Let’s have some resolution, please

April 23, 2011

Nope, it’s not what you think.  This entry’s not going to be about Congress or any other assembly of wishy-washy, slimy political creatures. That’s not the lack or resolution that concerns Poor Richard today. It’s a different lack of resolution . . . image resolution.

It’s been a while since I’ve approached anything even moderately technical. Honestly, I’m almost convinced that there’s no one out there who really gives a flip about the finer points of the printing art. This topic’s pretty basic, though, and has major implications for the quality of any printed piece.  It’s like this: you can’t take a bad steak and cook it on a good grill and make it a good steak.  The quality of the grill has nothing to do with the quality of the meat.

The same occurs with images plucked from the internet.  And it is a shame, because the images are so, so readily available. Our customers just can’t resist them . . . and then they get upset with us when we tell them that the images won’t work.  One more time . . . images plucked from the internet will rarely work for print.

Why?

cross-eyed girl

Let’s take a look at this freckle-faced, cross-eyed girl.  She’s cute, isn’t she?  Poor Richard plucked this picture from one of the image libraries to which he subscribes.  It was downloaded at 300 dpi, the optimum resolution for print.  That means 300 dots per inch.  To oversimplify a little, when we convert an image for printing, the information is carried in dots.  When we print, we’re actually putting dots on paper.  When you look at a printed piece of paper, your eyes and your brain are fooled into thinking that you’re seeing a whole spectrum of color, instead of a bunch of dots. When you print a photograph on paper using 300 dots per inch, it looks pretty good.

Now, let’s make it a little more complicated.  When we’re talking about digital images, the dots are really pixels.  Now a pixel is more of an electronic term than a printing term.  When you’re looking at your computer screen, the color images you see are comprised of pixels, little dots with varying intensities which fool your eyes and your brain into thinking that you’re seeing a whole spectrum of color, instead of a bunch of hyperactive dots.  Because of the way your computer screen works, fewer dots are needed to fool your brain than on paper.  In fact 72 or 96 dots per inch works pretty well.

If you spread the dots out, the picture gets bigger.  The cross-eyed girl above is roughly 4.7 x 7 inches at 300 dpi.  Measured in pixels, that’s 1414 x 2121 pixels. Because your computer screen measures something like 1024 x 768 pixels, the photo is actually too big for the screen.  If we spread the crosseyed girl’s dots out for the computer screen, she can be as big as 19.6 x 29.5 inches.  So, we can lose some dots (downsize the image) she’ll still look cute on the internet.  Plus, the file size is smaller, which means she’ll appear on the screen faster.

Image areas

Let’s look at it a little bit differently.  We’ll draw a couple of boxes over the little girl’s nose.  The light blue box represents 1 square inch at 300 dots/inch.  The green box represents 1 square inch at 72 dpi.  Here’s the point:  there’s a lot more information in the blue box. In fact, there’s enough dots there to describe a whole nose, an upper lip, and a bunch of freckles.  In the green box, all you get are the freckles.

To take things a little further, I can certainly lose some of the information from the blue box and the nose will still look good on screen.  But I can’t get more information into the green box.  The simple explanation is that if I increase the size of the green box, I basically just make the dots bigger.  Actually, it doesn’t really work that way, but the effect is the same.

One eye

Ok, so let’s just look at an eye.  If we only look at one of them, they don’t look crossed, but that doesn’t have anything to do with resolution.  Let’s assume that we’ve sized this picture for the screen at 72 dpi.  That means that if the size of the eye was 1″ on screen, it would measure 72 x 72. Basically, we’ve moved the green box over the little girl’s eye and captured that image.

eye at 72 x 72

This is the eye at 72 x 72.  The eye above will give you a better idea of clarity. It looks okay on your computer screen, right?

What if we want to print the eye?  To get the information needed for a clear print, we need the dots to be closer together.  If we move theme close enough to get 300 dots per inch, the size of the image shrinks.  In fact, it shrinks to about 1/4 inch, probably a little small for anyone to notice, even if the image does print clearly:  reduced from internet

But, if we try to increase the size, things just get worse.  Because we can’t really increase the information, we just stretch the dots and the image becomes blurry.  This is essentially what happens when a photo intended for the internet is used for print.  The resolution isn’t adequate and it blurs out.  Depending on the image, edges can become jagged, and you might see pixelization (boxes) in the image.  The photo will look crummy and embarrass your printer, who is supposed to know better.

