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Custom publishing: is it cost-effective?

Custom Publishing: Is It Cost-Effective?

Ask those who have turned the production of their publications over to full-service, "custom" publishers if they're saving any money and you're likely to get a resounding "Yes!"

Then ask if they are having any fun anymore. If satisfaction is a measure, the answer will probably be solidly in the affirmative, along with a sigh of relief, because, as we all are painfully aware, communicators' responsibilities are increasing while their human resources are shrinking.

For some, the way out of the shrinking staff syndrome has been to look to specialized organizations that can deliver turn-key services for such time- and talent-consuming projects as company magazines. As it turns out, the benefits of this approach often go beyond simply saving dollars and manpower. Editors we talked to claim a better product, more frequent and timely publication, wider distribution and more. Let's take a look at the advantages they have discovered.

What It Costs

While our contacts were not willing to discuss the particulars of their budgets or specific costs, they all agreed that the economics of publishing in today's business climate favors outside services as opposed to staffing a deparment to do the same job.

"It would be much more expensive to hire people on staff," said Thomas Bracken, editor of Uplink, a slick, 24-page quarterly news and feature magazine from Hughes Communications, Inc., a subsidiary of Hughes Aircraft Company based in Los Angeles, Calif. Uplink is distributed to customers, government officials and Fortune 500 executives. "It would absolutely cost more to staff up, and we would have to go out for a lot of services anyway," he said. "We are a small company--350 people--and it is very difficult to get all of the kinds of talent that you would need in-house." Instead, Bracken signed with the Aegis Group--Publishers, in Troy, Mich., for the production of Uplink.

Dan Jankowski of Unisys also decided that he would be dollars ahead to go outside for Solutions, a polished corporate image and marketing magazine that had been produced in-house with the help of some freelance writers and designers. He elected to contract with The Publications Company in Detroit, Mich., for a turn-key operation.

Could staff have done it cheaper? "No, no way," Jankowski said. "I would have to hire three high-quality writers, an art director, an assistant art director and a production manager. And I'd still need a full network of freelancers. Salaries for the staff would eat up the money I now spend on the contract and then I'd still have to buy the paper, ink, photography and everything else. The arrangement I have provides a savings versus bringing it in-house."

Arnold Hirsch who publishes Dealer World and other magazines for the Ford Motor Company made the switch a couple of years ago from staff to The Publications Company for the production of the dealer magazine. Is it costing any more? "In our case, it isn't when you consider salaries and benefits and the overhead to carry a staff," he said.

Editors have discovered other cost advantages in contracting out. Steve Tinker, marketing manager for the Textile Care Division of Ecolab, Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., thinks knowledge is power when it helps cut costs. He hired Russ Moore Associates to produce his three-times-a-year customer magazine because, "While we have some in-house publishing capability, we thought that using the expertise of someone on the outside who knew how to cut a few corners would be more beneficial to us." The decision, he said, was a good one.

Bracken describes a similar experience: "We have been able to substantially increase our print run without increasing our costs because of Aegis' recommendation to switch from 80# cover stock throughout to 80# text inside. Not only did it save us a lot of money, it improved the product." He beleives that the point of view that a publishing organization brings to the table is also important. "Instead of working with a design-based firm as we have in the past, we are working with an editorial-based firm that can advise us on every aspect of the product, including editorial content, cost cutting opportunities, and distribution," he said.

Unisys' Jankowski likes the savings realized by the purchasing power of The Publications Company which is a subsidiary of Adams Communications Company, a media conglomerate. "We benefit from their muscle in terms of discounts on printing, paper and things of that sort," he said.

When comparing the cost of producing publications with in-house staff versus through a custom publisher, corporate communicators should consider all costs, advised Michael Cunningham, publisher, The Aegis Group. "We find that when our clients look at all of their costs, not just the external costs such as paper, printing and distribution, but internal costs as well, there is no comparison in cost-efficiency. The reason is that corporate publications go out a maximum of 12 times a year, many only six times or quarterly. An organization devoted entirely to publishing can bring economies to it that a corporate in-house staff cannot. We can spread the costs of copy editors, writers, electronic page assemblers and so on over several projects," he said.

"Additionally," Cunningham said, "full-service suppliers that do their own type, key lines and separations provide valuable cost savings, especially in employee communications where those costs represent a larger part of the budget because of fewer pages and smaller circulation."

