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Gathering and evaluating printers' proposals.

Tips on demystifying a complex task.

If you asked the chief staff executive of just about any size association how much it costs to print the association's newsletter, or its annual membership directory, or its quarterly journal, I think she or he would struggle to come up with the answer. Yet the impact of this expenditure on the association's bottom line is undeniable.

Printing is a complex industry and not one that publications specialists, much less chief staff executives, generally have the time to immerse themselves in. But responsibility for what is often one of an association's larger budget items comes with the territory if you're the head of a communications department or the head of a small staff with no communications department. I'd like to offer some guidance on turning the print-buying responsibility into a systematic, rational, and quantifiable process.

Print buying is a complex assignment for the uninitiated. The array of printing company brochures, equipment lists, and price proposals can be intimidating, and the stream of sales representatives calling to present their companies' capabilities can be off-putting when you're on unsure ground. As in other areas of association management, though, you can increase your likelihood of getting a handle on your printing expenditures by gathering and evaluating information and establishing favorable relationships with the suppliers best suited for your requirements.

Prepare your shopping list

Most associations produce a variety of printed products throughout the year. Each product has its unique set of specifications, requiring certain print production capabilities. In this age of specialization, it's unlikely that any one printer can be an efficient source for all your printing needs.

It's best, therefore, to try to group printed products with similar specifications into categories to be presented to printers whose specialties match your products' requirements. The company that produces your four-color magazine or journal and conference materials may not be the one best suited for your newsletter, directory, books, and manuals. The attractive pricing you enjoy from your newsletter printer may jump out of line when a quotation for a brochure is presented.

Printer: Printer C
Proposal date: 10/21/93
Plant location: Nashville, Tennessee

Evaluation Publisher's Printer's Total
criteria value (1-10) x score (1-10) = points

Cost 10 10 100
Compatibility 9 8 72
Quality 8 10 80
Equipment 7 9 63
Service 6 8 48
Location 5 3 15
Distribution 4 8 32
Schedule 3 10 30
Desktop 2 8 16
Other 1 -- --

Total 456


Plant has good people and equipment.

Plans to make this the "plant of choice" for medium-run
publishers haven't materialized yet, as intentions of new
owners are unknown.

Location will result in higher postage costs.

Product specifications, including trim size, amount of color, page count, binding style, quantity, and paper stock help determine where to go shopping.

The criteria by which printers will be evaluated is an important consideration. Just as the specifications for your different printed products vary, so do the differing capabilities of printers. Determine to what degree each of them can meet your specifications. The relative importance of the criteria must also be established. No one company can be all things to all people.

When asked what is the most important consideration in evaluating printing proposals, many print buyers would say cost. Given the recent climate of reduced association budgets, price is certainly a valid concern.

However, due to market specialization, manufacturing efficiencies, and competitive pressure, buyers today are finding a smaller spread in prices among printers similarly equipped in their market specialties. In other words, among printers specializing in your type of product and press run, there may not be a great difference in their prices.

Other criteria, then, come into play when trying to evaluate which printing company offers the best overall package. The definition and importance of each factor is determined by the buyer's requirements for each product. The following evaluation criteria, for example, were listed in order of importance by the publisher of a monthly regional boating magazine with a circulation of 50,000 copies.

Compatibility. The magazine's fit within the plant has to do with the similarity to other customers and their products' requirements. A medium-run single title doesn't command much clout in a plant serving publishers requiring long runs for multiple publications. Avoid the "small fish in a big pond" syndrome.

Quality. Successful printing companies, like many other industries today, are deeply committed to involving all employees in their total quality management (TQM) programs. Quality programs, no longer just a pressroom concern, are now highlighted as a major customer benefit. Ask about your printer's TQM programs.

Equipment. Continuing investment in specialized equipment and up-to-date technology to serve customer needs differentiates the leading printers.

Service. The attitude of a plant toward its customers is measured not only by the quantity and quality of its sales, service, and support staff, but also by the level of its customer "partnering" relationships.

Location. Overnight delivery service, fax, and modems allow even the most TABULAR DATA OMITTED time-critical material to be prepared and printed practically anywhere else in the United States. However, location will certainly affect postal and freight distribution, so these costs should be considered along with production costs.

Distribution. Of increasing importance is the plant's ability to provide expertise, systems, and software to maximize postal discounts and support the trend toward personalization through ink-jet and selective binding technologies. Increasingly, the larger printing companies employ postal-freight coordinators who can help associations save time and money in this area.