The last question: Can’t you fix it with Photoshop?

Yes and no. Photoshop and other photo editing programs use interpolation algorithms that basically multiply dots instead of stretch them.  These formulas can gauge the variations of color in a line or  radius from the dot that is being multiplied and actually create gradients or ranges of color rather than exact duplicates of the dots being multiplied.  This can certainly help if it is absolutely necessary to enlarge an image, but the process is an educated guessing game.  The image editing programs guess what information might be there, and the results can be unpredictable and inconsistent.

Synopsis and conclusion

Downsizing is ok. You can always make a big photo smaller.

Upsizing isn’t. The bad steak and good grill aphorism applies.

Listen to your printer.  Sometimes, we really do know what we’re talking about.


Rumination

October 22, 2010

Sometimes we get too busy to ask the why questions.  We just swallow all that’s in front of us, without digesting, and go on along with the whatever that we have to deal with at the time.

I like Chik-fil-A.  There’s a lot to be said for cows and they do make great chicken sandwich advocates. There might also be something in their digestive systems that’s worthy of investigation. Rumination . . . chewing the cud. Cow’s swallow it first, then chew it up later before finally digesting it.

“Gross” would be the response of my 14 year old daughter, Madeline; and she may well be right.  After the grass is consumed, why bring it back up for re-examination? Even if there’s something to be learned, the whole process seems just a little . . . ummmh, nauseating?

Nonetheless, here we go . . .

Poor Richard’s Printshop (formerly something like Gralphagraphics before the franchise became incensed at his blog) has been reasonably busy since late August. At least, it feels busy because there are only a few of us to get the work out the doors and we’re all working very hard. I’m very thankful for this and appreciative especially of the customers who have stuck with us through all of  the “recent unpleasantness.”

It’s a little hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something about the work we’re getting that’s just different.  As an example, we printed 50 football program books this week just in time for the last game of the regular season. Football programs used to be a big deal . . . large saddle stitched booklets with lots of ads printed in decent runs in time for the first game of the season. This one was thrown together as an afterthought, perhaps to keep the businesses who purchased ads from asking for their money back?

Two weeks ago, we printed a very nice invitation for a health care customer.  Expensive paper, process color, good press run, scored and folded, tabbed 3 times to meet USPS specs and mailed at the very last minute, probably a week later than optimum to reach the target audience.

We have an end of the fiscal year audit booklet in-house for a municipality whose fiscal year ended June 30. We thought the book was due by September 30. It’s been stuck in our hold bin for over 2 weeks, waiting on revisions from the customer.

And then there are the envelopes printed for a communications company in a hurry, that have been sitting on the shelf waiting for pickup since October 5; the business card design for the new company that had their grand opening scheduled for October 11; and the display board and banner stand that actually did get designed, proofed, completed and shipped in 5 working days, thanks to UPS Second Day Air and our very good tradeshow exhibit supplier.

Actually, it’s not hard to identify what’s happening at all. It’s busy, but it’s not normal and Poor Richard’s stomach is a little upset.  We are reacting to our customers’ lack of planning and in some cases we’re getting burned and in some cases they’re getting burned, which is worse. (It’s worse mainly because we might take the blame.)

Our customers are firing before they aim. This is probably better for us than when they don’t fire at all, but I think there might be a better way.  It’s something to ruminate about . . .


Half a bob off plumb

August 19, 2010

It’s been one of those weird weeks when the moon should have been full. But it wasn’t. Perhaps the 100 plus degree heat an 99.999997% humidity have steamed the brains of Middle Georgians.  Poor Richard doesn’t know exactly what it is, but things are slightly askew here . . . to paraphrase my buddy Bob Galloway, the curmudgeon, the entire town is about “half a bob off plumb.”


