The sunny side of print

February 1, 2005

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

I’ve been called the Grim Reaper, which implies a gloomy naysayer. I’d rather be an iconoclast: one who brings down false idols to show things for what they really are. The Grim Reaper always sees the worst; the iconoclast points out that things might not be what they seem.

Let’s take an iconoclastic look at three challenges some say sound print’s death knell.

Pages down, value up

Measurement tools aren’t well-defined, but statisticians agree that print volume is declining or—at best—flat. After six centuries of nonstop growth, this frightens some, especially those experiencing a decline in their own sales.

What is responsible? The Internet? Postal rates? Illiteracy? Al Qaeda? Perhaps all of the above, but there is more to this. I suggest that we are actually printing more valuable pages. I’m not speaking of what we bill, but rather how much our printing is worth to the end user. (Pity the two aren’t related!) I postulate that more of what we create is being used and less is going into the dumpster.

As a fervent believer in the value of print, let me state that a content creator or buyer who decides against print has made a negative value decision about a project’s importance. This is a good thing! Not everything created is of equal value. Not everything deserves to be printed.

Rising postal rates

Much of our industry (although certainly not all) is tied to mail. Rates and regulations—largely beyond our control—are creating panic. The USPS should indeed frighten and outrage all taxpayers, not just printers. But for us, this is another chance to add value.

Do you cringe at the term "junk mail"? Face it, much of it is. If mail is doomed to be thrown away unopened, why waste stamps? Go for efficiency—use spam email, which is also deleted unread! On the other hand, clients who’ve done their homework, have quality databases, and are providing products or services of genuine interest to targeted audiences will be mailing for a long time to come.

Yes, postage expense is daunting, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Mass emailings, touted as virtually free, are proving to be worth about that much—and that doesn’t consider the backlash of hatred spam creates. Garbage mail might keep the presses busy, but valuable mail has a lot more long lasting ... well, value.

Offshore printing

The U.S. printing industry could be facing the plight of our manufacturing counterparts who have watched much of their volume move overseas. Book printers are feeling the heat first, but it might spread across our industry. Our options:

1. Wring our hands and beg for government protection.

2. Insist it can’t happen to us.

3. Determine how to beat Asia at its own game.

Costs in China are so much lower that we can’t possibly compete on price. Good! Perhaps we can stop beating up one another over price, as well. How, then, can we show clients the value we add for the extra U.S. dollars?

How about quality? If we don’t descend into sloganeering and instead focus on real improvement, we should be able to recapture every print job that goes overseas and comes back with sixteen pages missing from the finished books.

How about accountability? Mr. Customer, if there is a problem with your job, I’m here to make it right. As for your Chinese printer, well, I’m not sure getting satisfaction will be quite so easy.

Let’s not forget my personal favorite, fast turnaround. Asia still is far, far away. The faster we produce, the harder we make it for the offshore folks to penetrate our markets.

Gee, that sounds like print-on-demand. Think you can’t print on demand? Has your best customer ever faxed a purchase order with tomorrow’s delivery date? Welcome to print-on-demand!