Should you print your books in China? According to PrintNinja.com, an online U.S.–based print broker, the world’s very first printed book was produced in China in C.E. 868, so “it only makes sense” to print there now, “back where it all started.” Well, let’s hope we put a bit more thought into the important decisions that affect our bottom lines. I have always taken it as a given that printing is less expensive in China. But now that fuel and freight costs have gone up around the world (Chinese demand plays no small part in that) and now that North American printers have gotten leaner and more efficient (“thanks” to our depressed economy), I have lately been wondering whether China is as competitive as it was a decade ago. I’ve been motivated by other concerns too. China is one of the most polluted nations on earth. Does it care about the environment and provide publishers with products that are safe and green? Do Chinese factories treat their workers well and pay them decently? And in the end, do I want to be sending so many dollars overseas, particularly to a country that may not even allow its people to obtain or read many of the same books its factories produce? Should I make every effort to buy domestically, knowing that keeping our own workers employed makes our economy, and our country, stronger and healthier?
I wish my investigations had had more clear-cut results. The best answer to all my questions seems to be: It depends. So many factors affect the outcome of any print job you’re thinking of sending overseas, starting with the job specs themselves and extending to materials, freight costs, scheduling needs, revenue margins, and on and on. But in the end, there are just two things you absolutely must do before you can come to the decision that is right for you:
- Shop around: get quotes from several printers or print brokers, both at home and abroad.
- Decide how important green practices and conscionable politics are. Of course, printing jobs have many different components. Here is a look at the main ones you’ll run into when sending work to an Asian printer.
The best move here is simple: Work with a reliable printer at home or in Asia, and you aren’t likely to have any quality concerns. Printers on both continents have the latest equipment run by experienced, trained personnel. But keep a couple of things in mind:
- Anecdotal evidence says that print quality degrades the farther north in China you go, as printers seek lower-cost workers and facilities to the north (living and wage standards in Hong Kong have affected costs in southern China). Since the printers who work with North American publishers are located in the south, this is not a big concern at the moment. Still, if you’re printing in China, find out where and ask for samples from the press.
- If you choose to work with a North American printer, your proof options may be fewer or more expensive. These days, most Chinese printers can provide soft (online) or digital inkjet proofs at lower cost than the press proofs they used to offer. Persnickety publishers may sneer at these lesser proofs, but at Stone Bridge we’ve found them very reliable. You can ask for a higher-quality signature or higher-quality sample pages to be pulled and proofed as a kind of spot-check on the entire run. Costs vary tremendously. One recent job estimate from China quoted digital text proofs at $10 per page; other printers included them in their base quote or quoted them at half that price. Color tweaking these days is largely up to the publisher. It is my unscientific impression, however, that it is easier to explain what I want to a North American printer, and that a Chinese printer seems to be able to produce more magical results in a pinch. If you have a job that involves lots of subtlety, such distinctions are important.
This is one area where North American printers have the edge. Print a book in China, and it will be delivered in about ten to twelve weeks. A North American printer can have that same book to you in five to six weeks, or less. And if you have a hot-selling title, or if you guessed wrong on initial demand, your failure to fill up the supply chain can have disastrous results, particularly around the holidays. As John Byrd of the independent book publisher Cinco Puntos Press points out, “We’re under a lot of pressure to keep inventory levels low, so if we print in China we can sometimes run into problems with having enough stock on hand.” Frank Bartenstein of WTA, a freight broker experienced in handling shipments of books from China to North America, provided the following estimates for shipment date to landing time from China:
- to the U.S. West Coast: 15 days
- to Jackson, TN (where our distributor, Perseus, has a warehouse): 26 days
- to the U.S. East Coast: 18 days Soft proofing can save time and expense, but all things considered, you’d be wise to add at least a month to your production schedule when printing in Asia. Easier said than done for many small publishers.
