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?



September 6, 2009

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at

If one happens to be a small business owner, especially if one happens to be the owner of a local printing company, the idea of re-inventing one’s business is probably pretty far up on the agenda these days. This is primarily because much of the business we all once enjoyed has suddenly just disappeared, as if by magic; or possibly due to the re-inventing of a much less cooperative economy.

Re-inventeration, a new word which Poor Richard thinks he has just coined, is the process of re-inventing something.  Of course, the whole concept is preposterous.  If something is invented the first time, does it really make any sense to try to re-invent it?

And it’s complicated. Re-inventeration is frought with Catch-22 scenarios. For those who have not read Joseph Heller’s famous book, the Catch-22 was the ultimate bureaucratic boondoggle.  Catch-22 (the book) told the story of Yossarian, a WWII B-25 bombardier and his squadron, as they were forced to fly increasing numbers of bombing runs over Italy.  The squadron commander, Major Major, literally embodied the concept of Catch-22. It was possible to schedule an appointment with Major Major at any time; however, one could only actually see Major Major if he was not in.

Similarly, if one was deemed insane, it was possible to get discharged from the Air Corps. Because Yossarian’s desire for discharge was deemed very sane, his insane behavior was considered by his superiors as a natural expression of his  true sanity. Catch 22.

Not unlike Yossarian, Poor Richard is struggling with the Catch-22s of the re-inventeration process at his downtown Macon Gralpharaphics shop (name carefully disguised to protect the sensibilities of the franchise). The first Catch-22 is simply time.  Business is down, we’ve cut back on staff, and more time is spent working in the business than on the business.  Without more time to work on the business, we’ll never be able to grow the business back to a point where more folks can be hired to work in the business; relieving the requirement for the owner to fold brochures until 2 am and allowing him to use his brain once again.

The next and more worrisome set of  Catch(es)-22 have to do with scope, the literal definition of the business. Behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we’re taking jobs that we probably wouldn’t have looked at a couple of years ago.  A lot of these are small and risky.  The risk is that the expense in time and effort to produce the small jobs will exceed the revenue that results. Catch 22. The potential benefit is a new customer who might actually bring us a profitable job one day. Poor Richard is not sure how this one is playing out.

The low hanging fruit has been picked. We’ve responded to economic pressure on mainstay product lines by adding more products. In our case, we’ve added wide format printing and reprographics to subsidize some of the losses in conventional offset printing.   These were natural additions – similar products and services to what we were already doing. They didn’t disrupt the production process much and they added little in the way of expense. Unfortunately, they did not add enough revenue to compensate for the decline in conventional printing; and these product lines are also facing economic and competitive pressures. Catch 22.

So what’s the next step? Poor Richard has written before (with misgivings) about the current buzz-phrase in the printing industry. The latest rage is for printing companies to become marketing service providers. (See Poor Richard’s post Measuring Value). Our little company  is moving in this direction slowly but steadily, unsure of all of the implications, but with a sense that it is inevitable – there just aren’t many other areas of opportunity left.

Becoming a marketing service provider is full of Catch(es)-22. First, the whole notion takes us out of the realm of producing tangible products and into the area of shaping content. We’re no longer working with machinery that prints, cuts or folds stuff; but rather with electronic means of communication and the disciplines that go along with them – CSS, XHTML, Purls and a bunch of other acronyms. The competitive cost of entry into this business is low relative to the cost of a new printing press, which means that the pressure to keep ahead of the technology curve will be steep. Worse, the marketing service provider notion requires a new skill set that takes time to learn.  In our case, that’s the owner’s time that is in very short supply. Catch 22.

Second, the whole idea of shaping content laps over into creating content.  Printing companies are pretty good at shaping. We do layout work, color correct photos, even occasionally light editing for our customers. This is different from creating the content, an area we have generally avoided because of time limitations and a focus on keeping the machines running.

It’s just a little too hopeful to think that we might make money only by implementing marketing services — integrated direct mail and e-mail campaigns, for example. Most of our customers simply lack the time and resources to develop the content for this kind of effort, so it appears inevitable that we will be required to do some development work for them if we want to sell the services.

Hopefully we can do this without stepping on the toes of our agency customers and triggering yet another Catch 22. Ideally, the agencies might find it helpful to use our shop to implement integrated direct mail and internet campaigns for their larger customers. Our challenge will be keeping the focus on implementation (and measurement) of specific marketing services without getting customers confused about what we can do (and want to do).

