PREPRESS: 2011 and beyond

Can quick printers expect business as usual in the prepress department in the coming years? As the print industry tries to find its footing after being hammered by the economy the past two years, now would be a good time to take a look at trends in that department and how they will affect your printing company’s future.

The recession has unveiled a couple of cruel facts. The business community no longer sees printing as its primary tool to communicate and collection information. Internet services, email, mobile marketing, and other media are now used to push information out to various audiences. Printing used for collecting information is shrinking because that is now done with computers. Originals that once had to be printed and stored are now kept on computers and printed on personal printers, a few at a time. The way businesses communicate is changing, so the printing industry is going to have to change to survive.

Printers will have to evolve and offer new services to capture new customers. There isn’t going to be as much printing, but customers are still going to have to get their message out to their customers in some form.

The New Prepress Person

The trend in hiring prepress employees is for printers to move away from finding someone with design skills and concentrate on a different skill set. A prepress person must be a technician. Creating the original for a customer is only a small portion of the tasks a prepress employee must do each day. The prepress person’s primary job is to just get the customer’s file to print properly on the various output devices.

For digital presses, the prepress person will check and prepare the file using standard production tools. Much of the file manipulation is done on the device’s RIP. The standard file format for output is PDF. The file then sits on the RIP until the digital operator releases the job. The digital operator sends the job to the digital printer, which outputs the job based on the way it was set up by the prepress person.

The output process is similar for offset printing and going direct-to-plate. A number of software tools let the prepress person make corrections to the file and many tasks can be automated. The ready-to-output files reside on the RIP until the press operator makes the plate.

Another trend is for the prepress person to set up standards and procedures for an automated PDF workflow in which a CSR can accept a customer’s file and place it directly into production. It bypasses the prepress department completely because the prepress person has already established the parameters for the file. The prepress person then spends time maintaining the automated system and handling jobs that fall outside of the standard procedures.

New hires in the prepress department have more database management and Web skills than design talent. Most prepress people need a strong working knowledge of Excel and HTML if they are going to help owners take advantage of the new services. Variable data printing, direct mail marketing, and email marketing require database skills. The design might be wonderful, but if the printed piece goes to the wrong person, its value is lost.

Who is going to do design work for the printer? Freelance designers and outside vendors can now provide low cost, high quality design work. Companies such as Affinity Express (www.affinityexpress.com) can give printers access to quick turnaround typesetting and design services over the Internet. There are a number of websites that are dedicated to linking printers with professional designers. Printers no longer need a full time designer on staff to get fast service.

PDF Files

PDF files aren’t new, but printers are getting more of them from their customers. Customer created files still make up the majority of originals printed by quick printers. Since customers are seeing more PDF files on the Web, they have begun to learn that PDFs are the easiest way to submit a file.

If printers expect to take advantage of the automation offered by the new digital presses and RIPs, they will have to become experts in PDF files. Every new piece of output equipment is optimized to work best with PDF files. The PDF workflows have built-in scripts that automatically correct common PDF file problems and allow printers to push work through the output machines faster.

One trend you can expect to see is for printers to require certified PDF files from their customers, especially if the files are printed offset in color. Larger commercial printers have trained their customers to provide certified PDF files, and smaller printers are benefiting as customers make certified PDFs the standard.

Most printing website service providers offer low cost PDF creation tools that printers can give to their customers to make PDF file creation easier.

Technical Services

Variable data printing, online ordering, and Web-to-print (W2P) solutions continue to be a hot topic with many printers, but the services aren’t having the impact that many predicted.

VDP is getting easier and the price for the software has dropped. Page layout programs such as InDesign offer built-in VDP solutions. Other vendors, such as Printable provide low cost software add-ons to make handling variable data easy. Many of the RIP packages driving digital presses either include a VDP package or offer a low cost solution that can easily be added. VDP isn’t rocket science any more. The drawback for printers has been getting good database information from the customer. Printers will have to understand how to manage data for customers if VDP is going to work.

You would think that W2P services and online ordering would be common in most print shops, but they aren’t. Every printer-specific Web service offers document libraries and they all can be integrated with services that allow customers to add custom text to online templates. There is so much e-commerce on the Web that you would think most printers would try to get a piece of the action.

The trend here is for printers to complain about the aggressive online print companies cutting prices and taking business from local printers instead of doing something about it. Much of the commodity work that is disappearing from local print shops is being bought on the Web at very low prices.

The only Web-based printing most printers see is the increased use of customers submitting files through FTP sites or as email attachments. Printers with websites and email addresses report that customer Web submissions are rising. The surprising fact is, in my experience, only about 50% of the quick and small commercial printers have a website. The failure to have a Web presence will become another nail in a printer’s coffin as competition continues to heat up.

A positive trend is that the number of vendors who can provide Web-based services is growing. Plug-and-play solutions for almost every online print scenario are available at a reasonable price. Websites, W2P services, document libraries, online shopping carts, and more can easily be assembled to make a print shop look bigger than it is.

Web Development

As printers scramble to offer more revenue generating services, several companies are betting that a number of quick printers will add Web development services.

