Monday, March 4, 2019

There’s No Such Thing as a Printing Industry

How can a marketplace with 28,000 companies have shortages of both capacity and competition?

Book printing at a Walsworth plant
The United States has more than 28,000 printing businesses.

So how did printing backlogs cause many highly acclaimed new books to be unavailable for weeks at a time during the recent Christmas shopping season? Were American printing plants really so busy late last year that none of them had available capacity to cover a small increase in demand for printed books?

Those seem like reasonable questions – if you don’t understand one of the most basic characteristics about the printing business. People who should know better – including government regulators (I’ll come back to that.) and even some people who work in printing – often don’t grasp the importance of this characteristic.

Ford, Uber, Maersk, and Union Pacific are all in the transportation business, yet no one asks why they didn’t step up over the holidays when the airlines were turning passengers away. Getting paid to help move things from Point A to Point B doesn’t make you a competitor or potential replacement for every other company involved in moving stuff.

Likewise, manufacturers of books, business cards, brochures, bridal invitations, business forms, boxes, and building wraps are all printers, but they’re each in completely different lines of business. From a practical standpoint, there’s no such thing as a printing industry -- just a multitude of individual markets that all involve applying something to a substrate.

Mainstream-media journalists often refer to printing as a dying industry because, to them, “print” means publications. But the same Internet that has cratered daily newspapers has also spawned e-commerce – and with it a dramatic rise in package printing.

Command Companies book printing
Textile printing, which had become nearly extinct in the U.S., is undergoing a renaissance  in this country, thanks to the combination of sewbots and digital printing that are enabling just-in-time clothing manufacturing.

So you can say that print is withering away, holding its own, or booming -- depending upon which printing industry you're referring to.

This concept of calling the printing business a collection of separate industries is not exactly an original insight. Yet it’s apparently news to most of the printing-company sales reps who contact me. I’m a print buyer and they sell printing, so of course I should be happy to have them come by and meet me.

The First Rule of Print Buying
But they don’t know my First Rule of Print Buying: There’s no such thing as a printing company.

For my purposes, there are companies that excel at producing magazines, those that are good at printing special inserts, and those that produce the few other printed product my employer needs. The rest are irrelevant.

Like most “print buyers” in the publishing business, I spend far more time planning print projects and wearing non-print hats than I do actually meeting or negotiating with printers. I can’t talk to, or entertain quotes form, even 1% of the 28,000.

Rule #2 is like unto the first: Avoid any printing company with slogans or sales reps who claim “we can meet all your printing needs.” They’re a waste of time. I’ll end up in an argument with Mr. Let-Me-Quote-Something trying to explain that, no matter how much he discounts his printing prices, he can’t possibly compete to produce a 500,000-circulation magazine with a 16-page web press and no co-mail capability.

Back to that recent book shortage
Command Companies book binding
Think about a print buyer at a book publishing house that suddenly needs 250,000 more hardcover copies of a title that was just released to favorable reviews and lots of buzz.

The vast majority of the nation’s 28,000 printers don’t have web presses, which automatically puts them out of the running for a print order of that size. And many of those with web-offset presses can’t print typical book-format page sizes or don’t keep much book paper in stock.

During the crunch, Quad/Graphics printed some titles on presses that don’t normally produce books. But that tactic only goes so far: Hard-cover books can only be bound on equipment that is dedicated to book binding.

Adding to the challenge is the way digital printing is disrupting book publishing – and not just because it’s taking market share from offset. Publishers are reducing the size of their offset print orders, now that digital has reduced the upfront costs and turnaround time to print additional copies.

They are printing fewer “just-in-case” copies that end up sitting in a warehouse for months or even years before being sold or scrapped. So even though U.S. sales of printed books have been growing by a few percentage points annually, demand and therefore capacity for offset book printing has been shrinking.

The Quad-LSC deal
Now about those government regulators: I don’t think a single merger or acquisition of U.S. printing companies has faced significant hurdles from the federal antitrust folks. The regulators’ view seems to be that with so many printing companies, there’s no lack of competition.

But there are only two U.S. printers with the sort of rotogravure presses that are especially well suited to producing a million-plus copies of a magazine or catalog: Quad/Graphics and LSC Communications. And now those two are trying to merge.

Even at publication print orders of 200,000, the two giants have few competitors. And in book printing, LSC is already the dominant #1, with four times the market share of the #2 book printer – Quad/Graphics.

