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Estimating the Cost of Print Production

by Scott Cullins

As you work on a budget for your new magazine, one of the most significant budget items will be your print production cost. Printers will gladly provide you with a quote, but first you need to determine the specifications that will define your magazine for the printer. And, you need need to be able to provide the same set of specifications to each printer you talk to, so that you get
an apples-to-apples comparison.

In this article, you'll learn about what specifications a printer will require in order to give you a quote,  what the specifications mean, and you'll also learn a bit about the process of printing a magazine.

Before you get started, make an educated guess as to how many copies you may need. You can change this number later, so don't sweat it too much. Pick a number on the smaller side of what you think you'll need. When you get your quote, the printer should include a cost for additional 1,000's of copies. This information will be helpful, later, if you need to revise the final quantity.

Separate Cover versus Self Cover
Most higher-quality magazines are printed with a separate cover. For separate cover jobs, the cover is printed separately from the inside pages, on different stock (paper). In addition, the cover is typically printed on a heavier (thicker), higher-quality stock and coated on the outside with a UV coating or varnish, to get that super glossy look. UV coating helps keep the colors from fading in sunlight, and also helps keep finger prints from appearing on the cover. On self-cover jobs, the cover is printed on the same stock and at the same time, on the same press as the inside pages of the magazine. This is the cheaper way to go and is often used on catalogs and smaller page-count magazine jobs.

Page-Count
Magazines are typically printed in signatures of 16 pages. Your typical web offset presses have the capability to print 16 pages on one sheet of paper (8 pages on each side). The sheet is folded down, inserted, bound and trimmed at the same time with the rest of the signatures for the magazine. You can go with an 8-page signature, but your basically paying for 16 pages worth of paper—the printer still prints the 8-page signature on the same, larger sheet of paper, then throws away the unused stock. For the most efficient cost, use 16-page signatures if possible.

So, a magazine that has 5 signatures would have 80 pages. If it is a separate cover, as most magazines would be, it would be specified as 80 pages plus cover.

One exception to the 16-page rule would exist if you only needed a few thousand copies, or less, and you were using a printer with sheet-fed presses. In this case, the press may use smaller sheet stock (versus large rolls of paper with a web offset printer), and 8-page signatures may be okay.

Stock
The weight (thickness) and grade (quality) of stock (paper) has a significant bearing on the price of printing your magazine. Weight is described in pounds (#), and there are cover weights and text weights (e.g., a 60# cover weight is heavier than a 60# text weight). Grade is typically specified as as No.s 1 through 4, with No. 1 grade being best and No. 4 grade being worst. It gets pretty complicated and, after all my years in the business, I still request samples to make sure I'm comfortable with the weight and grade of stock I have specified.

For the purpose of setting a budget, I typically spec a No. 3 grade, 70# text for the inside pages, and a No. 2, 80# cover weight for the cover. You can always—and many frequently do—change the specs before you ever make a final order. I recommend requesting dummies (bound and trimmed blank magazines), using 2-3 different stock weights and grade scenarios. This will allow you to touch and feel what your final magazine will be.


Ink
Color magazines are printed using a CMYK, 4-color process (C for cyan, M for magenta, Y for yellow and K for black). Black and white pages would be specified as one color. For the cover, if you wanted a UV or varnish coat on the front cover (outside of the cover), you would typically specify 5/4 color (i.e., 4-color process plus UV on the outside, and  4-color process on the inside).

Binding
The most economic route is to specify saddle-stitch for your binding. Saddle-stitch is the method that uses wire staples to keep your magazine together. As your page-count increase or, if you are looking for a higher quality finish, perfect binding can be used. Perfect binding is a more expensive method that glues your magazine together and has a square spine that can be printed on.

Artwork
This specification tells the printer what format you will deliver your content in. In the old days, printers wanted to know if you were delivering camera-ready art of or film. In today's world, printers want to know what digital file format you intend to provide. Sending your files in native format (e.g., QuarkXpress or InDesign) costs more because the printer must deal with layout files, fonts and  images separately. This takes more time for the printer to process and increases the chances of problems occurring. The safest and most economic format to deliver is hi-resolution PDFs. PDFs include all the required data in one encapsulated file. PDF's are the standard of the industry, and all designers should be able to deliver PDFs.

It's a Wrap
Remember that your initial goal is to get an estimate—not a final cost—for print production. When starting a new magazine, it is important to get a close, but nit exact idea of your costs. This information will help you put together a workable plan, but it will also help you determine if the project is even feasible.

Once you make the decision to move ahead with the magazine, you will want to tighten up your specs, and get final quotes.

Scott Cullins has been in the publishing business for more than 18 years. He is the founder and principal of Canyon Media, a company that provides magazine design, production and launch consulting for startups, publishers and corporate clients. Email Scott now.


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