Schedule. Again, the plant specializing in customers with product requirements similar to yours will likely have the equipment capability and the mind-set to provide reasonable flexibility to the changing circumstances that characterize association publishing. If you get your monthly magazine to the printer a day or two late, for example, can you still get onto the presses relatively promptly? The answer will depend on whether your printer handles many publications of similar frequency and size to yours--or whether long-run catalogs are its bread and butter.

Keep in mind that the ranking of the preceding criteria for evaluating potential printers for a magazine would not necessarily apply to the requirements of a different project, such as an annual report.

Knowing which printers are best suited to produce each category of printed products is the key to cost-effective production. But how do you determine who the major players are in each of your product categories? Helpful information is available from a variety of sources.

Preparing the bid package

Having determined which printing companies are most likely to present competitive proposals for your publication, you're now ready to request preliminary cost estimates. The purpose of preparing a bid package is to provide the same information, in sufficient detail, to each company so that accurate, timely cost estimates can be prepared and presented to you in the format you designate.

The type of information furnished and the amount of detail are determined by the scope of the work to be produced. A monthly magazine with variable pages, quantities, and binding versions will require a more detailed set of specifications than a one-shot booklet of fixed quantity and pagination.

The basic information to be furnished about any printed product would include the following:

* Title or description of the product type.

* Trim size. Is there any flexibility on the exact finished size to accommodate a particular size of press? For instance, must your publication be 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches, or would 8 3/8 inches by 10 7/8 inches be okay?

* Number of pages and color. How many pages use only one color? Two colors? Three colors? Four colors?

* Copy. Is the job going to the printer as camera-ready boards, film, or transparencies, or is it going electronically?

* Quantity. Is quantity fixed, or do you want a quote for additional hundreds or thousands?

* Frequency. Is this a one-shot project or a periodical with a certain number of issues per year?

* Stock. What weight and grade of paper do you want--including the cover stock--and who furnishes it, if not the printer? If not the printer, what storage or other fees will the printer assess?

* Binding. Do any special inserts need to be bound in? Are there limits on the TABULAR DATA OMITTED number of inserts you can have in each issue?

* Packing and distribution. How many pieces will mail? Are they being shipped in cartons or packed on skids? What is the estimate for freight costs?

For repetitive jobs, such as a magazine or journal, include a recent sample of the printed product with each bid package. To simplify initial price comparisons, some buyers include a copy of their current invoice with the sample, blacking out the costs. Then, printers are asked to prepare a sample bill as if they had already printed the same project. This helps to compare price quotations on an apples-to-apples basis.

To control the buying process, however, you have to control the format in which prices are presented to you. Along with clear specifications on the work to be performed, present a clear breakdown of the price categories you want to compare. The sample bill should let you compare subtotals for preparation (prepress) work, presswork and ink, binding, distribution, and paper.

Your bid package should clearly describe your organization, the product specifications, your goals and priorities, and your expectations. In the cover letter also request any other materials that will help you evaluate the printer's capabilities, including company brochures, equipment lists, customer reference lists, samples of similar jobs, and special capabilities.

Comparing the proposals

Having defined what elements of a printer's performance are important to you, you're now ready to prepare a report card on each prospect. But first, establish your priorities.

Rank each criterion in order of its importance to you and assign a numerical value. Each item to be evaluated, and its measure of importance, is strictly up to you. While cost may be most important to one publisher, a printer's experience in typesetting technical math may top another's ranking.

There's no rocket science required in measuring a printer's performance against the standards you've set, either. Given a scale of 1 to 10 (best), a company could score high against your "best price" and "modern equipment" criteria but have its overall point value diminished by a tarnished reputation for quality and service. A printer who places near the top in most of the criteria important to you is probably going to make the cut for final negotiations.

The purpose of the report card for grading each printer against the criteria you've established is to provide some logic for identifying the best two or three companies for your requirements. Notify the others of your decision and thank them for their efforts.

Your final choice may require further negotiation, plant visits, management meetings, or other information, such as a Dun & Bradstreet credit report. Among printers who rank closely, the choice can depend on interpersonal chemistry. This is also the time to check references.

The effort put forth in establishing your priorities and selecting the printers best suited for your requirements should pay off in the end--efficient, high-quality, and cost-effective production of your association's communication products. Even print buyers who are satisfied with their current printers will benefit from periodically evaluating how well their suppliers' overall capabilities rank against competitors.

Working With Your Communication Partners

Here are some ground rules on building an effective working partnership with your printers.