For many publishers of magazines, catalogs, and books, 28,000 is a meaningless number. Those publishers can count on one hand the number of U.S. printers that can meet their needs.

I hope this time around the regulators will focus not on the printing industry but rather on the multitude of printing markets.

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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Enjoy a Day of Golf and a Texas Sunset at Falconhead Golf Club

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Sunset golf at Falconhead
Austin, Texas, is one of the United States’ most-visited cities.

The city itself has an eclectic feel and is thriving in a wealth of growth and new businesses.

For this reason, people frequently visit Austin for work-related travel or to visit friends and family.

While there is a lot to do and see while in Austin, the city has recently become noted as a thriving golf community. There are typically many local golf tournaments that go on throughout the year. Many high-ranking golfers, as well as local pros, play in these tournaments.

One of the most noted courses for local golf tournaments is Falconhead Golf Club, which is a top golf course in the Central Texas region. People come from all across the area and beyond to enjoy a great day of golf and watch some of the region’s top players compete.

Falconhead Golf Club has set itself apart from other golf courses with its pristine grounds and wealth of amenities. The course itself was designed by the PGA design team that designs the actual PGA golf courses. Built in 2003, the grounds are set above the norm due to the precision work that went into their design and the building of the course. It is dotted with a variety of creeks and ponds. The maintenance staff at Falconhead Golf Club does precision work to ensure that the golf course has the look, feel, and quality of a PGA course.

It is because of this superior course that many local golf tournaments are attracted to play on the grounds. Typically, there are multiple local golf tournaments held each week. It is an excellent place to stop in and enjoy a warm, sunny Texas day while watching a great game of golf. Aside from the course itself, the scenery is absolutely stunning. The ponds are sparkling and narrow creeks wind throughout the lush landscape. Texas’s rolling hills are peppered with tall trees, and people who attend these tournaments are typically treated to warm, sunny Texas weather.

In addition to the course itself, there is a wonderful on-site bar and grill. Talon’s is a place where you can kick back and enjoy a delicious meal prepared by a staff that has been honored time and time again for the quality of the food served, and the above-average service provided by the team members. In addition to typical golf fare, the bar and grill ensures that the menu provides a strong range of salads and low-calorie options designed to cater to those looking for healthier options. Items such as gluten-free dishes are also available at Talon’s. The restaurant even serves up breakfast tacos, which are one of the items that have earned Talon’s its sterling reputation.

If you are in the area and are a fan of local golf tournaments, Falconhead Golf Club is the perfect place to visit. One of the best things about spending a day at the course is finishing the day watching a gorgeous sunset. You can find the list of local golf tournaments on the club’s website.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

4 Print-Centric Assumptions Publishers Should Avoid Online

By D. Eadward Tree, Chief Arborist of Dead Tree Edition

My latest article for Publishing Executive looks at some ways digital publishers are often governed by assumptions that are true in the print world but don't make sense on the web.

For example, digital publishers are able to see that some content and some readers are many times more valuable to them than others. And yet so many -- digital-native ones as well as those with a print legacy -- mindlessly focus their efforts on increasing the number of unique visitors.

That's a nearly useless measure of volume, not value, that causes them to chase after "viral" hits rather than building a sustainable enterprise.

Something not mentioned in the article is an old print-magazine trick that the digital geniuses haven't figured out how to copy yet -- getting subscribers to renew when they have two years left on a three-year subscription. That's what my friends in the Circulation Department call "cash flow management."

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

5 Things Publishers Should Do Before Erecting a Paywall

By D. Eadward Tree, Chief Arborist of Dead Tree Edition

This is the year, the pundits tell us, when digital publishing will pivot to paywalls. Good luck with that.

Getting people to pay for online content is already hard enough. With more publishers in the game, it will become even harder. How many digital subscriptions do you think people will pay for?

Tread carefully, or you may become like the newspaper Newsday, which spent $4 million redesigning its site to support a paywall and then in the first three months signed up only 35 subscribers. To avoid that kind of disaster, here are five paths to pursue before putting all your content behind a paywall:

Thursday, January 24, 2019

USPS Proposal Could Spread Pain to Catalogs

Comail is working. But in Postal Land, no good deed goes unpunished.

Like lashing two water-tight boats to a sinking vessel.
The good news — for mailers, printers, and the U.S. Postal Service — is that flat Standard Mail is being sorted far more efficiently than it was just two years ago. 