● Manufacturing Costs
Actual production costs (prepress plus PPB) are likely the single most important factor affecting your decision to print in Asia. But while Asian printers will always try to sell you on their low costs, it turns out that the costs are not as low as they used to be and that, once you add in everything else, the difference, while still fairly large, will probably not be a deal-killer. To get a sense of differences in costs, I asked three printers in North America and two in Asia to provide bids on three different jobs. The table shows the result. Clearly, at least for these projects, the Asian printers are a lot cheaper. A couple of observations: First, these are low print runs. Your mileage will surely vary. John Byrd of Cinco Puntos says that the sweet spot for his company comes in at “around 5,000 copies.” Second, Ken Coburn of Global Interprint, a print broker with vast experience in China, says emphatically that while smaller print-run or sheetfed full-color jobs will always be cheaper in Asia, if you have a color job that can run on a web press, you will likely find bids from printers in North America very competitive, with all the ancillary benefits of shorter schedules and lower freight costs. Third, my comparison was set up to match apples to apples. But you will want to work with page counts, trim sizes, and other parameters that are in line with the economies offered by your printer, or go in search of a printer that will give you the job at the specs you need. Still, it’s clear that North American printers have a hard time competing head to head with Asia on prepress and manufacturing alone. Freight costs. Cost of delivery is one area where North American printers have the advantage. While freight costs have gone up here at home, they have gone way up overseas. We can’t control fuel costs, but there are things publishers can do to keep freight charges to a minimum. One of your best strategies is to work with a freight broker like WTA. Not only will the broker find the right vessels; it will consolidate your freight with that of other publishers bound for the same warehouse and handle many of the complicated overseas logistics. On the North American side, the broker will land the cargo, deal with customs and port fees, and route your books to the final destination. Most printers can also provide the same “door to door” service, for a small markup that may be worth it to you for the convenience alone. Books, by the way, are duty-free to import into the United States, but you will have to pay an astonishing number of tiny add-on fees, such as a Merchandise Processing Fee (0.3464% of the merchandise value), a Harbor Maintenance Fee (0.125%) plus a Customs Clearance Fee ($100), an Importer Security Filing ($55), and so on. Freight costs escalate if you don’t know what you’re doing. Landing freight in multiple ports for different customers can generate whole new sets of fees, all of which will be charged back to you at cost (again, a freight broker knows how to avoid that trap). As an example, shipping 2,000 pounds of books from Asia to Jackson, TN, will end up costing about $900, or $0.45 per pound. The takeaway: Be sure you are clear on freight and fees before you commit. Yes, you will pay more to bring in books from Asia, but probably not as much as you feared, or enough to justify the higher unit costs of printing in North America. Going green. “Green” printing involves three areas primarily: paper, ink, and waste. In all these areas North American printers seem to be much farther advanced. Certainly there is more popular awareness of environmental issues in the United States and Canada than in China, and this is steadily reflected in government regulations as well as corporate cultures and voluntary practices. Companies in North America get tax credits and earn valuable promotional cachet by embracing green standards. Worzalla, a large book manufacturer in Wisconsin, for example, sports logos from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council and provides comprehensive documentation of its green practices at worzalla.com/solutions/green-commitment.html. According to Elise Gochberg of Spectrum Printing in California, which represents the Canadian printer Friesens, “North American printers are more environmental overall. The plants are FSC and have environmental standards to follow that are not required in Asia,” she says, adding that Friesens offers “recycled and FSC-certified paper selections that are vast and various. And the inks are usually vegetable based or soy based, which is not standard in Asia.” Other North American printers I spoke with said much the same. The picture they (and some “green” publishers) paint is that China is unregulated, even toxic. One San Francisco–based green-initiative publisher claimed that paper in China is produced by clear-cutting forests. Asian printers take issue with this disparagement. Speaking for his main supplier in China, the printer Everbest, George Dick of Four Colour Print Group says: “We print on FSC paper whenever a client shows concern for the environment and can afford the cost difference.” He points out that Everbest offers vegetable-based ink at no extra charge and is investing in an ink piping system to further reduce VOCs (volatile organic compounds), a major pollutant. And he adds, “No Chinese paper company is clear-cutting old-growth forests. It is not in their best interest to do so economically, environmental concerns aside.” I received similar assurances from other Chinese printers. The cost of going green in China, according to Dick, may add about 10 percent to the bill. Needless