Print and Production Roundtable: What Hath Gutenberg Wrought?

Oct 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

In July, CATALOG AGE met with several catalogers in Chicago to discuss prepress functions, paper trends, digital workflow, and other production-related issues. Given that production and paper costs account for a huge share of a cataloger’s expenses, it’s no surprise that the roundtable participants were eager to learn of ways to trim costs. But the catalogers were also just as willing to share their production horror stories. CATALOG AGE editorial director Sherry Chiger and special projects manager Shayn Ferriolo moderated the production discussion.

The roundtable participants

Nancy Batio, creative director of Lobster Gram, a Chicago-based cataloger of food gifts.

Chip Danby, director of marketing for Chicago-based Uniforms to You, a division of Cintas.

Tom Kazunas, production director for Middleton, WI-based Pleasant Co., a division of Mattel best known for its American Girl product line and catalog.

Michael Peters, marketing manager of catalog and advertising, and Lisa Guli, vice president of marketing, of Vernon Hills, IL-based Learning Resources, a catalog that sells educational toys to consumers and educators.

Darlene Sobers, catalog production manager for multititle office supplies and furniture marketer Reliable Corp., based in Schaumburg, IL.

Mike Yager, president of Effingham, IL-based Mid-America Direct, a multititle mailer of automotive parts and accessories catalogs.

Signs of the times

Catalog Age: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in terms of production during the past few years?

Nancy Batio: The biggest change for us has been having to back off the quality of paper we use to a lower weight. It’s unfortunate, but we need to be very careful with postage. And we have to be careful about how many pages and our trim size as well as the weight of the paper to keep our expenses down. We probably started with at least a 45-lb. paper, and now we are down to a 43. And the trim size has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. But we try to make up for that in the quality of what is on the paper…great photography and creative copy and layout.

Mike Yager: We do three catalogs: a Corvette catalog, a Porsche catalog, and a VW catalog. Our biggest change is that two years ago we started buying all of our paper ourself. We buy it mill-direct from Champion [now owned by International Paper]. Our trim size is currently 10-1/4″ by 8-7/8″, and we are going down in trim size and changing printers.

We have [also gone to] total inhouse photography. And while weight is definitely an issue with us, we [have to have] 240-plus pages for each of the books, so there is not a whole lot we can do.

Chip Danby: The biggest change is increasing the size of the catalog and going to a matte-finish paper and increasing the width of the book to make it more of a coffee-table book — something you will hold on to for a while, more of a magalog format.

Tom Kazunas: We do a number of catalogs for American Girl, and we are producing two catalogs for Mattel. One is the Fisher-Price catalog, and the other is a Barbie Collectibles book. Each catalog has its own personality and its own demands. We have really tried to keep the quality of the American Girl collection as high as we can. We have reduced paper in the past eight years from 50-lb. to 45 and then to 43. It is our feeling that we cannot really go lighter than that. We have changed trim size a few times to make us more efficient on press. My biggest concern recently has been the consolidation of printers and mills, because there are fewer machines available.

Lisa Guli: I guess one of the biggest things that we face is that we are also a manufacturer that sells to dealers and distributors. We just began selling direct to consumers over the past three or four years. We have always been afraid to cut items out of the catalog, because we also sold them through those [other] channels. Now we are starting to realize that to be cost-effective and make money we need to streamline the number of products we are offering in the catalog and the markets we offer them to. We have also cut trim size. We have tried to do little things. Like the order form — we don’t put an envelope on it anymore.

Mike Peters: One of the biggest changes is an increase in the number of catalogs we have done. We have two primary markets: a toy and an education market, and within those we do dealer/wholesale and parent/teacher/consumer. So we draw a fine line on some of the items we offer and how we present them. The dealers don’t like our selling direct, so we need to try to make everyone happy.

A couple of the other good things that we’ve done over the years is we have taken a more lifestyle approach with our catalog. Previously, our catalog consisted of straightforward outline shots, maybe a little bit boring. Over the last few years we have tried to give it a more human element, so that people look at the catalog and say, “I could see my child using that product.” We buy [paper] direct where we can, and as Lisa said, last year we changed the order form.

Batio: [Lobster Gram owner] Dan the Lobster Man dropped the order form altogether. I was freaking out. I said, “Dan, we have to have an order form…it’s a rule!” And he said, “Well, I don’t care. I am breaking that rule. It costs one-third of the cost of the entire book.”

Peters: We thought about dropping it completely, but then we thought that maybe people were still using the form to organize their order before they call it in.

Yager: We also completely dropped the envelope on our order form and have seen no — zero — change, except in savings. We still have an order form, but no envelope.