The bad news is that the trend is prompting postal officials to consider a proposal that would almost certainly lead to higher-than-normal rate increases for efficiently mailed catalogs and other Standard flat mail.

Some postal experts fear the proposal would lead to reduced incentives for co-mailing, which even postal officials admit is the main reason that highly efficient – and profitable – “High Density Flats” volume has grown by 45% in the past two years.

More bad news: Postal officials can’t explain -- and don’t seem to be trying very hard to understand — why the Postal Service’s costs of handling most types of Standard flat mail have skyrocketed in the past year. That trend also threatens to cause higher rate increases even for efficient mailers.

Although the Postal Service is supposed to act like a business, this is a case of it operating like a bureaucracy where CYA trumps ROI.

Hall of mirrors

Let me walk you through the strange hall of mirrors where postal officials are ready to shoot themselves in the foot rather than celebrating, and building on, a successful tactic.


The Postal Regulatory Commission and legal challenges have pressured the Postal Service for years to do something about what is essentially a subsidy for the least-efficient flat Standard mail – the mail that does not meet the 10-piece minimum to create a carrier-route bundle. (Note: The USPS refers to such mail by the misleading moniker “Flats,” but for the sake of clarity Dead Tree Edition calls it “Non-Carrier-Route Flats.”)

The USPS has responded by imposing slightly higher rate increases for such mail than for most other Standard classifications. In Fiscal Year 2018, for example, revenue per piece rose less than 1% for the Standard class as a whole but was up 5.1% for Non-Carrier-Route Flats mail. But the cost per piece rose 13.4%, putting the category further into the red, with revenue covering only 68.65% of costs.

Got no explanation

In a recent report, postal officials speculated that, because of economies of scale, a 17.5% drop in volume for Non-Carrier-Route Flats during FY2018 caused the category’s costs to spike. (See pages 17-18 of this PDF.) But that simplistic theory doesn’t explain why the cost per piece for Standard Carrier-Route Flats rose even more, to 15.2%, when volume for that category dropped only 1.4%.

(Don't blame postal workers: The agency's average cost per labor hour has recently been increasing less than 4% annually.)

These unexplained cost increases have caused the cost coverage for Carrier-Route Flats to decline from 137.53% to 108.49% in just two years. Postal officials have not explained that dramatic trend, which could soon turn what was a highly profitable category for the USPS into a money loser.

“Based on feedback from industry representatives, which is supported by volume trends, flats volume has migrated from the Flats and Carrier Route products into High Density Flats because of comailing,” the USPS report said.

True. Better incentives have encouraged more comailing, a process that sorts a variety of mail pieces -- mostly catalogs and magazines -- into a single mailstream to take advantage of postal discounts. The work is typically done by printers, which are rewarded with a share of their customers' resulting postal savings.

High Density Flats are like Carrier-Route Flats on steroids, with a minimum of 125 pieces per carrier route. Achieving a significant proportion of such mega-bundles typically requires a mailing list – or a comailing run – with at least several million addresses.

It's working. Now let's screw it up.

The rapid growth of High Density Flats is good news for the Postal Service because of the category’s 131.20% cost coverage. That’s the kind of trend rate incentives are supposed to produce.

But postal officials are focusing on the phantom “problem” that the move to High Density Flats is allegedly causing: the reduced efficiency of Non-Carrier-Route Flats. The “solution” they are considering, they revealed recently, is to combine Non-Carrier-Route Flats, Carrier-Route Flats, and High Density Flats into a single category known as Non-Saturation Flats. (See pages 20-22 of this PDF.)

“In a way, the USPS is suggesting that if it lashes two water-tight boats to a sinking vessel it will save the sinking ship,” the Mailers Hub newsletter quipped this week.

No longer would postal officials be pressured to get Non-Carrier-Route Flats “above water,” which would require either massive (and, in some circles, unpopular) rate increases or massive cost reductions. This poorly sorted mail would become part of a larger category with more palatable cost coverage of 88%.

But two profitable categories – High Density Flats and Carrier-Route Flats – would also join that slightly unprofitable new category. Based on the Postal Service’s history, we know what will come next: Postal officials will spread the pain around, jacking up prices across the category, even on the types of mail that would be considered highly profitable if not for this bureaucratic finagling.

(That already happens in the Periodicals class, where efficient and inefficient mail are in a single category in which efficiently mailed publications subsidize the inefficient ones.)