1. Treat your printers as your "communications partners." If you openly discuss your goals and requirements early in the process, they can help you be more economical and efficient. Talk over your deadlines; the format of your material (camera-ready artwork, disk, film); paper stock and final printed size; and how you want your final product to be wrapped, packaged, and shipped.

2. Realize that different printers are better for different types of jobs, depending on their equipment, market niche, and various other factors. Work with several, but make sure you know why you are doing so.

3. Get into the habit of saying--both early in the project-planning process and well into its various stages--"Here's what we have, and this is a list of what we're trying to achieve with this publication. What are your printing team's suggestions about ways we can maximize our resources?"

4. Aim for continuous improvement. After each major job is complete, analyze the outcome with your staff--and with your printer partner--to determine what might be done better in the future. In all cases, stress what went well so that won't be changed.

5. Set up--and adhere to--a realistic production schedule. Make sure it's fully understood and agreed to by all relevant parties and that it takes into account normal human foibles as well as holidays or downtimes. Allow sufficient time for all affected parties to review the schedule commitments. If you have a legitimate rush job--like a last-minute brochure--notify and involve your printer in the scheduling as soon as possible.

6. Though you may need to review them in a meeting or over the phone, be sure all of your key instructions are in writing and that they cover all the steps in the process. Ask your printer if anything important has been overlooked. When the printer's bill arrives, scrutinize it promptly. Unexpected, albeit legitimate, charges can jeopardize your budget. Also, look for discounts for prompt payment.

7. When dealing with the printed word, the most ridiculous statement you can utter is, "I don't have time for a blueline." Make it a priority to proof bluelines closely. In particular, watch for color positioning, correction of earlier typos, positioning of photos and captions, correct pagination, and front page or cover information, such as volume numbers and dates. My favorite typo, on thousands of copies of a glossy federal document, proclaimed "The United States of America" in 24-point type.

8. When the work is completed, where warranted, praise publicly, and where criticism is required, do so in relative privacy. Don't hesitate to give your printing partner feedback about how the relationship is working--and ask for feedback, too.

9. Within reason, ask your printer partner to help you stay abreast of ongoing technical changes in the graphic arts so that you can take advantage of them in a timely way.


* The buyers guide section in ASAE's 1993 Who's Who in Association Management lists 57 printers who position themselves as specialists in printing for associations.

* ASAE's Association Management features periodic articles on managing printing and publishing activities. For a complete bibliography of past articles and other materials available from ASAE, contact ASAE's Information Central, (202) 626-2742. The magazine also carries numerous descriptive advertisements each month. For information on suppliers in either Association Management or Who's Who, call (202) 626-2827.

* ASAE's Communication Section is a membership group for publications and public relations specialists. For information, call (202) 626-2722.

* The Society of National Association Publications' 1992-1993 membership directory lists more than 20 printing companies in its buyers' guide. SNAP, 1150 Connecticut Ave., Suite 1050, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 862-9864.

* The Directory of Book Printers features nearly 800 printers of books, catalogs, magazines, and other bound publications in its 1992 edition. Ad-Lib Publications, 51 W. Adams St., Fairfield, IA 52556; (515) 472-6617.

* Directory of Short Run Printers, also published by Ad-Lib, is an international directory of specialty printers with runs up to 10,000. The third edition, published in 1985, is the most current.

* Once you decide on a printer, consult the December 1992 issue of Association Management for an article by Kathleen M. Edwards, CAE, titled "Negotiating a Printing Contract." It thoroughly covers why a written agreement makes sense and what you should include in yours.

* LMP Literary Market Place is a directory of the American Book Publishing Industry that features book prepress, printing, binding, and papermill vendors. R.R. Bowker's Database Publishing Group, 121 Chanlon Rd., New Providence, NJ 07974.

Ask These Questions

Even if you have a professional communication specialist working with you--and maybe especially if you do--you may want to ask the following questions about printing:

* Why do we use the paper we use? Should we be using a higher quality? A lower quality?

* Why do we print when we do? If our magazine came out on a different day of the month, would it be easier for the printer? Would the printer offer us a discount for off-peak printing?

* Are we using enough color? Are we using more color than necessary?

* Where, in the technology curve, are we in our publishing efforts?

* Are we repackaging our print products to get the most mileage out of them?

* Would the printer of our monthly magazine offer us a volume discount for also printing other pieces appropriate for the printer?

* What are the per-page costs of our printing, binding, postage, and paper? Can we make changes in any one component to reduce our costs?

Larry Apeland is president of American Graphic Center, a printing consulting firm in Bloomington, Minnesota.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Special Section: Publishing; includes related articles
Author:Apeland, Larry
Publication:Association Management
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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