THE KEY TO Comailing

Postage rates, which we all know keep going up, represent 45% to 65% of a catalog’s costs. What’s the best way to reduce your postal bill, short of slashing trim size and cutting down your paper weight? Comailing, which is emerging as the cheapest and most efficient bindery tool to cut costs.

The process, which uses demographic binding to mass customize books, begins at the list house, where the names are commingled and prepared for a demographic bind with one zip stream.

This procedure requires that the catalogs share a common owner or very close integration between mailers. But there is much to consider before taking the plunge into comailing.

For starters, you need to pick the right partner. Usually catalogs will not want to compete in the mailbox, so you have to weigh the risk of mailing with a like merchant. If the partner does compete in any way, what are the chances that you will lose sales?

It’s worth noting that as comailing gains in popularity, printers are increasingly offering to broker the comail and handle all of the coordination.

You also have to make sure that the savings with comailing are substantial enough as both a percentage of postage and in real dollars to offset the added hassles. If the savings are not guaranteed and the partner pulls out, you could wind up with a drastically higher postal bill. (You can negotiate up front a modest breakup fee to any party failing to complete the comail.)

So you’ll need to get a quote for savings expected and fees charged for the comail. This is a relatively new process, so the prices have not been firmly established. Some printers take a share of the savings, while others use a run fee to compensate them.

The most reliable method to establish savings? Run the postal qualification and the postal estimates with the comail and without the comail.

Timing is another factor with comailing: You must consider how close the match is to your in-home dates and if the mail tape due date will be adjusted earlier. Most contact strategies have fixed dates, and an adjustment of more than a few days will affect the sales curve tail of the previous contact.

For instance, holiday-oriented programs will affect the selling days before an event. You don’t want to miss the prime date to get your catalog in front of a customer because of a comail.


The bindery usually wants mail tapes a few days earlier than with a non-comail. That’s because the more pockets being used on a bindery line, the slower the line runs, so the bindery needs to compensate. Binderies also want to build a cushion to avoid a problem if one partner is late; this gives some slack in the system.

With comailing you are sharing the bindery line with one or a few partners, so pockets may be at a premium and need to be rationed. You will need to determine the number of pockets available for your title. If the pockets are less than you need, you will have to opt out of the comail or slim down your versioning.

If you are testing and are sending a book using the nth-name selection method, you may want to create a test panel using a bulk mail center (BMC) or sectional center facility (SCF) split. Then the test can go as a separate zip string and not be bound on the same line.

Then there’s the size of the forms printed for the bindery. Depending on the final trim size, you may need to pre-trim forms prior to bindery.

Offset presses with a long cut-off produce forms that are 10-7/8″ high. If your partner is printing gravure and the final trim size is 10-1/2″ high, the printer may require all of the offset forms to be pretrimmed to avoid a slowdown in the bindery.

As the tapes are prepared for a comail, the production of the catalogs must be aligned. The catalogs to be comailed must have the exact same trim size, and the inkjet area (the customer addressing area for the back cover and the order form) must be precisely the same for each catalog mailed. This requires coordination between graphic artists at the catalogs to be comailed.

After designers have created the artwork, you have to send a sample with the inkjet areas to the bindery customer service representative for approval. It is best practice to send all pieces at the same time so the bindery can approve placement of the inkjet areas.

It’s actually a good idea to follow this practice even when not comailing, since the bindery has the greatest constraints of the catalog production process.

You also have to look at the page count difference between the largest catalog and the smallest. The difference, depending on the weight of the paper, cannot exceed 44 pages, although this page differential varies by bindery and should be confirmed at your bindery.

In practical terms, the potential mailers need to assess the page counts for each book. If, for example, the page count range is greater than the maximum variation, the mailers may need to exclude the outlier, either the smallest or the largest book, from the cobind. Both catalogers should analyze the potential loss of savings to exclude either book and maximize the postage discounts.


As more catalogers discover the joys of comailing, there have been a few innovations on the bindery front. For instance, printers have recently developed a new hopper — a feeder pocket that inserts a bound “guest” catalog onto the conveyer belt after the trimmer in postal-carrier-route order with the “host” catalog.

This hybrid hopper is attached after the trimmers that insert a prebound book into the mail stream. Because this takes place after the trimmers, the guest book does not need to be the exact same size as the host book.

This innovation does have some limitations, however. The most constraining is that the guest book can have only one version, because the guest book is prebound, just like a bulk book.

The guest book is loaded onto a feed table, inkjetted with the mailing address, and dropped onto the conveyer belt in the correct the postal sort for bundling with the host book. The addressing is only on the back cover, with no messaging or addressing on the order form.

Other hybrid-hopper limitations are that the ratio between guest and host is no more that 20%. This is because to open up a space for the guest book to be included in the postal sort, the bindery line creates a blank space on the line. These make the bindery line 20% less efficient. But the printers are working on eliminating this need for the open space for the guest catalog.

The hybrid hopper process is new, so the pricing varies from bindery to bindery and can be expensive. Because it slows the bindery down, the process results in longer schedules and usually a slowdown charge.

Some printers charge a run rate that pays for the hopper and the slowdown of the bindery; others take a piece of the postal savings.

What’s more, the hopper is found only at some plants of the largest printers and probably will not be rolled out to all plants or to small mail houses.

Another innovation, the off-line comail process, has been used in the magazine world but is a relatively new option for catalogers. Much like the hopper, a prebound book is introduced into postal sort of a zip stream.

