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What You Need to Know About Printing, Including Costs

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In this article, you'll learn how to...

  • Ask the right questions about your print project
  • Work effectively with your print vendor
  • Avoid surprise costs on a print project

We might be living in the age of the Internet, but print collateral is still a part of just about every organization's marketing arsenal. So let's start with some common questions and answers that inevitably arise in the print-project process.

Whenever a client asks "Is it possible to..." normally our answer is "Absolutely." The better question would be "Can I affordably produce..."

Whenever a client asks "Where are the quantity price breaks?" our answer is "The first one is really expensive; after that it's minimal."

Whenever a client asks "Can I add another color without paying more? After all, it's only a four-color job and it's running on a six color press," our answer is "More colors means more money."

Whenever a client says "I love that blue there, but over here I want the blue to be more yellow," we say "Unless you want to go to PMS with a specialty ink, that is probably not possible."

So, as you can see, there are various options, scenarios, and variables to take into consideration when putting together a professional printing job. A high level of understanding between customer and provider is truly the key to coming up with solid options that are both effective and affordable.

Myths and misunderstandings abound about the printing industry, just as with most industries. Hopefully, I can shed some light on those myths and provide some factual information that customers will find helpful when purchasing printed materials.

Offset, Color, and Digital

For instance, if you want to produce a project that exceeds the limitations for digital printers, your project will need to be produced on an offset press. That press operates by making and mounting metal plates, and each plate is for one color.

So, consider a four-color project on a six-color press. Yes, two units will be empty and not running. And, yes, you can always add another color or two colors. But doing so would increase the price of the job, because there's a cost to producing the plates and mounting them, along with additional ink costs.

If you want to produce a project that is smaller in quantity and will fit on a digital printer, there are no plates to produce, and therefore you can print a four-color job as inexpensively as a single-color job. Also, inks aren't used in the digital process, so there is no additional charge for inks.

Price Breaks

As for price breaks, most costs are incurred getting the presses ready to print. Once a press is started and is ready to run, almost three-quarters of your budget has already been spent. Presses run fast, so once a press is going... printing an extra 1,000 sheets is almost paper-cost only. So, it's the first sheet that is expensive. Accordingly, no price breaks for certain quantity levels... That's just a fallacy.

Take a recent job we did for a client: The cost of 500 pieces was virtually identical to that of 1,000 pieces. Those are small runs, to be sure, but you get the idea. The "quantity myth" has lasted long enough...


Color changes can be difficult when producing a four-color-process project. Ink trains on offset presses means that color is controlled in sections. If you want your blue a little more yellow in this or that area, then you need to realize it will be a little more yellow in other areas.

If color is that critical, consider using special mixed inks. That way you'll get the exact color you want without comprising elsewhere. However, keep in mind that doing so, too, will cost more.

My Estimate Is Different Now

Whether you're working through an agency or directly with a printer, remember that if the parameters of the job change, the price almost invariably will change as well.

Almost anything you can dream up can be produced, but the real question is this: Can it be produced affordably? Once you begin adding additional creative elements such as intricate die cuts, hand assembly, specialized packing, foils, dry trap varnishes, special inks... the costs begin to rise.

Every printing project is a custom piece: Printers don't have your pocket folders or brochures preprinted and waiting for you on a shelf. Because each project has unique specifications, a printer can bring true value to clients when given the opportunity to provide strategic advice and suggestions on budget.

Your Printer as Partner

Consider inviting your preferred vendor into your initial project meetings. Doing so can be invaluable for learning about and determining paper specifications, size limitations, costly hand assembly, and so on.

Don't view your printer vendor as a low-cost commodity; rather, see your vendor as a partner who can bring true value to the conversation. The good ones can truly be invaluable, particularly if you don't have much experience with printing.

Involving the vendor early on in the process will give insight into the most effective marketing channels to use, as well as distribution costs and timing.

You don't need to know all of the industry specifics; you just need a printer who does.

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Debbie Simpson is the president of Multi-Craft, a privately held marketing services and support company founded in 1955.

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  • by Roger Greenfield Thu Jan 10, 2013 via web

    It's a shame there's no mention of the design side of printed material. A good designer with a sound knowledge of print is great asset. Four colour print gives a full colour end result. Wanting an aspect of the design to have different colours or shades can be dealt with by the designer and usually be created out of the four colour process. For general print work special colours are not needed. More often than not, one unit of the press will be used for a seal or varnish.