Item One

I didn’t get to meet her, but right hand man Brian said that she looked relatively normal when she walked through the doors of the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar (name carefully concealed to avoid disrupting the peaceful sleep of the powers that be at the franchise . . . hint, sounds like Gralpharaphics).  She explained to Brian that she was opening a new business and needed letterhead, envelopes, business card, etc. This used to be a fairly common occurrence at printing companies, and Brian looked forward to serving a new customer.

It’s not uncommon that a new customer will ask the price of a product before they provide a description of it.  While it is possible to quote a price that will cover most contingencies, I’ve yet to find a customer who will accept an estimate of “probably somewhat less than $10,000,” without question.  Standard operating procedure is to try to narrow the description a bit and find a solution that is reasonably in line with the customer’s expectations and budget.

Brian attempted and ascertained that the customer would like to use paper for her letterhead and envelopes and would also like her symbol on it.  She specifically said “symbol,” not logo or wordmark or even image. She wanted her symbol on the letterhead . . . in color . . . and (as she glanced and pointed at a presentation folder on our display rack) “smashed into the paper like that.”

Skeptical that the cost of embossing a process color logo on a short run of letterhead would be practical for a new business, Brian started to suggest alternatives. The customer was adamant. What she wanted was her symbol smashed into the letterhead, business cards and envelopes. Ever helpful, Brian offered to run down prices and asked if the customer had her logo as a digital file that we could use . . . or at least something that we could look at to help us prepare the estimate.  The customer fumbled a bit, then reached in her purse, removed her billfold and then her drivers license.

“That’s it,” she exclaimed, pointing at the photo on the license. “That’s my symbol. That’s what I want!”

Brian, ever mindful of the endless time and patience available to the printshop owner, deferred to Poor Richard and told the customer that I would follow up with her.  I haven’t contacted her yet, but I do have an idea. Perhaps something like this might work?


Item Two

Three paragraphs, bullet points, and numbers. Poor Richard is probably going to get in big trouble with this one, because the customer is going to read this blog, identify himself, and get supremely ticked off!

Here’s the text of the email we received:

Whereas, from time to time revisions are made to documents created for Amalgamated Peanut Butter and Jelly Roll Company (APB&J Rollco), and said documents are printed and archived by Gralpharaphics of Macon, the aforesaid company (APB&J Rollco) wishes to indicate the occurrence of revisions to each document produced and to verify the currency of each revision prior to production of duplications, reprints, or new and unique iterations of each printed version or versions.

Because the temporality of the aforementioned documents is currently not indicated, this may currently counterindicate the currency of our current versions. In fact, our customers have occasionally called the currency of our current versions into question due to the lack of an evidential indicant that the version they received was indeed correct and produced contemporaneously with the latest APB&J Rollco product described within.

Our goals are thus:

  • to accurately indicate the current version
  • to convey this clearly to our customers
  • to assure that the latest iteration of each document is indeed the current version
  • (to confuse the pants off of the folks at Gralpharaphics)

To that end we require that your company immediately implement the following changes as pertain to the documents and versions of documents you currently produce, have produced in the past, or might conceivably produce in the future for APB&J Rollco:

  1. Indicate the current version on the document
  2. Do this in such a way that the temporality of the version is conveyed to each customer
  3. Destroy, delete, or otherwise dispense with document versions that are untemporal or not current

Many thanks for the services you render for APB&J Rollco and for your prompt attention to this matter.

–Name withheld in the vain hope that Poor Richard will go undiscovered.

Admittedly, Poor Richard has elaborated a bit . . . but not a lot.  The actual email we received from our good, but very precise, customer was almost as complicated as the gobbledygook inserted above and did require a phone call to ascertain exactly what the customer wanted . . . a date entry at the bottom of each form we produce to indicate the latest revision.


Item Three

The customer was absolutely serious. So serious in fact that he noted a specific instruction on the proof copy that he faxed back to us and on his email approval of the final proof.  We’ve produced shells similar to the one the customer wanted many times. A shell is  boilerplate language (and sometimes a form image) that can be fed through a laser printer to overprint the specifics of a contract, invoice, etc.

In this case, we were asked to print 5000 copies on one side. Presumably the specifics would be printed on the other. There was no specific paper requirement . . . we printed on 60# offset text (no watermarks).

