Print Buying on the Web
Last fall I wrote: "I continue to imagine that a new breed of print buyers will team up with a new generation of print manufacturers, and take advantage of the efficiencies and cost savings that the Web affords. But compared to computer buyers and book buyers, this new breed remains a tiny minority of today's market. When will it reach critical mass?"
I referred to three companies that had begun to offer print purchasing via the Web. The list has expanded considerably since then, and now includes Collabria, ImageX, Impresse, I-Print, Noosh, Print Bid, PrintChannel, PrintMarket and Printing Network. Although I'm trying to closely track this category of services, there are certainly a few others that I haven't heard of yet.
Since I last wrote about print buying on the Web, I've met with many of these vendors, and I've listened to their pitches and to the reasons why they think they'll be successful.
Build a $ Billion Business
Several of them have pointed out to me that the commercial printing market in the United States is estimated at $125 billion per year or more. They each modestly state that even if they were to gain 1 percent of this market, they would build a business with sales of more than a billion dollars. Impressive.
But I remain skeptical. Let's just give them, right off the top, the possibility that they can, between them, garner the lion's share of the market for business cards and letterhead. For the most part it's straightforward, repeatable work, well-suited to on-line purchasing.
But the bulk of commercial printing does not fall into the category of straightforward, repeatable work. You know it and I know it. The bulk of commercial printing is one-off jobs: brochures, spec sheets and other forms of collateral, that are anything but a commodity. As Oliver Pflug, CEO of PrintMarket, said to me recently: "Printing is an emotional kind of product; print is custom manufacturing."
I have a whole series of issues around the notion that print is custom manufacturing. I don't deny that it currently is custom manufacturing; I just don't think that it should be.
I believe that workflow management, PDF, color management and process control—together—can move print out of a custom manufacturing mode. But that, apparently, is in the future. Today, print is just not automated. It is custom manufacturing.
Print buyers have very personal relationships with their printers. They have literally thousands of firms to choose from, but most work with just two or three.
While print buyers, if pressed, will admit that many different printers could potentially satisfy their requirements, they'll swear adamantly that they'd rather fight than switch. It's clear that the relationships they've built, and the clear communications they've established, are an essential part of getting the high-quality print work they require.
The other day, I received a well-designed and informative booklet from International Paper. Called "Via Basics: Estimating," the publication explains the process both of choosing the right printer and of receiving accurate estimates from the printer you choose.
"Via Basics: Estimating" is explicit about the intricacies of choosing the right printer. "One of the basic misconceptions about commercial printing is that every printer has the same skill level," the booklet states. It goes on: "There are many variables that distinguish printers, not the least of which is their mix of equipment and the creativity inherent in the printing process."
And it continues still: "Knowing your printer's capabilities, processes and specialties can make all the difference to a successful project and a fairly priced print job."
"Via Basics: Estimating" recommends to print buyers that they take a plant tour at prospective print suppliers, and that they examine print samples and get to know the best sales reps.
I quote extensively from this publication, not because I think it's the new print purchasing Bible, but, because I think it fairly represents the beliefs of most print buyers.
While we pundits often state that print has become a manufacturing commodity, the buyers of print believe that it is anything but. They see each printing company as distinct—a compendium of equipment, processes, personnel and practices. For the average print buyer, this is not a commodity to be purchased over the Internet.
Some vendors portray their Web-enabled software and services as workflow systems, rather than print buying systems. They seek to use the Web to simplify job submission and job tracking between print buyers and their chosen printers. They swear that they're not seeking to disrupt existing buying relationships, but only to make those arrangements more efficient through the use of Web technologies.
I'm a little more comfortable with that approach and will look at it more closely in a future column. My initial observation is that the workflow automation they offer is largely superficial. I'll return to my statement from last fall. I do believe that the Web will eventually become a vehicle by which most printing is purchased. That, to me, is inevitable.
But to the vendors who think that they'll find short-term riches on the path, my advice is this: Choose venture capital partners with very deep pockets who can sustain you while you wait.
About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and serves as program director of Seybold Seminars. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.