Short Runs Mean Big Business

Profits are not necessarily won and lost on the back of a few large jobs, but frequently because of filling production schedules with short-run jobs. That makes the short runs the most valuable work to obtain in your shop. We shared questions with three seasoned graphic arts experts to elicit their thoughts on the past, present, and future of short-run printing, and provide some insight on how to position your firm to make money in selling and producing these jobs.

Our experts are:

Clint Bolte (—known nationwide for his innovative and creative application of existing printing technologies to new print markets, and one of the most successful print consultants over the past 20 years.

Mitch Evans (—president of the National Association of Quick Printers (NAQP, now PrintImage International) 1994-95 and owner of Print Tech, consistently one of the top ranked print firms in Quick Printing magazine.

Larry Hunt (—president of the NAQP 1983-84, the successful owner and operator of four quick print shops since 1973, and currently president of Larry Hunt Publications.

What types of short-run products can printers expect to best sell and make a profit?

Evans: Personalized color pieces are the most profitable. Large-format color is still a growing market and while pricing is coming down, it is still very profitable especially if you offer finishing services such as laminating and mounting. At the same time, it is important to understand that short-run static color is becoming more and more of a commodity, and unless you can produce large volumes or find a way to produce it less expensively, margins will decrease.

Hunt: According to the NAQP quick print poll, it is color digital sales and mailing services. Within that group, it’s not a single product type but selling to the right market. Keep an eye on real estate and finance. When they come back, it will be a big harbinger for growth and signify markets that you should latch on to.

Bolte: Let me suggest that you visit to gauge short-run product popularity. At this site, you can see that it is easy to profitably produce dozens of similar short-run products, all digital and personalized, by gathering a name, title, firm, address and touch points.

What are some differences and similarities between today and the past that are important to being profitable in short-run printing?

Bolte: Short-run printing can be profitable so long as it is not a surprise. When printers and print salespersons have developed relationships with clients that accentuate pre-planning, proven digital workflows, and thorough communications—i.e., no misunderstanding in specifications and expectations—then short run work can flow like greased lightning. Such “automated” workflows suggest the importance of standardization in terms of options and client training on user-friendly software.

Hunt: Looking back into the 1970s, short run was work primarily for small business, but that eventually turned into copying work rather than run on offset presses. In other words, the way it was produced was changed. This has further morphed into the color copying business, which has proven to be very profitable. In fact, according to the recent NAQP operating ratio study, 12.7 percent of all sales in the industry are now color copying, compared to just 8.9 percent in 2005. It is the single biggest print market growth by far.

Evans: Short-run printing has always been more profitable than longer run printing—in other words the value added (selling price less the costs of paper/inks/toners and production labor) remains high, especially when compared to longer runs. The difference today is that the runs continue to be shorter, and variable data printing (runs of one each) are commonplace with the equipment to produce simple jobs less expensive. For the large jobs, equipment costs continue to be high, although equipment like iGens can be very profitable. The other difference today is that more work is in full color as the setup costs have come down considerably, and the production speed to produce full color is about the same as B&W was 20 years ago. Personalization will continue to drive the market as the cost to do 1,000 unique printed pieces is beginning to be the same as printing 1,000 static pieces.

What are some new products (prepress, production, or postpress) which will make short-run printing better and more profitable?

Hunt: Truthfully, the product is the same and the labor effort is not all that different. The difference is the more sophisticated equipment and the fact that prep work now done automatically has certainly cut time and cost.

Evans: Software that creates personalized pieces easily is responsible for the large growth in variable printing, including RIP software, which makes this process faster and faster. Costs are still high for the top end software packages, but it is coming down and I can see vendors offering products for under $1,000 soon. In addition, equipment will continue to drop in cost, while also offering faster output, better quality, and ease of use.

Bolte: The future is already staring us in the face. Web2Print (W2P) software has been a proven, off-the-shelf reality for the entire decade, and yet too many printers either develop their own or have yet to invest and adopt.

What are the challenges today for a printer in trying to sell short-run production to individuals and companies who now have their own capability to print higher quality items in-house?

Bolte: In-plants are every bit as slow at adopting a W2P mentality and associated resources as are general commercial printers. The printers who have been at this for only a few months can spout chapter and verse of features and capabilities of their W2P that most competitors have yet to understand. When the print CEO learns and uses his own W2P, the business will truly take off.

Hunt: It’s important to establish pricing that is competitive to both attract this business and make it profitable. NAQP publishes an in-depth pricing study for all types of printing, while I produce an annual survey with 20 different bellwether numbers of industry norms to give printers some idea of pricing trends.

Evans: The key is to find jobs that are more complicated, a bit larger in volume, time sensitive, and also need to be mailed or distributed. Another opportunity is to position your printing company to do the overload work.

Doug Harbach is a veteran consultant and writer in the printing industry. E-mail him at