The instruction:  Please make sure that this information is printed on the back of the paper.

I think we did OK. We stacked all 5000 copies printed side down in the boxes and delivered them to the customer.  He thought we were wonderful!

Times are still rough in the printing business, but it laughter is a great diversion. Isn’t life grand?


Opening Pandora’s box

January 3, 2010

It’s been a while since Poor Richard has written about proofing (see Just Do It . . . I Trust You!). At the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we generally follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1: Proof Everything. When we fail to follow Rule #1, it is usually because the owner decides to make an exception, allows one of our customers to convince him that they do not need a proof, and gets totally burned in the process because something goes awry or does not meet the customer’s expectations.

If the CIA was really intelligent, they would store all of their Top Secret, classified, very sensitive documents in the basements of printshops across this great nation. Because we see so much text come past our eyes, printers don’t really read much of it.  At Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), we used to do internal proofs of hard copy prints for much of what went through the shop. We were looking for low resolution graphics and the general composition of each piece ; whether it would fold correctly and if there were font errors.  Today, for much of what we print, preflight software will indicate many of the technical errors and our internal proofing process is focused more on how the piece will finish (through bindery) than the general composition. In short, we don’t read for context and we don’t always catch spelling errors.

The phone call of the month for December was from a customer that had discovered a typo in a brochure we had printed for them . . . in September. In fact, it was an exact repeat of the same job printed for them about a year before.  And that job was a redesign of a file that came to us in .pdf format sometimes shortly after Adobe Acrobat was invented, opening the possibility that the misspelling could potentially be over a decade old.  Naturally, the customer wanted the job reprinted . . . for free.

We checked the proofs. Sure enough, there was the typo buried plain as day right in the middle of a long paragraph in the center panel of the inside of the brochure. It stood out dramatically in 11 point Times New Roman; so evident that the customer missed it totally when they signed off on the proof.

Who has the responsibility? Proofs do place the onus of responsibility for the final appearance and accuracy of each printed piece on the customer. This is customary in the printing trade and spelled out clearly in the proof policy that our shop sends with every proof.  While some customers may see this as a catch, printers consider it a necessity. Even if we could completely check everything we print for absolute accuracy, this would not compensate for the vagaries of syntax, composition or customer taste. There have been many occasions where Poor Richard or one of my associates has corrected grammar or spelling only to have it uncorrected by the customer. Likewise, the design or composition of many of the projects we print may be more pleasing to our customer than to our unrefined tastes.  This really is the critical point for most printers: the project must meet the approval of the customer. The signed proof signifies that it does.

Back to the problem of the month. Another of Poor Richard’s rules that falls pretty near the top of the list (like #2 maybe) is this: Customers are important. These days, they’re also pretty darn hard to come by.  We understood the customer’s problem and offered to help them with the reprint.  Mind you, this is not customary practice among printers. Margins are very tight in our business and printing at cost is spinning the wheels at best and at worst a missed opportunity for profitable use of time and equipment. Nonetheless, customers are important. We offered to make the correction and reprint at a discount.

After the correction was made, the competent Gralpharaphics team followed Poor Richard’s Rule #1 and sent the customer a final proof for approval. At least, we thought that it was final. The proof was returned with a request for another change.  Technically, this request crossed the fine line between correction and revision, but the change requested was minor and we chose not to sweat it. That’s when we opened Pandora’s box. We made the revision and sent another proof.

The proof response came back with a Microsoft Word file attached. We were now well beyond correction and decidedly in the realm of revision.   Poor Richard tried not to reach the conclusion that the customer’s stated need — to correct a typo — might not have been their actual objective. Without questioning the customer’s motives, we explained that the discount had been offered to help with a correction. The scope of the revisions requested had essentially changed the project from a reprint to something like creating a new brochure.  We would have to charge for the additional layout and prepress time incurred for the changes.

There are times when Poor Richard is able to predict the future before it even happens. I could see this spinning out of control even without a crystal ball. The conversation was polite, the customer didn’t really understand, and the project was placed on (permanent) hold.  Chances are that we lost a customer. Bummer. Not good.

