Changing face of print: An associates perspective

For creative agencies - just as is the case with paper merchants and printers too - the trading conditions of the past few years have imposed upon us a whole raft of issues that we have to account for. As is always the case when times are hard, marketing budgets have been cut time and time again, we've had to contend with the reality of sometimes monthly increases in paper prices, and in the space of just a few years print runs themselves for much of what we do have fallen from the tens of thousands (for a typical corporate brochure for example), to perhaps now just a thousand at best, and even often just a few hundred.

Yet, even within all of this constriction, there's certainly room still for a positive realignment of one's focus towards the opportunities available.

Paperback book sales follow the trend first illustrated with music, and are now significantly down on just two years ago, with more and more readers switching to ebooks. However, hardback book sales are actually up as much as 40% for some publishers (with a clearly discernible audience of collectors accounting for a part of this increased sales) and in the same space, more and more Limited Edition versions of new books are being launched with bespoke printing techniques designed to endow the publication with extra PR potential in ways that would previously have just been deemed 'too expensive to consider'. The ever lower cover price of books across all categories (alongside the ever increasing power of Amazon and supermarkets in the book retail sector) renders publishing an industry that's necessarily risk adverse - yet, Limited Edition publishing, wherein very short runs of very high-priced books published to the most ambitious and opulent production standards (and sold direct to highly targeted customer bases via direct sales or using the internet) both side-steps established online book retailing altogether and also offers profit margins that traditional publishers might only dream of.

The same focus towards specialisation and niche markets is making its presence felt in corporate and commerial design print too. While the large print-runs once meant that every single component part of print production would have a huge impact upon the final quotation, the shorter print-runs that are now more typical of most projects can prompt an altogether

different approach. For example, where the paper within a publication might only account for 25% to 30% of the total print budget, the difference in price between a designer's preferred paper stock and its budget alternative might previously have accounted for many thousands of pounds within the overall cost of a job. Now however, the difference in cost between this and that paper might be just a few hundred pounds and therefore be much easier to justify or argue for. Similarly, while the costs of print finishing a long print run might mean that a preferred case-binding approach for example be sacrificed in favour of a cheaper perfect-bound option, and other finishing techniques such as foil-blocking or embossing etc abandoned at the design stage, client's renewed focus towards the necessary impact of their investment in the print portion of their marketing mix means that quality, attention-to-detail, and highly targeted distribution is becoming far more important than quantity.

There is one sector of the print industry of course that is clearly a growth area - and this is digital. The quality of digital print, and the range of digital papers, has increased dramatically over the past couple of years (and the first commercially viable B2 digital presses are now being brought to market to render the platform attractive enough that even many of the smaller litho printers are considering investing in their first digital press). Alongside digital commercial print though, there are new products and services carving market share in what was previously an altogether prohibitive area of the print industry. Today, both 'on-demand' print and the rather under-estimated 'photobook' mean that users of print can call upon a quality printing of just five or ten copies of a publication - or even just one - and have it ready for them in just a few days, for just tens of pounds when, previously, even if such projects were progressed, each copy of a publication might cost many hundreds of pounds to produce (and often represent an onerously laborious project management burden too).

Today, it seems that the lesson is the same for all of these users of paper and printed publications; print less, print better quality, make your work stand out, and take advantage of the mix of attributes that short runs allow you to bring to the finished product (that would simply not have been affordable within the much longer print runs that we were once used to).

Marc Carter, The English Group (Creative Consultant).