Adobe is offering Adobe Business Catalyst. It is a hosted application for building and managing online businesses printers can resell to customers. Using Adobe’s unified platform, and without back-end coding, a printer can build everything from websites to online stores, brochure-ware sites, and lead generation mini-sites. Visit http://businesscatalyst.com/ for more information.

Net Solutions North America is signing on printers as dealers for its Profusion Products Dealer Network. This lets printers sell easy to design and edit websites to small business customers. For more information, visit www.Netsolutionsna.com.

eMAGC is another website development company that has introduced a reseller program for printing companies seeking to increase revenues through website sales. The easy to use system allows traditional prepress staff to quickly design and launch powerful and feature rich websites for their clients. For more information, visit the eMAGC reseller website at www.ABetterWayToWeb.com.

Each of these companies gives printers another service to sell to their customers. If providing Web-based services becomes a trend for quick printers, this will add another task the prepress department will be responsible for each day. In addition to using page layout, photo, and illustration software, prepress people will have to have experience in Web programs such as Dreamweaver. They will have to know HTML and become familiar what colors and images work best on a website.

In addition to Web services, quick printers are also adding email marketing services using software such as Constant Contact, Vertical Response, and Benchmark Email. Printers can now help a customer touch his customers and prospects with printed pieces, emails, and Web-based messages.

Experts also expect to see printers offering support services for Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook. A printer will work with a customer to develop a series of messages for the social media outlets and then broadcast those messages on a regular basis. It helps the customer make sure that he is broadcasting a timely, consistent message on a regular basis. He is just paying the printer to do it for him and coordinate the message with his printed pieces and website message.

A new trend that printers can take advantage of now is the use of mobile marketing and combining Internet services with printed material. Quick Response (QR) codes are quickly becoming a part of marketing plans because print customers want to link their printed materials to their online message. This simple tool will soon be a standard addition to any printed marketing piece, but now it is new and gives printers a reason to talk to their customers. Watch for QR codes to help generate more printed material in the coming year.

Pricing Trends

Sales in prepress have never been strong. Most companies who break out prepress sales usually find the numbers between 7-10% of total sales. With today’s product mix, that figure can be misleading since it seems that almost every job is now touched by the prepress department in some way. If a company is doing $500,000 in sales, then prepress sales will range from $35,000 to $50,000 a year. A shop doing $1 million in sales will have prepress sales in the range of $70,000 to $100,000 a year. The sales levels make it hard for a small company to afford a full-time prepress operator. After wages and benefits, most companies can barely afford to keep the software updated and the equipment in good running condition.

The price in most print shops for most prepress work is based on time rather than value. If it takes 30 minutes to do a job, printers charge for 30 minutes of production time. Many printers have built in standard times for most production tasks, yet they fail to monitor the actual time spent on the task. This means that many prepress departments are working hard, but the customer is never charged for the actual work that is performed.

Printers continue to ignore the actual work performed and not charge for it. They rationalize this by defining that uncharged portion as added value to the customer. What it really is for the printer is a loss leader used to get the print job. Sadly, the money left on the table by not charging properly for prepress usually isn’t recouped by press and bindery charges. Money lost is money lost.

This decades old trend of giving away prepress charges will just help push more print shops toward failure as competitive margins become narrower. With everything from desktop publishing and design to website management, variable data, and W2P being performed by the prepress staff, it is hard to image why printers continue to generate the low amount of sales recorded on the balance sheet.

Printers still face the challenge of pricing value added work, such as design, differently from production work, such as file correction and output. They have the opportunity to set the value price of Web services, database services, communication services, etc., at a profitable level. Customers will be willing to pay a higher rate for these new services because they don’t know how to do them or don’t have the time.

Tomorrow is Here

The prepress department is rapidly changing. The prepress person is a more computer-centric employee, able to handle the technical aspects rather than the artistic design needs of the company. The new services quick printers will be adding to their product line are computer-related rather than output-related. The printer will need someone who understands how the equipment works and how to take advantage of the efficiencies in the software applications.

Services that have been sold by large commercial printers are now available to small printing companies at reasonable rates. Printers can outsource many of the highly technical services or buy packaged programs that don’t require high front end costs to get a service up and running. Any size printing company can offer sophisticated services without busting its budget.

The final piece of the puzzle for taking advantage of the latest trends in products and services is to get out in front of customers and sell. Printers can no longer wait for their customers to ask for a given service. If they are talking to their customers and making sales calls, printers should be learning what customers need and what they might buy.

The reason that W2P, document libraries, PDF workflows, and other services haven’t had a dramatic impact on the entire print industry is that most printers aren’t out selling those services. The customer doesn’t know about them. The reason printers haven’t been successful in becoming market service providers is that they don’t know how to market themselves.

The trend that is needed is for printers to stop waiting for the customer—stop being an order taker. If printers are going to survive, they need to increase contact with their customers, get in front of new customers and ask for business, and demonstrate how the new technologies will help their customers make money.

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. Contact him at 954/224-1942 or john@johngiles.com. You can also find John on Twitter.com/JohnG247 and Linkedin.com. Read his blog at www.quickprinting.com/interactive. You can also find out more by visiting www.johngiles.com.

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