Darlene Sobers: We buy our paper direct, from a merchant or a mill, depending on which has the more attractive pricing. We have two contract printers that we deal with. In the past six years we have probably changed our trim size at least once and also the weight of our paper.

We use varying weights of paper because we have more than 70 catalogs that we are mailing throughout the year. A couple of our books are larger-quantity runs, so we print those roto [rotogravure]. But even in our offset books we are looking at a 26-lb. SC-B [supercalendered-B paper] for some of our pages. We are currently at 28-lb. now, and we used to be at a 33, so we have come down considerably.

We have an inhouse creative department, so they put all of the pages together for us, and then catalog production takes it to the prepress house, then to the printer. About four years we took out the order form and put it on page and did space analysis. We weren’t losing anything by missing one page of merchandise and replacing it with the form, so that has worked very well.

Inhouse vs. outsource

Catalog Age: Several of you talked about certain functions that you brought inhouse vs. those that you outsource. How did you make these decisions?

Kazunas: For Pleasant Co. and American Girl, the color that we are doing…if we have something that is very touchy, very much a “hands-on art director” image, then we bring that inhouse. [Otherwise] the volume is so big and time is so short that we really rely on our vendors….I would say that if we have 100 images — and I am talking about hero shots and high-res images — we might bring in 10 of those. They would be tricky images with a lot of retouching and nuancing of color.

Guli: If we are able to use people inhouse, we do.

Catalog Age: Mike, you mentioned bringing all of your digital production inhouse…

Yager: Yes. Our catalogs have about 17,000 SKUs, so we are very photo-intense. We are not color-intense, thank God, with that many. We [brought production inhouse] for two reasons: control, and to put the full content on the Web. So by doing it digitally inhouse, we are trying to serve two purposes. Which is probably where everyone is headed if they’re not already there.

Catalog Age: And did you also see a significant cost savings?

Yager: Well, significant based per shot and based on the quantity of shots that you can get. What we can’t do is show every nut, bolt, screw, and switch in the catalog, whereas on the Internet we can. So when you are shooting digital photography you can stage photography to go real fast. We have done as many as between 300 and 400 shots of [auto] parts per day off one camera.

We use an orbiculite table, which goes back into a sweep and has a hood over it. You can set anything in there and get no shadow unless you want it. So for shooting parts, you color your background or leave it neutral.

Batio: We have only about 10 people on staff full-time, so all of us have to wear many hats. And along with producing and managing the catalog, I manage the Website. So when the catalog got to a certain size, it was too much for me to do as a one-man band. We started looking outside for help with the creative and art direction and design.

We do virtually all of our color correction at the separator. Now I get to say yes and no and let everyone else worry about it. The creative person does the creative, the design, the layout, and all of the art direction so that when the photo shoot happens, the photographer takes the pencil sketches and gets together with the food stylist and the prop stylist and gets to work.

Food photography is a whole different ballgame from car parts. And we shoot on location. Every-thing you see in the catalog is real — we are on the beach, in the backyard, in the garden. And very few shots are done in a studio.

Things can be temperamental when you are dealing with locations. The 2002 catalog, which we are just finishing up, was shot on a beach. We were out with the lobsters right on the sand with water in the background, so the assistants had to build a large sand mound and smooth out the top perfectly. Then we had to deal with strong winds and blowing sands. It took six hours for the cover shot.

Sobers: With office supplies, we are getting a lot more digital information from our vendors. But we have occasionally done photography, and it’s been both digital and conventional. If we do have anything that needs color correction, our prepress house will do that.

Catalog Age: So it sounds like most of your production is outsourced.

Sobers: Prepress is, but all of the pages are created inhouse.

Danby: [For Uniforms to You] everything is outsourced.

Paying the price

Catalog Age: Other than reducing paper weights and trim size, what other cost-cutting measures are you taking?

Sobers: One thing we did about four years ago is that instead of using high-res [images] to be placed on the page we use JPEGs, which means our inhouse creative can put the JPEG on the page and take that page to the prepress house and come back with a Kodak approval or an Iris for us. We have significantly cut the cost of our book.

Batio: We can’t do that. Our images are too large and too critical. Our owner goes through the trouble of finding his own printer and buying his own paper. It usually saves us money, though it can get us in trouble.

Peters: How many books do you print?

Batio: For this one [the 2001 edition] we did 300,000 copies. For our [2002 edition] we are planning to print 325,000. The printer that printed this book did the best job we have ever had in terms of color, and we will print the 2002 book with them as well. But we always make sure we are at the press run. At least two or three of us go to make sure that the color and registration are there. Because no one knows what you want more than you do. If that lobster has to be red, we don’t want him orange, and with web presses that can be difficult.

Catalog Age: Nancy, earlier you mentioned that doing everything yourself can get you in trouble.