Because we’re a small business in a small market, we’ve never had the luxury of dealing only with professional “print buyers;” folks whose expectations are to some extent shaped by their understanding of and interest in the art of printing. We have had the privilege of working with some very nice folks, many of whom wanted to learn a little about print as we produced their projects. I think that there was a general appreciation among our customers of the value of the tangible product we created and of the work that went into it; but now this appreciation may be fading.

The last 18 months of struggle have brought a sea change to the printing industry and to local printers like the shop on Poplar Street.  While we continue to compete with one another for business, we also compete against a host of other choices for communication. Increasingly, our customers’ expectations are molded by the other choices. It’s no problem to correct a typo on a web page. It doesn’t require a reprint. The fact is that we have fewer customers who are interested in print and they are much less willing to deal with the complexities involved.  Price and speed have become more important and many customers are actually less concerned with quality than ever before. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “they don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.”

This presents a real challenge to folks like Poor Richard. The old rules of printing (like proof policies) seem necessary to me. It is important to do things right and because almost all of the projects we produce are essentially custom made, there has to be some understanding between printers and our customers.  We can’t sell labels produced for Jim Bob’s BBQ Sauce to his competitor Billy Bob.  If Jim Bob doesn’t want the labels, they’re trash.

How do we adapt? As our customers become increasingly less patient with the print process, it is tempting to just bend the rules and take our chances.  Waive the proofs, forget the rules, just print it and hope it’s right. Throw Pandora’s box wide open.

If we do that, how long will it take for the snakes inside to bite us?


Inevitable

July 20, 2009

When we opened our Gralpharaphics (name altered to protect the sensibilities of the franchise) shop in 1998, one of the thoughts that passed fleetingly through Poor Richard’s feeble brain was that this was an industry that was “WalMart-proof.” Printing is just too technical and complex, he thought. They’d never want to get in this business. Wrong!

evil walmart greeterLast week, WalMart and PNI Digital Media of Canada announced a partnership that will feature printed products and ad specialties for small business as part of WalMart’s Online Photo Centre. The new product features will be rolled out in Canada only . . .for now. See the GraphicArts Online Press Release.

Being of a curious nature, Poor Richard had to check out the site. At first, I was slightly encouraged.  The site is template driven, much like VistaPrint and the other online megaprinters. Business cards are prominently featured with a special offer at $49.99 for 500.  This is no great deal, especially after you add shipping, lead times and PITA factor. Then I dug into the details, checking the other items listed. Uh oh . . . WalMart’s rolling back prices, again. Get your printing here for cheap. Factor in the Canadian exchange rate ($1.10 Canadian to $1 US) and it’s really ridiculous.

Poor Richard has railed against WalMart before (see Why We Need Small Business Part 1 and Part 2). The company has a ruthless history when it comes to small business, driving out local businesses with low prices to gain dominance in every market they enter. Worse yet, WalMart has become part of the American ethos . . . we’re so addicted to the perception of cheap that Joe Consumer is overjoyed when the opening of a new Super WalMart is announced for his community. Poor Richard thinks that it’s tantamount to issuing an invitation to the Visigoths to vacation in Rome or encouraging the high school rake to have his way with your teenage daughter. But perhaps I’m indulging in hyperbole.

I feel very secure that those who shop for printing at WalMart will get the value that they pay for and that they deserve. I am very curious as to how the mega retailer will implement solutions at their customer service counters to the problems that are so peculiar to printing.  Will Joe Consumer, who ordered blue printing and received purple, really be able to get satisfaction from Louise with her bouffant hairdo and cat’s eye glasses? And will he be willing to wait in line for 30 minutes before he finds out that she’s colorblind?

It’s inevitable, and it is unfortunate that small businesses, especially the new ones that are forming in this poor economy, will gravitate toward WalMart’s print services. It may not occur to many of them to look for another small business that might actually become a valuable partner. They may or may not learn the value of relationships in their community, but it is equally inevitable that they will come to resent the mega businesses like WalMart that sap the potential from every market they enter.

Thanks to whoever created the evil Walmart greeter. It’s floating around all over the web and I love it.


OK, Let’s see if we can get this straight

July 8, 2009

“My sorority is sponsoring a beauty pageant,” says the well spoken young lady at the counter, “we’d like you to do the program for us.”

