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Typesetting, prepress & printing negotiations

Jul 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Last month, following AMERICAN PRINTER's launch of PRINT & MEDIA BUYER, I promised to provide some stories of my print buying career. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to buy printing, but you do have to have common sense.

Forward thinking

In the late 1970s, I joined Technical Publishing, a unit of Dun & Bradstreet. We had 24 magazines in our stable and were a very profitable company. Like most big corporations, the firm assigned the acquisition of printing and other production-related services to the manufacturing department. My first assignment was publishing a magazine edited for the graphic arts industry. Shortly after I joined the company, I was approached by a Denver prepress firm. They had just purchased two Scitex Color Electronic Prepress Systems (CEPS) and were looking to barter advertising for separations. In the late 1970s, many printers had no prepress capabilities and farmed out work to companies that did. The Denver firm was looking to promote its services as cheaply as possible. I did some research on the new technology and made a deal in spite of objections from our vice president of production. “The quality isn't what we need,” she explained. We argued, and I won. By the end of the year, every one of our 24 publications was using the newfangled CEPS systems.

In 1982, text editing systems were introduced and, anxious to jump on another technological bandwagon, I convinced the company to invest several million dollars on an Atex System, the leading vendor at the time. The magazine I was publishing became the test publication for the new system. This was only a couple of years before computerized typesetting revolutionized the industry. When the president and chairman of Dun & Bradstreet came to my office to see what this huge investment looked like, they were impressed beyond words. Before long, all of our magazines were on board, and we recovered the investment in two years through cost savings.

D&B had a consultant for negotiating printing contracts, but I was able to personally negotiate the publication for which I was responsible. Because I knew the business, my production costs were lower than any of our other publications. Eventually, I became involved in most of the negotiations.

A hot type hotseat

My fondest memories of dealing with typesetters and printers are from the mid 1970s. I was working for a publishing company that had just acquired a magazine serving the paper manufacturing industry. The newly acquired publication had been dealing with the same printer for 100 years, and, as you can imagine, they had a very special relationship. When we purchased the new weekly magazine, the company owner's son was made publisher, but he was struggling with sales and marketing. I was moved over from another publication to give him a hand. Once I had found solutions in that area, I decided to take a look at our printing contracts. At the time, the magazine was set in hot type. Many publications had made the move to web offset, but this weekly was being printed letterpress. The publication was operating at a loss, and the last thing we could afford was to overpay for typesetting and printing. I couldn't believe the agreements we had signed. The boss' son was a bright guy, but he had no experience with buying printing. He had signed a contract for a nine percent increase in typesetting and eight percent a year over the next three years on printing.

I called the printer, which was owned by American Can at that time. I told the president I had reviewed the contracts, and we had two choices: Either find another printer or renegotiate. I got into my car for the trip to East Stroudsburg, PA, and we began to hash out a new agreement. We settled on a two percent printing increase and no increase on typesetting. The discussions were amicable, and the printer understood my plea to enable us to eliminate the red ink on the bottom line. An understanding printer can be a publisher's best friend. The publication remained with that printer for another 10 years until it was sold to a competitor.

The end of the story actually came two months later, when I discovered a service bureau for typesetting. The company had just purchased Compugraphic equipment, and we went from hot metal to cold type overnight. To boot, we were paying only a third of our previous typesetting invoice. I remember going to a business press conference where I was on the program. Other publishers cheered when I told the story of our journey from letterpress to offset and from hot type to cold type.

On the subject of typesetting and red ink, if you're looking for some summer reading, pick up a copy of “TYPO” by David Silverman. It's the amazing story of a guy who bought a typesetting firm in Iowa in 1999 with his father's inheritance…talk about bad timing and not doing your due diligence. I think you'll really enjoy it.

M. Richard Vinocur is president of Footprint Communications. E-mail him at