Increasing the price spread between efficient and inefficient mail has prodded more mailers to participate in comail and more investment by printers in enhancing the process. By the same token, freezing or shrinking the price spread by having efficient mail subsidize inefficient will curb the favorable trend.

Iceberg off the starboard bow

What really galls the postal experts I’ve spoken with recently is that the Non-Saturation Flats proposal looks like an attempt to paper over some very real problems – what one postal expert called “re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic deck” -- instead of understanding and addressing them.

Postal officials don’t understand the cost trends with flat Standard mail, don’t know whether their various efforts to improve the handling of flat mail are working, and can’t even say when they will know.

Their explanation of the cost increases for Non-Carrier-Route Flats are simplistic and probably off base. (Note to the USPS: Here’s a hint in your own data: The proportion of Non-Carrier-Route Flats dropshipped to the SCF level has declined from 64.1% to 51.7% in just two years. If you actually dig into the category’s data, I’ll bet you’ll find much less relatively inexpensive mail, such as dropshipped 5-digit bundles, and a higher proportion of poorly sorted, non-dropship mail.)

Postal officials’ explanation of the even larger cost spike for Carrier-Route Flats is non-existent. Here’s why: A big culprit is probably the money-eating Flats Sequencing System, but postal officials won’t admit that or even discuss trying to unwind the FSS fiasco. Doing so would force them to shoulder the blame for rushing into the multi-billion-dollar investment before it was proven to be workable. The unofficial motto at L’Enfant Plaza is “Never recalibrate, just obfuscate.”

(Another note to postal officials: I dare you to publish a clear analysis showing the cost-per-piece of handling and delivering FSS mail – including the stuff the machines aren’t able to sort – with the costs of carrier-route and 5-digit-bundle mail. No, I take that back. I double-dare you.)

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

The FSS Slows, and the Red Ink Flows

Postal officials still have no fixes for a money-losing billion-dollar boondoggle, except to jack up postage rates for catalogs and magazines. 
Source: USPS reports. The Leakage metric was introduced in FY2017.

For the third year in a row, productivity of the U.S. Postal Service's Flats Sequencing System declined in 2018 – with no end in sight to the money-losing machines’ troubles.

Hourly throughputs declined 5% during Fiscal Year 2018 and are 14% below where they were five years ago, the USPS reported recently in its Annual Compliance Report. Leakage – the proportion of mail that was supposed to be run on FSS machines but wasn’t – rose from 20.1% to 21.9%.

And barely half of FSS mail – 54.2%, down slightly from last year – ended up being sorted in delivery sequence as intended. The only good news is that “Mail Pieces at Risk” -- catalogs or magazines that got jammed in the machines or needed other special handling -- dropped from 5.8% of FSS mail to 4.6%.

The Postal Service has touted various efforts to fix the agency’s flats-handling processes, but the compliance report says it “is still unable to provide an estimate of the financial impacts of these operational initiatives” because of flaws in its data-management systems. One such flaw, an Inspector General’s report revealed recently, is that FSS facilities are apparently doing nothing to track, understand, or correct the causes of leakage.

The Postal Regulatory Commission asked the USPS on Friday to explain why this year’s Annual Compliance Report makes no mention of Lean Mail Processing, which postal officials touted last year as “an initiative to make processing USPS Marketing (AKA Standard) Mail Flats and Periodicals mail more efficient.” (Puh-leeze! Lean Management is so 2017.)

Cost coverage worsens
The FSS’s failures contributed to greater unprofitability for the two main types of mail handled by the FSS machines – non-carrier-route Marketing Mail (“Marketing Flats”) and Periodicals. Rather than fixing the causes of the red ink – by scrapping the FSS machines, for example – postal officials have pressed for abolition of the inflation-based price cap on flats mail.

USPS’s costs per Marketing Flat mail piece rose an astounding 13.4%, causing cost coverage to decline from 74.0% to 68.6%. Postal officials blamed lower economies of scale, as increased co-mailing by printers shifted flat mail from Marketing Flats (17.5% volume decline) to such lower-cost categories as High-Density Flats (up 20.0%).

The cost per Periodicals piece increased only 1.3%, while revenue per piece declined by the same amount – perhaps also because of more co-mailing. The result is that the Postal Service’s highly questionable costing methodology showed that Periodicals covered only 67.54% of their costs, down from 69.33%.

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