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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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant, clear-eyed analysis of the printing industry that should be read by every buyer of printing, every seller of print services, and those charged with regulating industry.

Anonymous said...

Spot on. The Quad-LSC deal will be horrible on so many fronts. And they will use the arguments you cite in your article to pass it right through the clueless regulators. Someone has got to fight this to the death. MPa and ACMA, I’m looking at you.