Print, by any other name

September 1, 2009

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Before I opened my digital-only printshop, I worked in conventional shops of varying sizes, performing various job functions. This gave me the opportunity to see the possibilities of digital printing.

Because of my offset background, I emulated the workflow found in most commercial shops. Our sales and customer service weren't all that different from any other shop, and shipping was also very conventional.

Since I considered myself a printer, my new digital firm joined our local Printing Industries affiliate. I attended PIA conferences and rubbed elbows with “old-time” printers.

I kept my subscription to American Printer, as well as High Volume Printer, since I was in the book business and had big plans.

In short, except for the strange digital equipment and the absence of a darkroom, my new business was for all intents and purposes a printing establishment.

As I was dreaming up the digital printshop, a number of others were doing the same. We all realized at the same time that the word processor, the personal computer and the laser printer added up to powerful new technology that was not nearly being used to its potential.

I thought I was the only one, but I had a competitor in my local market who had come to the same conclusions I had. Unknown to each other, we opened similar businesses with virtually the same print engines and targeted to an overlapping clientele.

Not a printer?

There was one significant difference between my competitor and me. He was, by trade, a blueprinter.

His background was diazo, a messy, smelly process that by my prejudiced standards did not qualify as printing. He agreed, at least with the “not printing” part. He had never thought of himself as a printer, and saw no reason to call himself one now.

It should come as no surprise that my competitor approached his business differently than I did. He laid his shop out like a blueprint house, of course.

His pricing model was different from mine; he focused on price per copy rather than price per book or per order. I offered a wide variety of paper stocks, and focused on stitching and perfect binding. His bindery included methods such as velo and tape.

Having a background in the book business, I initially targeted printing and publishing markets for my customers. My rival focused on architects, who needed specification books, plan books and bid packages.

Both of us had accurately guessed the market's need for digital services. There was plenty of business to go around. As we became established, the marketplace discovered us both, just as it discovered that our new imaging process was much more efficient than offset for certain projects.

For years we were archrivals, until he tired of long hours and fast turnarounds and sold out to a consolidator.

I demand a recount

If you have attended any sales seminars for printers, you've heard “experts” tell you not to be a printer, as though it were a dirty word. The latest silliness says printers should become “marketing service providers” or MSP for the really hip.

So, what have we here? Printers — who are printers to the core — are told not to be printers, to hide the fact that they are printers. And they are being told this by consultants who market to printers, at events for printers, paid for by printing associations.

On the other hand, my competitor was never a printer in his own mind. He never went to printing industry events and probably didn't know about them. He read no printing magazines and was not listed as a printer in the Blue Book or the Yellow Pages. He did tell prospective clients that he was a printer, but in his mind, he was just someone who had found a way to put their images on paper more efficiently than people who were calling themselves printers. He bought paper by the ton, printed on it, bound it, and sold it. Sounds like a printer to me. He took work from me, and I from him. We used many of the same processes, and I certainly am a printer.

When my rival took business away from a “printer,” U.S. Commerce Dept. statistics and NAPL sales surveys showed that work as having disappeared, and print as declining. When he created new volume by convincing clients to print things that could not be printed affordably before, that new volume went undetected. For years print sales, as officially reported, have steadily declined. We are told the number of printing establishments is also declining.

Is this the inevitable loss of print market share to more glamorous Internet media? Or do statistics belie a thriving print market dominated by nontraditional providers, who don't know (much less care) that they are in the printing business?