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For Big-Timers: The Pros and Cons of Using Asian Printers

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“Should I be printing my books in Asia?” Publishers ask me that question often and the answer has to be “It depends.” There are some rules of thumb, which I present below, but changing global economic circumstances affect even these.

In general, short-run 4/color printing is best done overseas, and so is some one- and two-color printing with large page counts, special bindings or other non-standard specifications. By short-run, I mean in a range under 15,000 – 20,000 units in standard formats of 8-1/2″ x 11″, 8″ x 10″, and so forth. Overseas, a publisher can realize savings of up to one-third on these, even including the shipping and Customs clearance charges. For oversize books, such as 9″ x 11″, 9″ x 12″, and others, the savings can be even greater. Moreover, very few places in the States can manufacture large-format books, so press capacity and availability are always issues here, especially if you need a quick reprint.

Books manufactured in Asia are, in my opinion, of better quality than those done by major U.S. printers. Sheet-fed printing and smythe-sewn bindings are the norm from Asia, although you can get adhesive bindings on paperbacks. And web printing is available for long runs at some printers (usually for more than 30,000 copies). The surfaces of the coated papers are smoother overseas, especially on the mattes, which are more like our dulls. However, their opacity is not quite as good as on American sheets, so you might have to go up a notch in weight to get the kind of opacity you want or need for a particular project. You can get comparable bulks, though.

Scheduling, Shipping and Paying

Schedules generally run about a month for printing and binding a new title after receipt of positive film or high-res files, and about another month for shipping, which includes ocean freight, Customs clearance, and domestic transit within the States. Because the books enter the USA at a West Coast port and then make their way to a final destination by truck or rail (depending on how large the shipment is and where it’s going) the shipping time is cut dramatically for books that stay out West. For a reprint, the manufacturing time is usually about three weeks, unless it involves a custom paper size or an order for a large number of sheets.

Books manufactured in Asia can be shipped door-to-door by the printer to the publisher’s warehouse, picked up by a publisher’s Asian freight forwarder, or shipped to a designated US port, where a publisher’s Customs agent can clear the shipment and forward it to a warehouse. Most large and mid-size publishers use their own freight forwarders because they can then combine individual shipments and realize significant economies of scale. Book packagers generally ship to a designated US port, where their client’s Customs agent takes possession of the order. And very small publishers generally want door-to-door service. On several occasions, though, I have had clients at large companies avail themselves of a printer’s shipping services because they felt that their orders might be delayed in their companies’ consolidation efforts. The point is, there are many options, and it’s possible to estimate the costs of each one before beginning a project.

Payment terms are generally 90 days from shipment, which generally works out to be about 60 days from receipt at a publisher’s warehouse. And buyers don’t generally have to jump through all the hoops required by American printers to get credit.

Today’s Terms

To supplement these general pointers, here’s some information about specific realities of doing business in Asia today.

First, I do almost all of my clients’ prep and film work there now for 4-color books since the timing is essentially the same as it would be in the States except for a publisher who handles these tasks in-house or in its own town. The going rate per composed page for a standard size book (8-1/2 x 11, for example), including two scans and press proofs, is around $45.00. The prep.house pays for air transportation one way; the publisher pays for the other, unless the prep. house has a representative Stateside, in which case it pays both ways. You can communicate by e-mail about any clarifications or missing files if necessary and when the job is finished, you can have film, files, or both.

Currently, many of the Asian printers are operating at about 50% capacity, so there are great deals to be made. For example, I recently worked on one of the major brand-name cookbooks for a big US publisher. Although the previous edition had been done in the States, we sent out for bids to Asia (including Singapore), Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, and the USA. It was the Chinese printers that set the pricing level at about 25% less than the US printers and over 60% less than the Europeans. All of the printers subsequently came down to the level set by the Chinese, as this was a very big job, but the lesson is that it can pay to find out what books can be manufactured for in the world marketplace.

Some publishers may wonder about the kinds of equipment being used, the skills of the workers around the globe, and related questions. Basically, just a handful of manufacturers worldwide make prep, printing, and binding equipment, so you will find the same or similar machines wherever you go. The germane question is how old the equipment is, which can (but doesn’t always) reflect the financial condition of the printer or prep house. As for workers, in my experience they are good wherever one goes, whether it be China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Britain, Spain, or the United States. And most of the plants I’ve visited are state-of-the-art or getting there.

I make sure to use a well-capitalized company, so that if a serious problem occurs, the printer can afford to make good on the project and reprint it if necessary. Although that sort of thing rarely happens, most of my clients want that assurance. If you don’t, then you’ll have even more vendors to choose from.

Current Opportunities

The best time to do work in Asia is from about November through April, when especially good deals can be made. The summer can be very busy over there, as fall books are manufacturing. Plus, ocean freight rates can spike up in the fall if containers are difficult to find. This wasn’t a problem this past fall, but was a very big problem in the fall of 2000, when — for the first time in my 31 years in the business — rates shot up dramatically and total shipping time increased by a week or two.

Because the market is so competitive at the moment, I also find my clients doing some black & white and 2/color work overseas. I don’t mean simple short-run trade paperbacks, which are best done at one of our many domestic plants on narrow-web presses. What I mean are extra-large formats, books with very long page counts, and espcially hardcovers of these types. Even with shipping, I have found manufacturing in the Far East to be less expensive for them.

Also, Asia is definitely the place to go now for “books-plus,” when you want to include a non-book item inside a book, package a book with something like a CD or a toy, or achieve a special effect on the cover of a book, perhaps with die-cutting and something glued behind it. And if you want a mechanical binding, such as wire-o or plastic comb, there is no comparison in cost between there and here. Asian firms often charge very little extra for such bindings, but they can add $.75 to $1.00 per book here in the States.

You might also consider doing non-book printing offshore. One of my clients does all its catalogs in China. They airfreight in just enough copies for sales meetings and special needs and get the rest by ocean freight. This approach saves him a large amount of money, and he ends up with a much higher-end product.

If all of this seems attractive to you, but you’re nervous about the communications, you needn’t be. All the major printers from Asia have offices in the US (mostly in New York), and the smaller ones are generally represented here by small firms that broker printing and help with production. Two well-known ones are Asia-Pacific Offset and Imago. The people at these companies are highly knowledgeable about the industry and can act as your go-between, if you want that. But I have found that my customer service reps at the plants speak and read English very well, so we generally communicate quite handily by e-mail.

Bill Rose has been a production consultant for 22 of his 31 years in the business. His current accounts include Sterling Publishing and Lark Books, Hearst Books, Weatherhill Inc., Meredith Books (Better Homes & Gardens books, Ladies Home Journal books), Roundtable Press, QVC Publishing, the Lake Isle Press, and Sewing Information

Resources. You can reach him at bill@billroseproduction.com

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