Production Roundtable: Deconstructing Production

Gather production professionals from more than a half-dozen catalogers into one room, and what do you get? A conversation, peppered with an array of acronyms, about technological advances and changing vendor relationships. The executives attending Catalog Age’s production roundtable, held in Madison, WI, in July, had a lot to say about those topics, and about how their jobs are changing.

The roundtable participants

  • Chris Aurit, director of print production, Monroe, WI-based multititle food, apparel, and home goods cataloger Swiss Colony
  • Dave Chaimson, director of marketing, Culver City, CA-based Sony Pictures Digital (previously with Madison-based software manufacturer/marketer Sonic Foundry, which Sony bought earlier this year)
  • Neil Diboll, president, Westfield, WI-based plants cataloger Prairie Nursery
  • Wanda Little, database publishing manager, Madison-based scientific instruments cataloger Promega
  • Amy Hutchinson, senior graphic designer, Madison-based library supplies cataloger Demco
  • Patty Neilon, vice president of advertising, Madison-based educational products cataloger Sax Arts and Crafts (a division of Appleton, WI-based School Specialty)
  • Phil Niemeyer, president, and Kent Parks, director of advertising and catalog production, Fort Atkinson, WI-based multititle agricultural/educational products cataloger Nasco
  • John Smyth, creative services operations manager, Wassau, WI-based athletic apparel marketer Eastbay

Catalog Age special projects manager Shayn Ferriolo and senior news editor Paul Miller moderated the discussion.

The more things change…

Catalog Age: Print production is an aspect of cataloging that changes more rapidly than most other areas. What is the biggest change in production that you’ve seen during the past few years?

Chris Aurit: Technology has really changed everything. Ten to 15 years ago, you worked with film. Now everything is direct-to-plate, direct-to-gravure. The technology has advanced so much that what we used to do in a month, now we do in two weeks. Technology changes daily, so you have to keep up with it, and we’d rather be in the forefront rather than behind.

Catalog Age: How have your staffing levels changed?

Patty Neilon: Our staffing level hasn’t changed. There are six of us in advertising and catalog, including myself. The thing that’s happened with technology is we can put out far more catalog titles. Last year we did six titles; this year we’re doing 11.

Aurit: You’re not waiting on the equipment or a page to RIP [raster image processor] through. It’s boom-boom and you’re ready to go.

Dave Chaimson: Our staffing has remained consistent, but our vendor count has decreased. So while we continue to not hire additional staff, we also reduced expenditures on the outside while we absorb more of our production processes internally.

Catalog Age: Nasco has so many titles; how do you distribute the work among all the catalogs, or do you have dedicated staff for each title?

Kent Parks: We spread it over the whole staff. Over the last 10-12 years, we went from 2,000 to 4,000 pages. Our staff has gone from 32 to 40 people.

Catalog Age: Has new technology enabled you to bring more functions inhouse?

Wanda Little: When I started four years ago at Promega, we were still using QuarkXPress files for company graphics and fonts. I changed that to an all-PDF [portable document format] workflow and FTP [file transfer protocol] sites.

Aurit: It all depends how color critical your catalogs are. We still have our suppliers do all the color corrections and everything like that because we have a lot of swatch matching. The technology changes, so what you put in today will be outdated next year. Leave it to the printers or separators and let them invest the money.

Parks: We brought prepress inhouse about a year ago. We’re basically looking for pleasing color in our catalogs; we’re not matching swatches of fabric. Color corrections and conversions from RGB to CMYK [are done] in our studio with our photographer, so we’ve been able to do everything inhouse in the last year. We’ve totally eliminated outside sources for this.

Neilon: It’s the same at Sax. We have no outsourcing at all. Everything is done right up to the PDF. We work with hi-res images and have in excess of 5,000 images. We look at hi-res right on page to avoid any swapping later on.

The person who does all our PDF is an image specialist. We have our own digital photography studios, so we take just about all our own pictures; very few come from vendors. We like to show how to use the product, so we take our own pictures.

Catalog Age: For Prairie Nursery, color correctness is probably paramount.

Neil Diboll: Critical, it’s critical. We’re a relatively small company, so we work with a graphic artist here in Madison. The great technological breakthrough, if you will, is that he PDFs the files right to us, so we don’t have to have meetings and go back and forth; he just zips them up to us, and we zip them back to him. That’s a great thing.

Catalog Age: Are you shooting digitally?

Diboll: We’re using both digital and film. We don’t have what used to be the $10,000 digital camera — which is now the $2,000 digital camera. But we’re going to get one of the better cameras now. For really hi-res stuff, like our cover shots, we still use Fuji film.