Creating content, even on a limited basis, is a big step for a small printing company; but it is still a lot different from the conceptual work that our agency customers do. We can make that statement, but will our customers understand it?  Another Catch-22.

Poor Richard supposes that re-inventeration, like change, is necessary and unavoidable; but he hopes he’s not re-inventing a square-wheeled tricycle.

Neither rain, nor snow, nor dead economy?

August 1, 2009

mailtruckPoor Richard thought it was only printers that had it bad. It had been a while since I had visited our local BMEU (Bulk Mail Entry Unit). The printshop next to Grant’s Lounge (name withheld to protect the sensibilities of the franchise) had a mailing to go out Friday, and no one else was available, so I loaded up the Suburban and headed for the post office.

First, let me say that the people we work at the Macon BMEU are nice folks. Ken, the boss, helped me get started in mailing several years ago.  I called him looking for information and he actually came out to the shop and spent a couple of hours going through the regulations. Randy, Charlotte, Gary and John are always helpful and friendly.  They play by the rules and let us know when we screw up, but they have always been patient and very good to work with.

This part of the post office (the BMEU) used to bustle with activity.  On any given day, There would be several mailers there with at least one who had made a royal mess of a mailing job.  One of the folks mentioned above would be patiently explaining the rules, even if the customer was irate. There is a Merlin machine behind the counter that checks barcodes and machinability. In days past, this machine was generally running. Other postal folks were continually going in and out behind the counter doing the things that postal folks do.

Yesterday’s scene was quite different. Only Ken and Charlotte were there and there was no activity at all. The first words from Charlotte’s mouth were, “This is my last week. I’m taking early retirement.”

And apparently she’s not the only one. The USPS has offered its employees an early opt-out program in recognition of the changes in their business. And the mail business has changed indeed.  The official statement from USPS on the Voluntary Early Retirement (VER) program reads like this:

Automation and technological advances coupled with mail volume reductions has the Postal Service continuing to look for ways to voluntarily reduce its workforce while maintaining excellent customer service.


Dear readers, I hope you don’t think it inappropriate for Poor Richard to read a bit between the lines and hazard some not so bold inferences.

First, the reduction in mail volume is easy to document.  First Class mail peaked in 2001 and (with one year’s exception) has been declining steadily ever since. In FY 2008, the USPS lost $2.8 billion (yep, billion) on it’s operations and total mail volume decreased by 4.5% from the previous fiscal year. It’s a no brainer . . . email continues to replace mail.

The recession has impacted direct mail in the same way that printing has been affected. Direct mail is an easy target for businesses cutting expense. Standard mail piece volume for FY09 was down almost 20% from the same time period in FY08. (Source USPS Financials).

Staunching the flow of red ink seems to be more important to USPS than excellent customer service, though. It seems obvious that USPS is moving toward a much less customer-friendly environment. Bulk mail facilities in smaller communities have already been shuttered with customers told to carry their mailings to centralized units in larger communities.

The postal service is also quickly heading towards enforced online entry of mailings for mail service providers. At this point, the online service (PostalOne) is kind of clunky and complicated. That’s no big surprise. The problem, though,  is that all of the customer-friendly postal employees are taking early retirement. There’s no one to explain the new systems.

Finally, transferring costs to the customer may be exacerbating the problem. Poor Richard thinks that it started with rubber bands. Only a year or so ago, the bulk mail offices actually supplied rubber bands to their mailers for use in packaging standard mail. When mailers were told that there would be no more free rubber bands, most of us just shrugged our shoulders and passed that little cost on to our customers. Since then, there have been a lot of incremental cost increases that we’ve had to pass along. For example, the USPS has added a move update requirement that has increased the cost of list processing. They’re also charging a small fortune for address corrected pieces that are returned to the mailer.

Postal rates and costs continue to increase while the perceived cost of electronic communication is low.  Even when the potential impact of mail can be very positive (high ROI), it is perceived as an expensive way to market.   Simply put, the cost to mail has gone up while the perceived value of mail compared to the alternatives has diminished.

This is not a winning scenario for the USPS . . . and it does explain the drastic changes at the Post Office.

So we have to ask the question. Is printed mail, especially direct mail, still a worthwhile endeavor? Is there a place in the new economy for the US Postal Service?

NEXT POST – Direct Mail and the Internet

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.


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.