Wide Variety of Talent Is Available

One of the most important considerations in choosing to go outside, these editors said, was the large pool of talent that became available to them through the custom publishers' staffs and networks of writers, editors, designers and artists. Hughes' Bracken commented, "It gives us a lot of variety ... we are not locked into one person or one or two styles. Aegis uses people all around the country."

Jankowski of Unisys added, "We have top quality people assigned to the project. They (The Publications Company) have a tremendous freelance network which gives us a larger pool of talent to draw from."


Ford's Hirsch likes the fresh perspective that an outside firm brings to the project: "When the same group produces it for 10 or 12 years, they tend to do what is comfortable. But you go outside and you get a fresh perspective. It's been to the benefit of our magazine."

Focus Can Be Channeled

An in-house staff is often distracted by other corporate demands, says Tinker (Ecolab). "You have competing priorities which can be difficult to resolve. They cause you to miss deadlines or some story ideas, or to brush over something. I believe the quality is much better because Russ (Russ Moore Associates) can get it done without such interference."

Jankowski adds: "These people are in the business of publishing. They love it. They are committed to it. I am a publisher, too, but I work for a computer company. Obviously, my staff and I are dedicated to our jobs, but you need more than that. You need people who know that what they are doing is the real business of their company. That's a mind-set that you can't teach. It comes from within, and these people have it."

A Turn-Key Operation That Works

All of the editors interviewed for this article wanted full service vendors and a turn-key operation. The organizations they hired provide consultation on the concept of the publication, advice on targeting the audience, editorial development, editing, proofing, photography, design, layout, printing supervision, project management, mailing, mail list development and advertising sales.

Of course, these firms will provide as much or as little as the client needs. Bracken and his staff, for example, write about 50 percent of the material for Uplink. They turn their copy over to Aegis who, Bracken says, "puts it into user-friendly style" and completes the project. Others turn everything except editorial control over to their suppliers.

Getting Up to Speed No Problem

One of the usual worries of a corporate communicator considering going outside for publication services is, "Will they be able to come up to speed on our industry in a reasonable amount of time?" These editors had the same concerns, but have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly outsiders catch on.

Tinker's experience is a case in point: "Getting to understand our customers can be very difficult for some people, but Russ Moore's people have caught on very well. They are coming up with story ideas, and have established contacts in the industry."

Jankowski: "The Publications Company has a very talented group of writers and editors who, for people not steeped in the information processing industry, have gained tremendous insight and understanding of it. They are like an extension of our own staff."

How it Works

While situations and needs vary from company to company, the process of bringing a custom publisher in to produce your publication is a major undertaking. But with careful planning it can go remarkably smoothly. Hirsch recalls that "We had an editor planning to retire so we decided to turn his publication over to The Publication Company. His counsel during the transition helped the process along and made that transition the smoothest I have ever experienced."

Even without that advantage, getting an experienced editorial team on board need not be traumatic if you have a clear set of goals and choose your partner carefully. Bracken describes how it went for him: "We were looking for a company that could provide soup to nuts and could put the publication back on a quarterly basis, and turn it into a consumer oriented magazine. We chose the one with the track record and proposal that best fit our needs and budget. They came in with a lot of good ideas and suggestions on how we could meet our goals. It was a good match up. We have a planning meeting at the beginning of each editorial cycle. Then I talk with them at least three times a week about design and editorial ideas and to approve copy and art. Even though they are in Troy (Mich.) and we are in Los Angeles, it goes smoothly."

Cunningham adds, "We don't work in a vacuum. We have one or more point people at each client. We help our clients develop the content of each issue or a year's worth of issues, and help them determine the mission of the publication, what is newsworthy, what their management will accept as newsworthy, what will clear their legal department and what won't. Really, for them it is no different than having their own in-house staff."

A Word of Advice

"Establish your objectives up front," counsels Bracken. "That is the key; you have to know what kind of image you want to create, what you are trying to say with it, because that will determine a lot of the production issues. Then definitely look for a company that is experienced in doing the kind of publication that you want to put out. They should have a track record. If they don't, you could be led down a really nasty path that will create major problems for you at a later date."

So if it's a deep bench you want, and professionalism, full service, dependable deadlines, a fresh perspective, and cost-efficiency, consider these editors' experience. Custom publishing may be the ticket for you.

Gray Allen, ABC, is a communication consultant in Roseville, Calif.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on costs of custom publishing
Author:Allen, Gray
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1989
Previous Article:The power of story in communication.
Next Article:Making the most of outside talent.

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