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Changing Printers in Midstream

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After I decided to self-publish my parody of nature field guides, the second critical decision I made was that production values would be the highest attainable. Stryke’s Buns Guide: A Field Guide to Buns of the World had to be comparable in every way to the superb vinyl-covered guides used by millions of naturalists worldwide. And in case you’re asking yourself, Does he mean the kind of buns I’m thinking he means? Yes, I do. I got the idea for my clean, fun guide when I was leading a group of birdwatchers and wildlife photographers through Patagonia, but it doesn’t feature birds or plants or snakes; it focuses solely on female behinds.

Back in 2002, I queried several domestic printers and quickly determined that the one best suited to deliver the special color printing and vinyl cover I absolutely had to have was the company already producing the most popular birding guides. This was a huge global Japanese firm, and, in addition to special expertise in printing field guides, it offered a price amazingly lower than any U.S. quote. So, even though I had hoped to keep production in the United States, its offer was too good to refuse.

Trouble in Paradise

Then, a series of events gradually chipped away at my confidence in this printer and the technical expertise of its U.S. reps.

The first major problem occurred over time and centered on simple communication. My first reps understood clearly what I was trying to achieve and said they could deliver. But frequent turnover of reps within the U.S. division meant that once I had a good relationship going with one and we had solved language-barrier problems, that person would leave the company or be transferred elsewhere. So it was back to square one, often with a rep whose first language was neither English nor Japanese. Inevitably, things got lost in translation. Confusion reigned.


It was critical for me to get precise answers to technical questions from the rep and plant. I was using QuarkXpress, and I needed exact specs to be certain that no major last-minute glitches would shut down the project or require a total redo. That would have been catastrophic.


One set of problems involved color profiles. It took several inquiries to nail down the specs, and I still had my doubts. Then color proofs of photos were slow in coming, and not free; the printer’s accounting department hassled me repeatedly for a resale number that wasn’t really necessary; and when the color proofs did come, they weren’t spot on, which meant they had to be redone at extra expense and with another delay.


I was diverting far too much time, money, and mental energy away from what I should have been doing—polishing text and imagery. I no longer felt confident that I’d get the beautiful book I knew was possible. I dreaded a major error, and I lost a lot of sleep.


What saved me was pure serendipity.


Acting on a New Cue


I was in my local Barnes & Noble looking at nature guide covers for ideas to incorporate in mine when, on impulse, I flipped to a copyright page and found to my surprise that the printer was not the one I was using. Were there two printers with the same specialized expertise? Indeed there were, and the one I had just discovered was Toppan Printing, which I’d never heard of.


So I got on the Internet and did my due diligence. Another big Japanese company. Plant in China. State-of-the-art technology. Worldwide operations. And—lo and behold!—a rep in Marina del Rey, CA, just a quick hop from my Las Vegas base. It sounded too good to be true.


I fired off an exploratory email, explaining my situation in broad strokes. Would this be another can of worms, or would it be my salvation? After a weekend on pins and needles, I got a call from Tom Hummel, Toppan’s West Coast U.S. sales rep.


Calm, soft-spoken, and technically savvy in perfect English (he’s a native Vermonter), Tom listened to my woes and offered to send a quote based on the book’s specs. That quote came in about 45 percent less than the one I had gone with, and Tom also provided suggestions for better stock and promised he would FedEx samples immediately. I entered a pleasant state of disbelief, wondering how long this good thing would last.


Over the next few months, things moved fast. While my first printer dawdled on getting back about further proof tests, Toppan was cranking them out free, air-freighting them directly on the recommended stock, and creating a new mockup of the book. When the first proofs arrived I tore into the package, but not without some trepidation. My worries were for naught. The proofs were stunning.


So now I faced a dilemma: how to notify my original printer that I had decided to switch? The solution? Just be straight. So although that first printer still indicated strong interest in doing my book, all communication ceased after my email calling the deal off. Since there was no contract between us, either written or oral, the transition was total and painless, and a massive relief.


With Toppan fully committed, Tom and I forged ahead at warp speed. Info requests and technical questions were answered swiftly and accurately, in consultation with Toppan’s plant in China when necessary. I could actually understand every communication the first time.