The difference is that this is done off the bindery line, and from 10 to 40 prebound catalogs are fed into the zip stream. This has many of the limitations of the book hybrid hopper — longer schedules, no inside inkjet, and it’s limited in availability to larger printers and plants.

It’s also expensive because it is a secondary process — it usually costs about 30% to 50% more than the inline comail. The potential is that you can pre-bind multiple versions and feed them from separate hoppers to create a demographic bind.

While the most recent postal increase has been a huge burden to catalogers, there is some opportunity for relief at the printer and bindery. And with planning and coordination with your printer, you can execute most of these processes without affecting customer response.

Timothy Gable is director, production services for Itasca, IL-based cataloger/retailer OfficeMax.

The slim-jim story

Seen more tall, skinny catalogs in the mail lately? The U.S. Postal Service is rewarding lightweight, low circulation catalogs that change to a slim-jim format and mail as a letter rather than a flat.

As you probably know, a slim-jim or slim-line catalog measures less than 6-1/8″ wide and 11-1/2″ high and has an aspect ratio between 1.3 to 1 and 2.5 to 1; it is less than 1/4″ inch thick, and weighs less than 3.0 oz.

To qualify for the standard letter rate, the catalog’s face or open pages must be closed by two adhesive tabs or stickers, and the books must be placed in trays. The renaissance of the slim-jim has challenged the bindery to improve the tab and tray automation. Printers were hesitant to invest in equipment before they saw real demand. And the USPS was concerned about tray supply if catalogers made a mad-rush, but this did not happen.

The main advantage to this size is the postal rates are 9% less for the same weight book that qualifies for carrier route. Because the slim-jim is a specific size with limited variation, this may be the new “it” size. And with many catalogers mailing this size, comail partners may be easier to locate.

But many binderies are reluctant to extensively demo bind a slim-jim because it slows down the line too much. And while cover versioning is allowed, versioning the catalog body is not.

And the decision to radically alter your trim size should not be taken lightly, as your format is part of your identity. To understand the change in response rates, mailers should test the current format against the slim-jim size, which is one of the most expensive tests in direct mail — both in dollars and labor resources.

You also have to consider the page count limitation with a slim-jim, because if a catalog weighs more than 3.0 oz., it mails as a standard flat — at a 9% penalty.

A quick calculation of page counts at certain paper weights shows that on 36-lb. paper with a 60-lb. stock cover, the maximum page count is 68 pages. For a 60-lb. self-cover, the maximum page count is 40 pages.

That means introducing a blow-in or bind-in with a slim-jim will tip the scale and cost you dearly. And because the tabs tend to rip medium weight covers, you may need to upgrade your cover paper to 70- or 80-lb. stock if you’re considering a slim-jim.

Six comailing tips

Considering comailing? Bruce Jensen, vice president U.S. sales for Transcontinental Printing’s catalog group, has some tips to make your comailing experience a success:

  • Examine all your options

    Enter discussions with an open mind. Ask your printer for an analysis of your list and a recommended comailing strategy. It could be that an inline solution — still generally faster and more efficient — is available. Remember that your goal is to get more of your mail onto pallets to qualify for additional drop shipping and postal worksharing discounts. Don’t get hung up on how that happens, as long as you can live with the requirements and have confidence in your print partner to facilitate your participation.

  • Look at the total savings picture

    The sweet spot of most offline systems is usually in the 20,000 to 100,000 circulation range. But mailings as small as 5,000 pieces and as high as 200,000 pieces might still experience net savings with comailing. If you’re not overwhelmed with your savings projections, keep in mind that you might see more significant savings from a series of incremental postage gains. Perhaps several list hygiene improvements combined with comailing will add up to worthwhile savings.

  • Standardize

    Bindery-line comailing requires catalogs with identical trim sizes and similar thickness. Offline comailing systems are more flexible, but there will usually be an acceptable range such as 734″ to 834″ × 10″ to 10 7/8″. Your source may offer pools for catalogs of different trim sizes, such as a tabloid or digest. Again, there will be some ranges of acceptable trim sizes. Thickness requirements are liberal in offline solutions, but there will likely be some restrictions, often a 1/8” minimum and a ½” to 5/8” maximum. You’ll also usually have to conform to an addressing window and the use of inkjet addressing.

  • You have to give to get

    Besides any dimensional restrictions, you need to evaluate your ability to handle both schedule flexibility and adherence. In the case of bindery-line systems, the more flexibility you have with in-home dates, the easier it is to find a comailing partner. But once there is an agreed-upon schedule, all participants must meet the required dates for electronic files, postage funds and other requirements or risk negatively impacting the comailing partners. Offline systems might allow for more participation flexibility, but if you miss the window, the mailing goes without your catalog and you then either mail solo or wait for the next pool. Additionally, offline comailing does not allow polybagging or inside inkjet addressing.

  • Get your CAPS

    Comailing requires a centralized account processing system (CAPS) account, which provides an electronic alternative to presenting checks and cash for postage and fees at multiple post offices. A national CAPS account can be used to pay for mailings at multiple locations, eliminating the need for maintaining trust accounts at numerous post offices. You will also need to set up a new entry point for your postal mailing permits that indicates the entry point of the comailing distribution center. There is a $175 application fee plus $175 annual permit fee for a CAPS account, and actual postage payment must link to a CAPS debit account.

  • Understand the rules

    Nothing causes buyer remorse like unpleasant surprises — especially those that involve money. Make sure you address issues such as the cost of the comailing service, how your savings share is calculated, any penalties that might apply for missing a comailing date, and your ability to move in and out of the program.