Batio: Well, the learning curve is long. We have had everything under the sun happen to us. We had problems last year with the paper mill. The paper our owner ordered had to be a certain weight to be in accordance with the trim size to make sure we stayed under the 2-oz. catalog weight so that when we mail it piece by piece it would need only a $0.55 stamp stuck on each one. If we went over, even just a little bit, we would need to stick another $0.23 in postage on it, making the cost astronomically higher.

The printer figured out exactly what the trim size would have to be to stay under 2 oz., but after the catalog was printed and bound and trimmed and packed in boxes we had some sent to our office before it dropped, and somehow someone noticed that it was heavy. So we went to the printer and we told them about the problem and they said, “Not us, we did what we were supposed to do, go to the mill.”

And what happened was that the mill had given us paper that was over [the standard weight variance]. Typically 3%-5% is the variance on weight. The paper we ordered was up to a variance of more than 8%, and that threw off the whole calculation and made the catalog too heavy, so we ended up having the printer retrim the catalogs, which kind of cut some of them closer than they should have been. But we had no choice, and thank God our creative person had allowed enough margin, so none of the really important parts were cut off.

Yager: We print our three books twice a year, so that is six press runs. I got sick of sending people to the press checks and the proofing. We have been with our printer for nine years, and we believe in long-term relationships so you don’t have a surprise each time you go to press.

I called the president of our printing company and said, “This is interesting in that the files leave here, and we have okayed them and sent them to you digitally, and you rip the files, and we get proofs back. I am convinced that when our people are in the plant and signatures are running, the signatures that are not approved are pushed aside, and as soon as we leave the plants they are brought back and bound in.” I was saying that somewhat tongue in cheek. And I said, “Why do I have to look at it if it’s a digital file? I want to work it so that I proof everything before it leaves [my headquarters] and never have to step foot in the plant again. And the president of the printer’s catalog division told me that if I [and other catalogers] would take that risk, the printer would save tens of millions of dollars a year by not having people in the plant, and we would save money by not having our own people out of the office.

We took the risk. We had the printer come down and calibrate our system as close as possible to theirs. We set the tolerance for how much variance we will allow. And we have not been in a plant for a color okay — except for covers, which we are more critical of, and those color checks seem to go a lot faster — in more than 18 months….It has not affected our color quality whatsoever. We have an agreement that if [the color quality] goes beyond a certain tolerance and we catch it, they pay.

Catalog Age: Does everyone else here go to the printer for press checks?

Sobers: We don’t. If you are selling a white pen, you are selling a white pen, and that is what the printer is going to give you. Occasionally we might go up for a color okay on a cover, but not for the body pages. We haven’t been in a printing plant in at least a year for anything other than a cover. Before Reliable I spent too many years at color okays, so when I came to Reliable I said to our vice president of marketing that there was no reason to have anyone there at all. We are looking into getting some remote proofing at our location as well…hopefully by the end of next year.

Batio: But then are you tied to that printer?

Sobers: You are.

Kazunas: We have one [spread] going into the holiday book for the [AG Mini's] miniatures collection that has more than 140 swatch matches. At that level we need to be on press. Most of our books are done gravure, so it’s easier and a little more predictable, and there is less compromise. But I would love to be able to not go to the press checks.

Taking charge of paper

Catalog Age: Several of you mentioned that you buy your own paper. I’m surprised that so many companies — large and small — are doing that.

Kazunas: You need to remember that paper is a profit center for a printing company. If you can get past the markup, you will save some money. The downside to buying it yourself is you build up an inventory. We have catalogs printing in about 12 plants in 10 states, and when you buy your own paper there is a cleanup afterward.

Yager: We started buying paper ourself because of price, and also because when the paper market gets tight, we want to own our own paper. But you do come up with two or three rolls of paper that are an odd size, and you end up with a lot of fragmented paper. That is the downside. And I can only imagine it in multiple plants.

Guli: What do you do with the extra paper when you have these fragmented rolls? We have sold ours to our printer.

Yager: We have found rolls two or three years old sitting there. That’s a lot of dollars sitting there doing nothing. It’s a hard sell for fragmented paper.

Catalog Age: Does anyone here not buy their paper themselves?

Danby: We turn that responsibility over to an outsourced agency. They have buying efficiencies.

Yager: We are down to a 5% waste rate with our paper, but that is because we are consistently running the same paper on the same presses.

Guli: Even when we have had problems with the mills, our printer has always been able to step in and help us out.

Yager: I think you are going to see printers encouraging companies to own their own paper instead of tying up their money. They may have a few mills that they feel comfortable recommending and working with. We have heard the horror stories, and we have not experienced any.