A second batch of color proofs arrived needing only minor tweaks. Tom suggested a cellophane wrapper instead of shrink-wrapping, saving me $800. Packing in larger cartons saved hundreds of dollars more. Was this some publisher fantasy come true?


Although I’m a stickler for detail, I was able to approve the next set of color proofs; the plant had deftly handled corrections of the inevitable typos and my accent and italics corrections per Tom’s direction. Then Tom unexpectedly offered to have my logo printed on the vinyl cover at no extra charge, and he had tests run to make sure the paint would adhere. The jacket came out gorgeous and vibrant. I approved it too, and Toppan was ready to roll presses.


Buns Done!


One last matter hung over us like the sword of Damocles. We needed final approval by the Chinese censor. Of course, my buns guide reveals exposed skin in several shots, and even though they’re all in good taste, we worried that a prudish Exalted Censor might ding us. Anticipating the possibility of a total shutdown, Tom lined up a second printing plant in Hong Kong; but, as it turned out, the book was cleared with nary a comment.


Things were going so well that I decided to have Toppan produce my point-of-purchase display, which holds 20 copies of my guide. A different plant was used for that, and when a color correction was needed that it couldn’t handle, Tom and an associate did the work in Marina del Rey. Later, Tom arranged to combine both jobs for shipping to reduce transport and customs fees to the minimum, cutting costs even further.


This above-and-beyond attitude is so rare these days that I floated continually in a state of gratitude. Had I not made the switch, I doubt that my buns guide would be in print today. Because I did switch, it came out better than I had ever hoped, which people remark on when they flip through it, looking at the images and laughing at the text. I’ve never met Tom in person and don’t even know what he looks like. But what I know for sure is that he’s the go-to guy for my next book.


Picking a Printer


Myriad factors weigh when choosing a printer. Four warrant special focus right from the get-go, to spare you the consequences of a major systemic blunder.


1. Using the right software. It’s crucial from Day One that the composer of your book be on the same page technically as the printing plant. Anyone laying out your book—especially one heavy with photos, graphics, and text that require specific positioning—must know with certainty that its printer can handle it.


Does the printer use QuarkXpress or InDesign or something else? What versions? You don’t want to put in months of arduous configuring only to find out that your software is outdated or discontinued. You may need to upgrade, or even buy an entirely new program with its own learning curve.


Regardless, time and money spent getting this right in the beginning will pay off big-time in peace of mind and a harmonious relationship with the tech folks.


2. Talking apples and apples. The devil—or hell itself!—is in the details, any of which can trip you up. Never assume that the plant uses a particular spec just because others do. Many, for example, have their own color profiles for converting images. Find out exactly which one your printer uses, and test it. What dpi does it require? Do files have to be in CMYK or RGB mode? TIF or JPG or PSD? Don’t guess, check.


And if a language barrier is creating confusion, hold everything. Question what you don’t understand until you do, and even change reps, or printers, if you don’t get the answers you need.


3. Making your rep love you. Sales reps work first for their company, not you. But a rep who respects and trusts you will cut you slack when you need it most, go above and beyond to make the process smoother, and offer services that others might not get.


Doing your homework so you understand the printing process and demonstrating respect and integrity will usually tilt a rep in your favor. Over time, your rep will genuinely have your interests at heart, which will manifest in a volunteered cost saving here, an extra printing service there, and so on. It all adds up to a better product and a win-win relationship.


4. Knowing what your printer will provide. Because I didn’t ask, I made the mistake of not looking beyond the confusing specs for printing my book and the per-copy cost. Only later did I find out that test proofs were extra, and several would be needed. My logo on the cover? Another charge there, too. All of which was included at no extra charge when I switched printers midstream. Lesson learned: check every service and material used, and compare with what the other guy is offering.


New IBPA member Walt Clayton is a multicareer screenwriter, wildlife film producer, and diver/production manager on major underwater feature films. He started Callipygean Press in Las Vegas to self-publish his pet project, the buns guide he researched and wrote for over a decade between movie jobs. He reports that the learning curve was steep and exciting, and that he is happy to share his experiences at stryke@bunsguide.com.


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