure that paper suppliers who meet their standards aren’t cutting down trees indiscriminately and wastefully. Achieving FSC status — and earning the right to display the FSC logo in your magazine — requires a bit of extra work for the printer, but most modern printers should be able to accommodate your request. Another eco-friendly option to consider is using soy-based ink instead of traditional petroleum-based ink, a distinction that can also be included in your mag to show your concern for environmental issues. These days, with sustainability on the minds of so many consumers, making use of eco-friendly practices in publishing your magazine can help earn you credibility with your target audience — on top of the clear environmental benefits it provides. So while you’re in the midst of making decisions on the specifications for your print run, you might consider exploring these options with your print rep to see if they would be a good fit for your magazine.
5. Define your specs and price it out. Getting print bids can be tedious — if you’re not organized. At Picante, we use a standard form when sending out for bids that includes all the vital info needed for printers to prepare thorough estimates. Once we’ve nailed down the print specs for a given magazine, we simply send it out to as many companies as are appropriate for the job. The form generally includes info on the type of printing (digital/offset); inks (usually four-color process, but occasionally making use of additional spot/PMS colors); dimensions; paper stock (printers can recommend a stock, if you don’t already have one in mind); bleeds (to ensure complete ink coverage after the trimming process); page count (you can specify a range, if you’re not sure yet); print run (quantity — again, you can specify a range here); varnishes/coatings; type of proofs required (soft/digital vs. hardcopy); whether or not a press check is required; finishing services required (trimming/folding, etc.); binding (usually saddle-stitch or perfect-bound); and occasionally other details required in special circumstances. We usually price any given job out to 3 or 4 printers, at a minimum, to ensure that we’re getting a good fit for a client’s budget — some printers, due to press size and other factors, may be more cost-effective for certain types and sizes of print runs, so it’s always a good idea to choose a cross-section of printers with whom to quote the project. Again, though, cost is just one of the crucial factors in arriving at a final decision, so don’t be tempted to make your decision on pricing alone. Note that many printers will charge extra — sometimes hundreds of dollars — for a hardcopy set of proofs prior to the actual printing. If you’re comfortable approving the job for print on a computer screen instead of on paper, you can cut your costs a bit there.
6. Get a dummy. There are scads of paper stock brands, varieties, weights and qualities out there. Because printers often buy large quantities of certain brands of stock to achieve economies of scale, they will likely have their own unique paper inventory for you to choose from. Be sure to communicate the quality and feel of paper you’re looking for in your magazine — an experienced sales rep will know their stock well and should be able to make an appropriate recommendation based on your needs. If you have a specific magazine with a paper stock you’d like to match as closely as possible, send it to the rep so they can see exactly what you have in mind. When we request bids for clients, we also typically request a blank (unprinted, paper-only) “dummy” of the magazine (based on a given page count) to give them a good idea of what the finished product will feel like — how heavy the magazine will be, how thick (or light) the stock will be, and even how the paper will sound as you flip the pages — all important considerations, if not ones that readers will ever consciously consider themselves. A dummy helps you visualize what your finished mag will look and feel like in readers’ hands. Perhaps the biggest tangible benefit of this step is avoiding buyer’s remorse later on — you may think you’re saving on costs by going with a flimsier stock, but if you never hold it dummied up in your own hands, you might regret the decision later and end up with a printed magazine that isn’t quite what you had in mind.
7. Keep your designer in the loop. As you negotiate the terms and specs of your project with printers — which often takes place while a magazine is going through the design and layout process — remember that changing a seemingly harmless detail like page size (to accommodate a particular printer’s press size, for example) can have a major effect on the look of the magazine itself. For example, if you originally intended to go with a wider, nonstandard size but later change your mind (for budgetary or other reasons) and opt for a more standard size, that will significantly impact any design work already under way — and could result in additional layout charges in order to accommodate the new size. Your designer is a key player in the printing (and overall magazine publishing) process, so be sure to run your specs by them and keep them informed of any potential changes.
8. Proof, proof, proof. Once the layout process is complete and your magazine designer has delivered the digital files (artwork) to the printer, any changes requested thereafter (including typos and other editorial changes) will typically result in additional per-page charges from the printer — charges that can really add up, if you end up making edits to multiple pages. The best ways to avoid those kinds of charges are: (1) hiring a professional copyeditor to edit and proofread your copy before going into the design phase and (2) proofing every detail of the magazine — more than once if possible — before sending the files to press, to eliminate the need for many changes once the files are sent out.
9. Know your designer’s prepress procedures. “Prepress” is the process of getting your magazine’s digital design files ready and outputted (usually in high-resolution PDF format) for transmittal to the printer. Designers surely have their own respective ways of going about prepress, some more detailed and thorough than others. Just like with #8 above, changes made to files due to prepress oversights will likely cost you, so it’s always a good idea to know what your magazine designer’s prepress procedures consist of. At Picante, we run our files through 15-20 different checks, depending on the project, to make sure the files are as perfect as possible before leaving our studio. Our prepress includes everything from ensuring that all design elements are aligned properly, to doing a thorough spell-check, to checking the accuracy of all page number references, among many other steps. Ultimately, this helps to ensure a high level of quality and result in an immaculate end product for our clients. We take great pride in our designs, and prepress is a key finishing step in the magazine publishing process.
10. Check it out (on press). These days, with the high level of printing quality afforded by the latest technology, what is known as the “press check” or “press okay” in the industry has largely become a thing of the past. Doing a press check means that you physically visit the printing plant while your magazine in on press, so you can approve each form as it comes out — literally, hot off the press. Press checks are a great way to spot any mistakes (especially major ones) potentially made by the printer after your final approval (for example, dropping a photo or some other design element from a page). In recent years, we’ve found that these types of errors have become a rarity — however, they do still occasionally happen. So while a press check isn’t totally necessary, it’s not a terrible idea, either. The benefit here is obviously to avoid a printing miscue and to ensure the quality of the actual printed piece before it’s trimmed and bound. Printers do sometimes charge extra for a press check, however (since it slows down the printing process), so whether or not to schedule one is really up to you.