Catalog Age: Anybody using a mix of conventional and digital photography?

Aurit: We use both. We have an inhouse photography studio and use outside photographers as well.

Amy Hutchinson: We use both as well. We shoot everything from a small tabletop to an entire library. We found some limitations to digital as opposed to conventional shots — some loss of color and of quality.

Parks: We do half of our photography inhouse; half of it is supplied by vendors. We have three digital cameras in our studio. It’s a matter of volume. The studio does 4,000 shots a year, and we’re bringing in about 4,000 shots a year from outside.

Catalog Age: How critical is color for Eastbay?

John Smyth: Only with the National Football League, because they’re very picky [Eastbay sells some NFL licensed merchandise] We have 4,000-6,000 images. We do everything inhouse. We put a new server in for PDFs — we can do about 1,500 pages a day now. We do about 8,000 pages a year for our catalogs.

Catalog Age: Is anyone using a format other than PDF, such as DCS [desktop color separations]?

Smyth: We’re looking to go to TIF-it [file format]. But it would depend on how much workflow we have.

Little: I use PDF for vendors in other countries. We work with vendors in nine countries, so to deal with their proofs they send PDFs. They use little notes in Acrobat and send it back, and that works fabulous. And internally, one chapter [category in the catalog] can go to probably nine or 10 scientists [to approve], and they don’t like to be on the computer. They like to take home and look at the proofs.

Hutchinson: We use a variety of files depending on the printer we are using. PDF is the kind of format we’d like to have for either the Web or overseas [communications]. Although we do find some limitations in the PDF — there can be some difficulties in particular impositions, software, or platesetters.

Relationship talk

Catalog Age: Since more of you are taking a lot more of prepress functions inhouse, how has the role of your prepress house changed?

Hutchinson: We still use some prepress houses for our four-color work. We’re looking for vendors to partner with, to keep us up to date on the industry, work with us on testing without our having to take on all that time and responsibility ourselves.

Aurit: It has to be a partnership. We have people showing color daily at our locations. If we call a color correction in over the phone, they need to know what we’re looking for, especially in the facilities that you can’t make it to all the time. It has to be more of a service, more than having a salesman come in and talking the big talk. Now you don’t see the salespeople anymore; you’re dealing with the technicians.

Catalog Age: Does anyone use a digital asset management system in conjunction with a printer?

Neilon: We use B Media [a system from a division of Banta Corp. that is now operated by Wave Corp.]. They’ve got something where the actual merchandisers can assemble what they want on page. We’re still experimenting with that.

Smyth: We use Catalog Magician [a DAM system from Que-Net Media, a division of Quebeqor World.] for our images and also our copy. We also use the campaign manager on it and coordinate Excel spreadsheets. It will bring all the copy and photos to the page so that you save time with the designers.

Hutchinson: We started with a content management system, getting all of our assets and images in one place. We are building on top of it.

Little: We just purchased MediaBin [a DAM system from Interwoven]. The thing that appealed to us the most was that it wasn’t just photos and images, but scientific figures that our vendors can download from the Internet, and we can prioritize what privileges they have [as far as what vendors can access in terms of assets and images].

Catalog Age: How much has your relationship with your printer changed?

Neilon: We print at Quad/Graphics, and we don’t even do contract proofs anymore. We have a decent color printer and get all the proofs digitally and view them that way. We still do the press OKs. Another thing that makes [proofing digitally] possible — after the proofing we can now adjust the color on press.

Also, we took prepress inhouse and thought we got pretty state-of-the-art at it and wanted to make more shortcuts. So now we don’t even go down the normal route of PDF, we go right to the RIP and the platemaking. It doesn’t allow us to make [alterations] as late as possible, but we can stockpile PDFs to the last minute and change them if we have to.

Aurit: It’s all give and take. If you make a mistake, you hope your printer helps you out, and if they make a mistake you have to help them out. That’s what it’s all about. You have to deal with your printer the way you want to be dealt with.

Catalog Age: Are you using one printer or several?

Aurit: Several.

Parks: We usually use two printers. We found that by not putting everything in the same spot we were getting better pricing. Prices can change so much in a year, and with the economy we feel that shopping around each year is the way to go.

Phil Niemeyer: We did go with one printer for a while. But the printer looked like they were taking advantage of that and thought we were going to do it again, so we went back to picking and choosing.

Little: We take bids every year on the catalog and then use yet another printer for other materials that we produce.

Neilon: At School Specialty, with 11 divisions, nearly all of us print at Quad. We contract with one printer; based on volume it makes sense.

Catalog Age: What effect has new technology had on your catalogs in terms of page counts and production schedules?

