Find the right printing professional for your budget

Commercial printer

By John Giles, owner of The Giles Group

Preparing a digital publication is one thing. Finding a commercial printer who can produce the publication the way you want it, on time and on budget, is another matter altogether. This article describes what you can expect when taking your digital file to a better commercial printer.

Applies to
Microsoft® Office Publisher 2003

Your choice of a commercial printer is one of the most important decisions you'll make that affects the quality and cost of your digital publication. You need to select a printer who will help you through the printing process, answer your questions, and meet your budget.

Not all commercial printers are the same. Some printers specialize in color printing while others focus on quick turnaround and one- and two-color printing. A number of printers use traditional printing presses while others use toner-based digital printers. Some offer extensive bindery services while others can handle your mailing needs.

The following information will help you choose the right printer before you even create your publication:

What your printer should tell you about your budget

Rope tied around paper money to indicate tight budget

One of the most common mistakes you're likely to make is creating your publication before talking to the printer about budget. Discussing your project with a printer before creating the publication can help keep costs down and avoid production delays.

Your budget determines how you design your publication and what commercial printer you select. The price of your printing is determined by the following factors:

  • How you have prepared the digital file
  • The quantity you order
  • The printing process: printing press offset (oil-based inks) or digital (laser or inkjet printer)
  • The number of inks, if using offset
  • The paper you select
  • The finishing (binding) that is required

A printing professional becomes a partner in your printing project. One of the first questions a better printer asks is “What is your budget?” A better printer makes suggestions about file preparation methods, run length, paper, ink, and bindery so that you can get the most from your printing order and still be within your printing budget.

A better printer also provides you with the information you need to prepare the file properly. You don’t want to create a publication that can’t be printed within your budget. You don’t want to incorrectly prepare the publication and force the printer to make corrections that add to the price. A better printer offers you the instructions and help that can keep your costs down while increasing your publication’s impact and usefulness.

The better commercial printer finds the right mix of file preparation, quantity, paper, ink, printing process, and finishing and assists you in meeting your budget.

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What your printer should tell you about your publication

Image of publication on blue background

One way for you to save money on printing is to prepare your own publication. Design costs can be very expensive. In the right hands, easy-to-use software programs such as Microsoft Office Publisher can produce professional-quality publications. But if you don’t use a software application correctly, the commercial printer will be forced to fix the file to get it to print properly. This adds prepress costs to the job. A misstep here can bust a budget.

Because there are so many software programs available, each print shop limits the number of native application software programs that it supports. Publisher 2003 is one of a handful of programs that better commercial printers could be expected to support. The better commercial printers have developed standard procedures for handling digital files. If you follow the procedures, you’ll avoid additional charges caused when a printer has to rework a file to get it to print correctly.

Better commercial printers publish their standard procedures and routinely conduct classes and seminars to teach customers how to use their software and prepare digital files properly. Better printers have resources posted on their Web sites with links to important information. You can also find information on Microsoft Office Online about how to prepare Publisher files for commercial printing. To learn more about preparing Publisher files, click a link in the See Also box.

Printers also have the option of joining the Publisher Service Provider Program (PSPP). These printers work closely with Microsoft to help customers avoid file problems and deadline delays. To find out what printers in your area are members, click a link in the See Also box.

You should select only printers who have made a commitment to supporting their customers through such programs as the PSPP and have published information and standards to help their customers prepare digital publications correctly.

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Following standards saves money

Stacks of paper money

When you prepare a digital publication for printing, you become part of the workflow. You assume the responsibility that the publication you submit will be ready to print. If the commercial printer cannot print the file because the digital file is not properly created, you may see the order delayed, deadlines missed, and additional costs incurred.

The better printer wants your publication to meet your expectations when printed. He wants to work with you on your project and meet your deadline and budget. A bad file not only increases your costs — it causes problems with the printer’s workflow and scheduling. A good printer opens and maintains communications with customers who create their own files.

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A better printer's standards

Printer examining document

The better commercial printer publishes standard procedures for accepting customer-created files. Knowing the standards for file preparation helps you avoid additional costs and delays.

A better commercial printer:

  • Provides a specific list of software programs that the printer supports.    Publisher 2003 is among the leading layout programs supported by the printing industry. Most printers also support Microsoft Word with some special considerations. If the software that you use is not on the standard list of supported software applications, you may have to pay an additional fee.
  • Provides support for the CMYK and/or PANTONE color models.    Many software programs, including Publisher, allow you to use the RGB color model. The RGB color model creates the color representation on a computer screen. It is very difficult to match the RGB colors you see on a computer screen to colors you see on a press. For better control, printers usually use the CMYK (for process color) and the PANTONE (for spot colors) color models. To avoid changes in color and additional charges, ask your printer what color model you should use before you submit the publication. Printers can provide you with a color proof at an additional charge so that you can see how the colors will look when printed. To learn more about color models, click a link in the See Also box.
  • Provides standards for graphic formats.    Most printers prefer to work with graphics in either the EPS or TIF formats. Typically, EPS format is used for line art such as logos, and TIF format is used for photographs. Graphics in other formats may not print as expected. Printers also have standards for the resolution of graphics. Graphics with a low resolution may look jagged because high-resolution output devices such as imagesetters magnify the flaws. Photographs can look fuzzy or too dark or too light because of improper resolution. The better printers have instructions on how you should prepare graphics for print. They can also convert graphics saved in other formats, such as JPG and WMF, and fix problem graphics for an additional cost. To learn more about what kinds of graphics to use, click the Prepare a publication for commercial printing link in the See Also box.
  • Has a procedure for color separations.    Some printers require you to provide a printed sample of the publication as well as a printed sample of color separations. This allows you to see if the colors are separating properly, especially within a graphic, before you submit the file to the commercial printer. The Pack and Go Wizard in Publisher provides you with an easy way to print separations. (A better printer also has procedures to deal with software programs, such as Word, that do not support color separations. Providing color separation support for programs such as Word results in an additional charge.) To learn more about color separations and the Publisher Pack and Go Wizard, click a link in the See Also box.
  • Requires the use of special procedures when submitting a file.    Publisher includes a special wizard called Pack and Go that gathers everything your printer needs to print your file properly. Many commercial printers now require you to use Pack and Go and similar functions found in other professional page layout programs when submitting a digital publication. Customers who fail to use the function face additional charges and delays in production. To learn more about the Publisher Pack and Go Wizard, click a link in the See Also box.
  • Supports PostScript and Portable Document Format (PDF) file formats.    You can sometimes lower your prepress costs by providing a PostScript or PDF of your finished publication. Be sure to ask your printer if you should provide composite RGB or composite CMYK PostScript. Files in both PDF and PostScript format contain everything a printer needs to print the publication correctly. It is easier to move a publication from one computer to another and solve the problems of missing fonts and graphics if the publication is converted to PostScript or PDF format. Anyone with the proper driver loaded has the ability to create a PostScript file to submit to a commercial printer. Printers use special programs to convert a PostScript file to PDF format because when a PostScript file is viewed onscreen, it appears as computer code and is difficult to edit. The commercial printer converts the PostScript file into a PDF file so that the publication can be seen on screen and edited, if necessary, before being printed. To learn how to save a publication as a PostScript file, click a link in the See Also box.

Better commercial printers explain their standards and procedures and are ready to provide you with the necessary information and training to meet those standards.

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Pre-flight saves money

Stacks of paper money

You should pre-flight your Publisher file for problems before you submit it to a commercial printer. A pre-flight is a manual review of the publication that checks for common mistakes that can delay printing of the file. It includes a review of fonts, colors, graphics, and other elements that could create problems for the commercial printer, delay production, and add costs to the order.

 Tip   Use the Design Checker in Publisher as part of your pre-flight check. The Design Checker detects design problems, such as overflow text in a story or a picture that isn’t scaled right, in your publication. To learn more about Design Checker, click a link in the See Also box.

A better commercial printer will provide a checklist to ensure that your publication meets their standards. To see an example checklist for preparing your file for commercial printing, click a link in the See Also box.

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What your printer should tell you about the process

Rolls of a printing press

Most printers can print your publication on either a printing press that uses ink or a digital printer that uses toner. The quality of both processes is excellent, but some of the physical limitations of each process can affect your price.

Printing press that uses ink Digital printer that uses toner
Prints on a wide variety of paper types and sizes. Offers a narrower choice of paper stock and sizes and less flexibility with bleeds (when a picture extends to the edge of the page) and binding.
Provides good control over registration on front-and-back printing. Is more difficult to control front-to-back registration.
Provides excellent color control, but CMYK or PANTONE color model and good quality graphics are required. May have trouble matching a specific spot color, but most digital printers compensate for RGB color models and poor quality graphics.
Makes file preparation critical, especially when the publication has graphics and multiple colors. Makes color preparation less critical because the publication is printed as a composite piece rather than as separations.
Requires extensive prepress, plate, and setup costs, so printing small quantities can be expensive. Requires few setup costs, so you can print whatever quantity you need, even one copy.
Prints large quantities economically. May cost more per unit on a large print run.

A printer who has both printing processes available can offer a wider array of pricing options. Your printer will know which printing process will be the best for your particular publication based on your budget.

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What your printer should tell you about quantity

Stack of publications

Usually, the larger the quantity ordered, the lower the per-unit (piece) price. This is especially true for publications being printed by a printing press. With a press, there are more setup costs (preparing plates, press setup). These costs are the same no matter if you are running one copy or 100,000 copies. If you order a larger quantity, the setup costs are spread over the run and the per-unit price drops.

For a toner-based digital printer, the setup costs are very low. Because there are virtually no setup costs, the per-unit cost doesn’t drop as dramatically as more copies are printed.

If you want a large number of copies (usually more than 500), select a commercial printer who will print your publication on a press. Usually publications requiring 500 or fewer copies can be printed on a toner-based digital printer.