to say, it also costs more in North America to use recycled sheets and specially formulated inks. Another green issue involves product safety. Many children’s books are produced in China because they require special bindings and handwork. Under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008, any U.S. publisher that prints children’s books overseas must provide certification that the books “(a) comply with all applicable children’s product safety rules; (b) are tested for compliance by a CPSC-accepted laboratory; [and] (c) have a written Children’s Product Certificate (issued by the manufacturer or importer) that provides evidence of the product’s compliance.” Chinese printers all provide such certification and are extremely familiar with customers’ expectations in this area. But as Ken Coburn of Global Interprint emphasizes, in China “the certifications may not be reliable” from job to job or cover all the material components. So while it is definitely possible to print green and safe in Asia, you need to have faith in your printing partner and to be demanding and exercise vigilance. All the Asian printers I spoke with are alert to these issues (and why wouldn’t they be?), and all state they are doing more and more each year to offer foreign and domestic customers the products they demand, as well as to produce less waste and pollution at home. So in this area, you will pay more to go green regardless of where you print, but you may need to pay more attention in Asia. Working conditions. None of us wants to save money by shortchanging or endangering the people who work on our books. We have all heard the horror stories about the Apple factories in China, the collapsed building in Bangladesh. While a thorough investigation of working conditions at Chinese printing plants is beyond the scope of this article, I did make a point of putting the question directly to the printers and brokers I interviewed. Domini Williams of Regent Publishing Services wrote, “I have been to China and have toured the factories. If you work with a reputable company, they are very safe. There are no children working in them, they are safety certified, and cleaner than most factories I have seen in the United States. In the factories I have seen, the workers are housed in dorms. Most leave their family homes to travel to the towns where there are jobs, and housing is provided.” Kathy Kueneman of the printer Toppan Leefung writes of “frequent audits by outsiders” to verify working conditions. And George Dick of Four Colour notes that one of its plants is even “Disney certified,” which means it complies with the International Labor Standards Program. Living standards and life expectations in China are certainly different, but there seems to be no reason to think that Chinese printers’ employees are being exploited. Still, today’s lower standard of living in China makes it impossible for American workers to compete on wages. The average annual wage in China in 2011 was less than $9,000. The Chinese government has mandated minimum wage increases annually, at a rate of nearly 13 percent per year. So in the next 10 years we can expect some of the cost advantage of Chinese labor to lessen. But it will certainly not disappear.
So, Should You Do Business with China?
One skeptical publisher I corresponded with told me, “Every company who does business with middlemen or Chinese manufacturers potentially bears responsibility in supporting the PRC and its companies whose practices could be suspect (e.g., from drywall to solar panels).” As we all know, that charge applies to many of the other decisions we make every day. So much of what we consume is either made in China or assembled from Chinese-made parts. Goods and money go back and forth so seamlessly between the continents that it’s hard to know where one economy begins and the other ends. We could ask, isn’t it better to support some Chinese workers—who bear no responsibility for the misdeeds of their government—with the opportunity to learn a trade and provide for their families? This is a decision each of us must make individually, according to our own consciences or the exigencies of our business bottom lines (or both!). What I hope I have indicated in this article is that:
- You can go just as green printing in China as anywhere else.
- North American printers can deliver high-quality full-color books at good prices, not as low as prices from printers in China but with the benefit of reduced transportation costs (a green savings in itself) and quicker turnarounds.
- Which printer you choose should have more to do with the demands of your project than with any inherent advantage of Asia or North America (case-binding and sheetfed color are likely a better fit for China; single-color and larger web-press runs are a good fit for North America).
- The politics of outsourcing are your own. So, it’s largely a toss-up. Get quotes. Make your printer a partner. Design your specs to match your printer, or find a printer to match your specs. Be diligent when demanding environmental and safety certifications. Of course, the main engine driving printing decisions is what the consumer is willing to pay for a finished book. “Harper’s Index” for June 2013 laid out a stark comparison: Percentage change in the past twenty-five years in the consumer price Index : +41 In the price of beer: +40 Of books: –1 Until book buyers accept that the books they want to be readily available, beautiful, durable, green, child-proof, and conscionably crafted also need to be supported by real-world revenues, publishers will continue to chase the lowest prices, wherever they can find them.