Chaimson: We’re only a 40-page catalog. Technology has benefited us more from the standpoint of allowing us to produce the catalog around product launches. And with our product being software, we wait until the absolute last possible moment to finalize the pages, until all the products and features are solidified. So for us, having 100% digital workflow from start to finish with as few vendors as possible has really been a lifesaver.

Aurit: We’re adding page counts all the time. We keep adding new titles and continue to grow. The thing we’re fighting is the back end because we’re mailing so many more catalogs. We’re keeping the same schedule we had 10 years ago, but our catalog circulation is growing and growing.

Neilon: We probably increased by 500 or 550 catalog pages this year.

Paper trails

Catalog Age: Shifting over to paper, do you rely on your printers for paper buying?

Parks: We buy our paper through a merchant. It saves us a lot of money.

Aurit: We use different roll sizes. We either specify and have the printer buy it or have a merchant buy for us, depending on the situation.

Neilon: For years, I bought paper inhouse from various merchants. Now we’re having Quad buy it because as a huge corporation we’re able to agree on roll sizes and buy maybe two different paper grades and save. This was the first year we did this.

Catalog Age: Have the relatively low paper prices led you to reconsider the type of stock you use or to change your trim size?

Neilon: Over the years when paper was tight, we did go to SC-A [supercalendered-A] for a while instead of #5 [coated groundwood], which is what we normally use. Now we use a really nice freesheet that is priced as a #5 but is similar to a #4. It is a satin sheet that is made in Germany.

Aurit: With the paper market low, it gives you a chance to mail more books. So you’re out there to find more customers. We haven’t had to decrease quality or trim size or anything like that.

Smyth: We went from 34-lb. to 32-lb. [paper stock] when the Postal Service bumped up its rates [in the summer of 2002] so that we could stay under the piece/pound rate and save money.

Catalog Age: What are some of the other hot production topics?

Hutchinson: One thing we’ve been hearing is more personalized mailings, more one-to-one and variable marketing pieces. We’ve done some experimentation with ink-jetting, smaller mailings, more targeting. Variable data we have dabbled in, but we haven’t found it to be cost-efficient enough.

Little: We are [ink-jetting] using variable data because of the different versions to different countries. Right now they’re only doing black [ink] and have a whole section that’s in their language — German, French, etc. Then the prices change [so prices in the local currencies are also ink-jetted].

Aurit: We do a lot of demographic binding. It’s not the signatures that change, but the other stuff: the covers, coupons, credit offers. We do a lot of ink-jetting.

Neilon: We do ink-jet on a letter insert, various versions of the letter plus individualized ink-jet.

Aurit: Ink-jetting is getting better and better all the time. You could actually put pictures in there if you wanted — it is that advanced.

Chaimson: We used to do that when I was with Conney Safety Products. We used to, by zip code, put maps to our retail locations.

Aurit: The big thing down the road, the challenge will be comailing, to do that efficiently. It’s something we have to look at because we have multiple titles that drop on the same release dates that we’d like to merge for postal savings.

Catalog Age: In terms of comailing, what are the obstacles?

Aurit: Say we have three different titles. If we comail them, we’re competing against ourselves. We may run a 200-page catalog with a 160-page catalog, in which case you’re messing with different schedules.

Hutchinson: We partnered with our printer to comail with a noncompeting cataloger. They hit the mail at the same time. That was pretty advantagous for us.

Parks: We tried comailing once with our own catalogs. But we didn’t feel that the school secretary was opening the package and getting the various catalogs to the right teachers. She might have just looked at the top one.

Aurit: What does everyone here do in terms of production responsibilities? Myself, I purchase the print, I take care of the color. There are four of us that mark up the transparencies, do the proofing and bindery checks.

Little: I get the text going, lay out the pages, I pull information from the databases, send everything to the printer, go on price checks, and do color corrections.

Smyth: I’m in charge of the photo studio and making sure they are getting accurate color files. I’m in charge of the imaging, color corrections, prepress, and putting everything into our Catalog Magician program.

Parks: I take care of print buying, paper buying, mailing lists, oversee the production staff — that includes everything to getting the PDF file out the door, the Web group, and the schedule for 35 catalogs.

Diboll: Since we’re a small company, I’m in product development, pricing, job budgeting, photography, layout, design, and write the text for two catalogs.

Hutchinson: I’m pretty much in charge of print catalog in terms of vendor relationships and photography, print buying, and content management.

Neilon: I’m responsible for print and paper, and it’s up to me to do the general layout of the book, creative concepts. We have an inhouse copywriter, but I’m the last person to see everything before it goes out.

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