Run length is also affected by the size of the finished publication. A printer may be able to print several copies of the publication on a larger parent sheet. For instance, you can print two 8.5 × 11-inch publications on standard 11 × 17-inch paper. Business cards are printed 4, 8, 10 or 12 to a sheet and then cut. While there is a charge for trimming the finished pieces, printing on a larger parent sheet usually lowers the cost because it takes less time and materials to print the publication.

Quantity affects your budget, so you should know exactly how you intend to use the publication before you place your print order. A better printer discusses your quantity needs and offers different pricing options to help you make the proper quantity selection. You may want to order a higher quantity if you know that you will have to reprint soon. You may want to order fewer if you are unlikely to use all the copies before they outdated.

Many printers provide a service known as Print On Demand. This service allows you to order only what you need at the time. This helps reduce storage space for the publication and avoids a backlog that you have to destroy. A Print On Demand system also provides easy, fast, and sometimes automatic reordering. You pay more per unit, but your overall costs are reduced.

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What your printer should tell you about color

Color palette

You’ve already learned that printers work in either the spot color or CMYK color models. What you may not know is that your choice of color may affect your budget.

Printing in color costs more than printing in black and white. A single color will cost more than standard black ink. The more colors you use, the higher your cost will be. Usually, most customers need no more than four colors of ink: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). Using the CMYK model allows the printer to create almost every color you need.

It may cost you more to match a color exactly. To match a color, printers use the PANTONE color library, a widely used color-matching system that defines hundreds of spot-color inks or process colors made up of CMYK inks. It is much easier to match a color on a press where the operator has control of the ink than on a digital printer.

It is also very difficult to match the RGB colors on your computer screen to a printed color, by using either CMYK or PANTONE inks. The color on paper may not exactly match the color on your screen.

How accurately you want the colors that appear in the final publication to match what appears on your screen affects the printing process you use and the final cost. A number of elements affect the colors you see, including the type of paper that is used when the publication is printed. Your printer can explain the process and usually show you examples of how the color will appear when the final publication is printed.

Color may add to your printing costs, but the increased effectiveness that color provides to your publication usually far outweighs the slightly higher cost.

To learn more about using PANTONE colors in Publisher, click a link in the See Also box.

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What your printer should tell you about paper

Scroll of paper

Your paper choice affects the printing process that you use as well as how the ink colors appear on the paper. The printing press process gives you a wider choice of paper stocks than does the digital printer process. The type of paper also determines ink coverage and certain finishing options such as folding. Paper can also add to the cost of printing and affect your budget.

Your printer has a wide variety of papers and has samples of how different inks look on different paper stocks. The printer can also demonstrate how different papers react when folded, punched, and scored.

The finished size of the printed piece also affects the cost of the paper. Depending on the printing process, the finished size can affect the production size. Certain sizes with different bindery requirements may require larger sheets and more spoilage that adds to the total cost of the printing order. For instance, using a bleed requires a larger sheet size that must be trimmed to the finished size. This will add costs to the order. Something as simple as the gripper space that you leave in your publication design so that the press or digital printer can pull the paper through the equipment could adversely affect your price and your budget.

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What your printer should tell you about finishing

Paper coming out of printing press rolls

Finishing includes cutting, folding, punching, stapling, and other bindery functions. You need to discuss the finishing options with your printer before you begin your design.

How you design your publication affects how it will be finished. Many times the printer selects the printing process based on the finishing functions that must be completed. You don’t want to find that the finishing function cannot be completed on your printed job because of a miscommunication with the printer.

Your printer may also have finishing functions you aren’t aware of that could increase the effectiveness of your publication. Printers can do special cutting and embossing. They can use special varnishes to achieve different effects. If printers know what you are trying to accomplish before you design your publication and place the order, they can provide suggestions to increase the value of the finished piece.

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Conclusion: Who is the right printer for you?

Commercial printer

The right printer for you is the printer who becomes your partner in the printing process.

Better printers don’t just take your publication and give you a price. They help make sure that your publication is delivered on time and on budget. Better printers tell you about the industry’s digital standards and how to create a publication that prints correctly. They identify problems you are having and offer solutions. They offer training and help when you use software such as Publisher or Word. They help you select the right printing process. Better printers make you look good in print and do it on time and on budget.

You should expect nothing less.

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 Note   Microsoft provides third-party contact information to help you find technical support. This contact information may change without notice. Microsoft does not guarantee the accuracy of this third-party contact information.

About the Author

John A. Giles III owns The Giles Group, a consulting company specializing in prepress issues for quick and small commercial printing companies. He is director of Certified Printers International (CPRINT), and author of Digital Directions, A Digital Workflow Guide for Customer Files and The Digital Original: How to Handle Customer Files Without Becoming a Service Bureau. John performs digital audits for printing companies to ensure that they can profitably accept customer-created files and conducts training seminars to help printers learn how to teach their customers digital publication preparation standards. He can be reached at or

Applies to:
Publisher 2003