  • by Theresa Thu Jan 10, 2013 via web

    I have a point regarding the Price Breaks section. As a printer is a partner with the organization they are working with, they should be aware that many purchasing systems price literature and such per piece. So while 500 and 1,000 piece runs cost the same for the printer, the purchasing company shows that 500 cost $2 each while 1,000 cost $1 each. The options available to an organization can be different with 1,000 pieces on hand at no additional cost over 500 pieces. So even though we are speaking different languages, the 'Price Break' is very real. Bridging the communication gap can be accomplished with printers phrasing the question as "Is there a piece price you budgeted for? We can let you know what quantity needs to be ordered to hit that cost". And if organizations do not want to disclose their budgets, then offer the printer some quantities to quote. (Notice how I avoided calling them price breaks, even though that is how many phrase it). For example, I know that with CATALOGX we use 15,000 in 6 months. I often have 6 and 12 months quoted and decide how to proceed from there. Are there changes expected in the next 12 months? Do we have room to store them? Safely? With careful analysis, I am willing to spend an additional $10,000 up front to bring my unit price down 75% for the year.

    In addition, don't just bring your printer in to your facility. Take a field trip and see their processes. We have been to all of our vendors sites and watch the process in action. Even our veteran artists learn something at each visit as our printers implement advancements in the field.

    Lastly, do not just go with the lowest quote on your project. Are they reliable? Deliver on time? Print consistent colors with each run, month after month? Our printer is truely our partner. Their price is fair - not the lowest, not the highest. They know our company, our look and our color scheme. They have stopped runs for us to ask a question in order to get the piece right the first time. I wish everyone was as confident in their printer as I am!

  • by Debbie Simpson Fri Jan 11, 2013 via web

    Great - and accurate - comments, Roger. We love graphic designers who have a sound knowledge of print. We make a great team!

    Theresa, your comments are right on the mark! A good relationships with your vendors is critical for any organization. We enjoy working with our clients who allow usto be a resource and provide true value. Have a great weekend, everyone.

  • by Lori Brooks Fri Jan 11, 2013 via web

    Debbie your commentary is very well put. As a print broker for 14 years + who expanded my service capabilities in to branded promotional products, I have learned that educating the end-user about the imprinting process is of utmost importance to assist them with achieving an affordable finished product. The printing process including ink usage, substrate and turn-around time to achieve a desired "in hands" date can be very unpredictable with dependence on the product type that is being provided. Those clients who are willing to be educated about the different processes gain a better understanding of how they can best achieve a worthy ROI. The trade show event where the same logo is imprinted on the light-up "bouncy ball", stitched on the polo shirts & printed on the brochures needs to appear uniform and in synch to maintain the consistent branded results, however each finished product requires a different set-up, production process & turn-around time. Hence, the reason for contracting an educated resource is a true asset for the end-user/client - guess that's the reason why I love what I do so much as there is so much fun in educating & providing a diverse array of product types.

  • by Debbie Simpson Fri Jan 11, 2013 via web

    Well said, Lori. Sounds like you are a great resource to your clients!

  • by Amy TC Sun Jan 13, 2013 via web

    Hi Theresa, I think the point about price breaks is that not every quantity change is going to reduce price drastically. Yes, unit cost for 1,000 can be reduced to half of the cost for 500. I see this all the time especially with the quantities that you are ordering. However, I have also seen, when ordering direct mail packages, hardly any change in price when going from 2.5 MM pieces to 3.0 MM pieces. It really depends on the product but I have had to explain hundreds of times to my marketing team that the price breaks they are looking for simply aren't there because of the specific situations surrounding their projects.

  • by Katherine Tattersfield Tue Apr 30, 2013 via web

    This is an excellent article! As a commercial printing company, we find ourselves having to educate a lot of clients about the printing process. I absolutely love this quote: "Don't view your printer vendor as a low-cost commodity; rather, see your vendor as a partner who can bring true value to the conversation." I will be sharing this post on our LinkedIn page. If you are ever interested in contributing to our blog (I work at, please let me know!

  • by Debbie Tue Apr 30, 2013 via web

    Thanks, Katherine for your comments. I

  • by gregprintpro Wed Jun 5, 2013 via web

    I've been working for a western managed printing company in Asia for many years. We do a lot of business across the US. From my perspective, given the choice between working with an in-house print buyer or a print broker i would go with the print broker anytime, even though our profit margins are smaller for brokered jobs. Print brokers generally have had more extensive

  • by Debbie Wed Jun 5, 2013 via web

    Interesting viewpoint, Greg. We appreciate our brokers and love our direct clients. Think of providing some educational seminars for those clients who are interested in gaining knowledge about effective print buying. They'll love you for it! Thanks for your comment!

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