When you work closely with a printer, they really go to bat for you. As much as I hate to spend time in a printing plant, we do rely on them to help us gauge increased methods of efficiencies. And I have found a lot of them.

I am always surprised how much free paper is out there if you are willing to test it. Go to a mill and say, “Look, we use $4 million worth of paper a year, and we would like to try a new or better quality or basis weight.” We do this occasionally for our apparel catalog.

Sobers: A lot of the offshore mills are really interested in having you test their papers, and we will probably do that within the next month or two. We have already tested some U.S. manufacturers.

It’s a digital world

Catalog Age: Let’s talk about managing content, especially across channels.

Sobers: We are using a Pindar system, which will allow us to match an image with copy. That is our data management, and we can pull the information into Quark to make the page. Using Pindar, we are also able to make the image for the Web, and we can pull that and the first line of copy for the Web.

Kazunas: We are finding image management to be a big challenge. Our Website will have in excess of 200 images that are not in the catalog, so those images need to be shot separately and processed separately. If you have a picture with multiple SKUs within it, you can’t just use this picture on the Website; you need to show each SKU, so that is where the additional photography comes in.

Also, we use a lot of prototypes on the AG Mini’s catalog. A catalog could be orange in the prototype but really be purple, so there is a lot of retouching.

Most of our product shots are still done with film….We have been using the same photographer for the life of the catalog, and he is able to get some really nice images, and you can’t do this digitally yet. Also, he doesn’t do digital. As soon as the cameras and the technology get to that level, then we probably will use it. We are finding some conversion issues with the digital images we do shoot in terms of balance, etc. It is very tricky, especially if you start using two different studios.

Catalog Age: Does everyone have some type of repository system or a digital asset management system?

Kazunas: We don’t hold our own high-res images. It’s just not something we felt the need to possess, so we let our prepress facility hold them, and they send us back low-res JPEGs for page position. Those can also be repurposed for the Web.

Batio: Do you Digimarc [digitally watermark] any of your data so that people can’t steal them? We had that problem with our Website — we were finding our images all over the Internet. There are so many other companies out there that can just create a Website, and they don’t have any of their own stuff; they are just sitting in their bedroom, and they think they can get away with taking bits and pieces from those of us who did it the hard way. And we usually find them by accident.

Danby: We had that happen with Uniforms to You in the Caribbean. They took the images and scanned them and made their own catalog using our photography.

Catalog Age: Mike, you mentioned that Learning Resources recently made the switch from film to direct-to-plate. How long ago was that?

Peters: About two to three years ago…. There is a huge savings by not going to film. Our prepress vendor works with our printer, so we knew that on press the proofs were good. You can always alter it too. It has gone really well.

We did have a little problem with our printer — actually a big problem — a year ago. They were concerned with the files being too big. We had never heard of that, and neither had our prepress vendor. It was over the millennium holiday, when everyone thought everything was going down. [And] they lost the files, and we had to reproof a 100-page catalog — plus we had two versions of it, domestic and international. Now we’ve switched to a different printer, and we think they are capable of having things run smoothly.

Guli: And it hasn’t been a problem with color so far. And I know that was our biggest concern going into this a few years ago.

Sobers: I think the color is better when it’s direct-to-plate. Cleaner, sharper.

Guli: A lot of the printers, if you do bring them film, they are going to scan it anyway.

Peters: And many printers charge you more because they are getting away from that.

Batio: We did direct-to-plate the year before our current catalog, but when we switched to our current printer, they asked us to use film for the first year, since they had not worked with us before. It turned out fantastic. And this year again they said, Let’s use film. It’s because of color issues — they felt more comfortable with film.

What’s next?

Catalog Age: To wrap things up, what do you see happening regarding print and production several years down the road?

Kazunas: I alluded to this earlier, but I am really concerned about consolidation. For our purposes, we are down to not only one mill, but one machine. If that one machine goes out….We are speaking with other mills and paper sources. But we use a unique sheet, and it’s gravure and just not common. The first thing that happens after these mergers is you hear about plant closings and machines.

Sobers: I have a concern about paper. Although it’s a pretty open market right now, we were in the same cyclical format about five or six years ago. Paper prices were down, and paper was available, and then, boom, we got hit, and prices went up, and you were begging for paper — and paying any price to get it. I don’t really want to see us in that situation again, but then I am not sure how we stop it. You don’t want to build up your inventory, and the mills have taken more downtime this year than they have in the past, or at least you are more aware of it.

Batio: We are most worried about the ever-increasing postage prices, since that [cost] really impacts how we produce and size our catalog.

Sobers: If you look at our budget, we spend the most on postage; second would be paper, and third would be printing. And where we have many sources for paper and printing, we have only one source for the catalogs to be delivered, and unfortunately the government is involved. Maybe we should take a look at privatization.