The Price is Right

Printers aren’t the only ones who deal with pricing creative work. As printers start adding managed marketing services to support their core printing business, they will be competing more with advertising agencies, freelance writers and designers, Web designers, public relations firms, and even the local newspaper, radio, and television stations. What kind of playing field for pricing are printers going to find?

If we don’t just compete with printers any more, how should we price the creative work we do? Quick and small commercial printers are notorious for selling design work at low prices when compared to non-printing creative services. With the new services, printers don’t want to leave money on the table or lose work because the customer thinks the cheaper prices mean sloppy quality and bad service. What are our new competitors charging?

An online search found pricing for other communication and creative companies bounced around almost as much as pricing in the printing industry. The most obvious difference is that non-printers put a higher value on creative work. Even as prices bounced around, the base prices were usually several times that of the normal printing company for the same type of creative work. It was also interesting to see common pricing practices discussed and how different they were from what is found in the printing industry.


Setting a Price

Many non-printer creatives set a minimum of four hours for any job or project. Minor changes are figured into a project price. The non-printers are selling their expertise, not their time, so they attempt to get a project price. With a project price, the non-print creative estimates the amount of time it will take to complete the job and the value to the customer in order to get a selling price. One big difference I saw was non-printers don’t seem to be doing the quick, one- or two-line edit changes. They turn business cards, envelopes, and letterhead into projects by classifying them as corporate identify projects, which command a high price. Nothing had a price of less than an hour’s time.

Once quoted, the project price is not changed unless the client significantly alters the project. The work is priced to cover most contingencies. Many experts in non-printing creative fields point out that customers appreciate predictability when it comes to pricing. Most suggest that the non-printing creatives never have a price that is less than $50 an hour.

Non-printers spend a great deal of their time defining the project with the customer before they give a price. This is where the non-printer sells his expertise. Once the project is defined, a timeline is established, and a price is set, the non-printer creative person keeps a detailed time record about the project. It includes production time as well as research, meetings, telephone calls, etc. Anything that has to do with the project is recorded to support the project pricing. This helps show the clients the value they receive for their money by specifying all the individual tasks that are performed.


Mark It Up!

Experts among the non-printing competitors also recommended that a person always keep testing their fee structures on new clients. If the last customer was happy with a $500 bill, then try a $750 project price for a new customer with a similar project. The experts suggested that service providers should keep adjusting and experimenting with new prices for new clients so their income is always growing.

Another pricing practice said to be successful for non-printer creatives is to use a fee range. The creative person should set minimum and maximum fees for various projects. The creative can then easily and fairly vary their pricing per client.

There are still times when the non-printing creative person will have to charge hourly. This is because the customer cannot define what he wants. If there is a reasonable amount of uncertainty about the time it will take to complete a project, non-print creative companies use an hourly charge, with a four hour minimum. If you don’t know how long the job will take, the objectives are unclear, or you expect the client to make significant changes during the project, use the hourly rate method.


Contracts & Retainers

How non-printers handle money matters was one of the most interesting things I found. Most non-printers state the fees as early as possible. This is to weed out businesses that can’t afford the work. The non-printers always have a signed contract outlining the work they will perform, the date it is due, how much will be paid, their terms for payment, and all other details of the project. Most importantly, the non-printer will get a 50% retainer up front, at least for a first time project. This usually weeds out those people who don’t have the money or who want to squeeze free work out of them.

When non-printing creatives get push back from customers on pricing, the experts recommend never discounting the fees. They warn it sends a message that the prices aren’t real to begin with and it will cause the seller to lose respect and money.


Ride the Wave

Printing is changing. Offset printing is declining. Traditional functional printing is being turned into a commodity item where price is the only decision factor. Some printers are repositioning themselves as value-added providers who provide a complete line of services to help businesses communicate with their customers.

The printers in the commodity end of the pool will continue to give away prepress just to get their presses busy. The printers who go after marketing communications work will have better margins to work with and less price sensitive competitors and customers.

Print buyers have different criteria for buying marketing communication print services. They are less concerned with price than they are with the results from the communication. How much is a new lead worth? What is the long term value of a new customer? Does the communication bring new customers and new work? Printers will have to stop talking about cost per impression and start talking about results per project.

Printers will also have to overcome their own sticker shock. As they start competing with non-printing communication companies they will see higher average invoices. Adding one or two zeros to an invoice can be scary to a printer whose average invoice is less than $500, especially when you aren’t delivering several cases of printed material. Customers are used to paying a higher price for the new services that printers are now beginning to offer.

Website development and maintenance services, brand management, Web-based services such as email marketing, and marketing and social media content support projects normally cost several thousand dollars from non-printing competitors. The advantage printers bring to the table over existing non-printing competitors is that the printer provides the core communication function: printing.


The Future is Here

Print isn’t dead, but it is changing. Print is still the important communication piece that drives people to websites and the new media. Print provides the collateral material needed to support almost every marketing project. The printer can be the one source for marketing customers to manage.

Now is the time for printers to begin reevaluating their pricing strategies and procedures for creative work. An evolution is taking place in printing. The emphasis for successful printers will shift from how inexpensively printed material can be produced to how much more effectively a printer can help his customers communicate their messages. The focus will shift from the equipment efficiencies to the talent and skills of the employees. It will be both an exciting and frustrating time for print owners as they reinvent their businesses to meet their customers’ needs in the new decade.


History of PDF

For almost two decades I have been promoting the use of PDFs when dealing with customer files. Today most customers know what a PDF file is, and successful printers use a PDF workflow to save time and money.

The PDF file format not only changed the print world, but it has become one of the reasons that printed material can now be easily transferred over the Internet. PDF has been around since 1991, but wasn’t embraced by the prepress world until 1996.

If you want to trace the history of PDF and how it has evolved over the past 20 years, visit and read the history of PDFs. It is also a good tool to help train salespeople as to why PDF is important.


John Giles is the author of “12 Secrets for Digital Success” and “The DTP PriceList.” He is the Technology Director and a consultant for CPrint International. He can be reached at 954-224-1942 or You can also find John on (Search for JohnG247) and To order John’s books, visit Read John’s blog at