“And we’d love to do the program,” says Poor Richard, because this is exactly the kind of job that the printshop behind the red awnings (Gralpharaphics . . . use of real name discouraged by the franchise) does really well.

“Can you give me an idea of how much it will cost?” asks the young lady.

It’s a very reasonable question. We discuss paper, whether the booklet will be in color or in black and white, and who will be doing the layout. Everything’s coming together smoothly until Poor Richard asks the devastating question, “and approximately how many pages will it have?”

The sorority president opens her mouth and all of a sudden she’s speaking Chinese and Poor Richard is speaking Latin! Neither of us understand the other. Finally in exasperation, she holds up her fingers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . counts Poor Richard.

“Es tut mir leid, aber Bücher mit sieben Seiten kommen nicht,” exclaims Poor Richard. Booklets don’t come with seven pages (or if they do, p. 8 is blank).

“Jeg er redd JEG ikke gjør det oppfatte i det hele tatt,” responds the young lady in Norwegian. She doesn’t understand at all.

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” I ask with a smile on my face.

It happens all the time. A customer is counting sheets and I’m counting pages. I get 16 and she gets 4. Let’s see if we can get this straight.  We’re going to look at a quickly designed sheet with four pages on it.

page

Single Page

So, here’s Page 1. We’re going to assume that the finished size of our little folding document is the size of a standard sheet of paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches.  That means that a page measures 8 1/2 x 11 inches.

A page is printed on one side and in many (but not all) publications is assigned a number.  Page numbers are very convenient if you wish to use a table of contents or list topics in an index at the back of a book.  They’re also extremely helpful to the folks who operate the bindery equipment that puts booklets together. It’s their responsibility to make sure that Page 5 follows Page 4 and is succeeded by Page 6.

Our illustration uses only one sheet, but the same principles follow in a larger booklet, which by definition has more 8 pages/2 sheets or more. Typically, a booklet is stapled or saddle stitched in the center. Because there are four pages to a sheet and all of the sheets collate (nest) together and are folded to make a booklet, this means that arranging the pages on the sheets is an art unto itself. This arrangement is called imposition. The sheet size for an 8 page booklet with a finished size of 8 1/2 x 11 is 11 x 17. Two pages are positioned side by side on each side of each sheet. 4 pages are positioned on each sheet (2 to a side). In an 8 page booklet, page 1 and page 8 would be positioned on the same side of the same sheet. Page 1 is the front page and page 8 is the last. On the inside of the sheet would be pages 2 and 7. This arrangement is called a printer’s spread and is probably a little further on up the road than we want to go in this post.

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

So, back to our illustration. Here are pages 2 and 3, which take up the inside of the sheet.  In a booklet, these would be the center spread and because the pages are in order, the spread is called a reader’s spread. In a booklet with more than one sheet, the pages in a reader’s spread would actually lie on different sheets. The center spread always contains two sequential pages on the same side of one sheet. This is a good thing to know for designers, because it’s always safe to place an image across the pages on the center spread.  It might not work so well on other pages where the alignment of the sheets may not be exact. Confused yet?

OK, two pages on one side of a sheet. Now let’s look at the other side of the sheet.

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

You’ve seen Page one earlier in this post. In our example, page one is backed by Page 2 and Page 4 is backed by Page 3. Four pages to a sheet.  In a booklet, fronts and backs will always be sequential, but left and right facing pages (on the same side of the sheet) will only be sequential on the center spread. Now you understand why the sorority president was speaking Norwegian.

Here’s the good news . . . you don’t have to worry about imposition. Deliver your booklet to your printer in page order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) and let them worry about setting it up for print.  We’ve done it before and we’ll usually get it right.

Here’s what you should remember from all of this . . .

  • A page is what you read. One side finished size. One half of one side of a sheet.
  • 4 pages to a sheet in a booklet
  • Tell your printer how many pages, not how many sheets.
  • Use your fingers and get an interpreter if necessary.

Finally, page numbers are good. When you’re thoroughly confused you can just check the page numbers to find out if everything is in order. Verstanden?

Isn’t life grand?

Insincere apologies to Brian, Todd and the memory of Alfalfa.


Relationships

May 30, 2009

relationshipsThe older gentleman was not seeking a relationship. He had called earlier for pricing on a book. 250 copies perfect bound with 160 pages. Finished size was 8.5 x 7, a little different, but not unheard of.  Like many of our customers these days, he had no real knowledge of paper . . . something nice but not too expensive. Brian provided an estimate for the job and felt good about it.

A couple of days later, the gentleman called back. “How much would it be just to do the binding?” he asked.

Now, in better days the answer to this question is “Sorry, we’ll pass.”  Binding someone else’s printing provides opportunities for all kinds of problems.  There is a need for setups and waste . . . meaning you have to explain that if the customer brings 250 book blocks and covers, the binding equipment is likely to eat a few. Covers have to be cut a certain way for perfect binding and space has to be allowed for the spine. There’s the problem of trim and margins and where the page numbers go . . . all things we look at when we print a book. All things that a customer who has never printed a book before doesn’t know.

But Brian liked the fellow and we certainly needed any kind of order, so he said “yes” and tried to explain all of the complexities that the old gentleman would need to know. Brian also asked why we wouldn’t be doing the printing.

“Office Despot beat your price on the printing,” was the reply. “But they couldn’t do the binding.” was the part he didn’t say.  Besides, when getting the lowest price is the object, the details don’t matter, do they?

We have been fortunate to have some really wonderful customers over the years.  For instance, the consultant, whose books we have shipped all over the US.  She works with government agencies and is really suffering from budget cuts now, but we’d do anything for her.  Or the school that seems to understand just how tight things are right now and sends checks almost instantaneously after jobs are complete. Or the construction company that is always in a hurry, but so very pleasant and easy to work with. Or so many more . . .

We’ve had a few customers that have strayed and come back; and lately, with the bad times, we’ve lost a few.  Some have disappeared altogether – out of business. We lost the educational establishment that was so devoted to the local community that they sent all of their printing to the low bidder in Atlanta. We’ve also lost a couple that have trimmed printing out of their budgets altogether.

The one that hurt the worst was a long-term account, a non-profit. We never did all of their printing, but for years we did the bulk of it and we supported them with fairly frequent donations.  I was worried a little when management changed a couple of years ago, but we continued along for awhile. One day, I received a request for pricing on all of the items we had printed for them.  I was led to believe that it was budget time and that numbers were needed to prepare for the next year.  I was naive . . . they were going out for bids and I missed it. We lost most of the business.  Shortly thereafter, Poor Richard received a request for donations for the following year.  They wanted a relationship, but not the kind that works for everyone involved.

Back to the gentleman and his book. Poor Richard grumbled and tried to make sure that the i’s were crossed and t’s were dotted. Both Brian and I had the same conversations with the customer.  First, we tried to convince him that it would be much better if we were allowed to do the whole job. He had already committed to Office Despot. All of their specs were the same, he said, but the price was cheaper.

Then, we tried to go over the details and repeatedly emphasized that we would not be responsible for waste or misprints. The old gentleman said that he understood.

When the job came to us, it was not a surprise. He delivered exactly 250 books. The quality of paper was poor and the quality of print was mediocre. Best of all, the book blocks had been miscut. Page sizes varied by about 3/8″ within each book. We pointed this out to the gentleman and did the best we could.  We did not put the finished product in Alphagraphics boxes.  The old gentleman did not complain, but he did not receive a good value for the money he spent on the project.

It’s difficult not to worry about the state of things  . . . of business in general, the printing business in particular and our business in specific. Poor Richard still maintains that printing does not make a good commodity. Too much detail is required and every project is different. The products of printing turn out best when printers and customers work together, when they have a relationship.

Poor Richard is decidedly old school . . . I like dealing with people. I prefer to buy things from salespeople and whenever possible from local businesses. It’s difficult to have a relationship with a website or WalMart.  I enjoy the relationships we maintain with our customers and I try to make sure that they are mutually beneficial. And I still believe that even in a depression, value trumps price every day.

But perhaps Poor Richard is idealistic . . . or naive. It’s tough turning 50.