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ECPA Wire: Industry Issues

Considering Outsourcing vs. Internal Resources for Prepress Production

Monday, November 25, 2019  
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by Larry Bennett

Larry Bennett is Executive Director, North America for Nord Compo, a leader in supplying typesetting, editorial, digital, design and most recently, audiobook services for book publishers

To outsource or not to outsource, that is the question.  Like Hamlet’s question “To be or not to be,” it is not an easy question and there is no right answer.  The decision is subjective, and depends on a variety of factors.  For clarity, we are defining prepress as the activities between acceptance of a manuscript and the production of print and ebook files: typesetting, proofreading, copy-editing, cover design and ebook production. 

I’ve always found it curious that many people in our industry make the seemingly logical assumption that the larger the publisher, the more they will tend to do everything in-house.  That seems to make sense.  If you have the resources and scale to publish thousands or tens of thousands of titles per year, can’t you afford to hire the best to handle prepress?  You may be surprised, then, to hear that Penguin outsources much of its prepress needs, as does John Wiley & Sons, McGraw Hill and even Hachette Livre. 

Why would large publishers outsource? Part of the explanation for this seeming conundrum is the fact that there are, in broad terms, two different levels of outsourced resources. In the US, there are many independent freelancers that offer all manner of prepress services. In addition, there are medium to large-scale resources in the space, most of them off-shore. The larger outsource prepress resources, many of whom are located in India, are mainly interested in working with publishers that offer volume, from several hundred titles to thousands.  For large publishers, using off-shore resources may lower costs, provide variable capacity and allow the publishers to do what they do best, produce a high volume of (hopefully) great content.

Should small to mid-sized publishers seek out off-shore/Asian resources?  Maybe, but there are risks. One production director at a mid-sized Christian publisher mentioned to me that his company had tested working with several India-based resources, with unsatisfactory results.  The two problems were inconsistent quality and sudden, significant swings in lead time, which he suspected were the result of large orders from much bigger (hence more important) customers.   

There are tens of thousands of companies in the US that define themselves as book publishers, with annual book production ranging from single digits to tens of thousands. Some believe that it’s better to manage as much as possible in-house.  Others believe that they can be more efficient and/or profitable by outsourcing some or all of their prepress needs.

Gateway Publishing publishes 50-70 new titles per year.  Kathy Krenzien, Associate Director, says “the key to outsourcing is finding reliable partners who contribute to your profitability”.  She further states that “with the right vendor, you are not giving up control”.  In the past, Gateway used outsourcing for all of their prepress needs.  However, as they grew, they found that they could be more efficient and cost effective by bringing about 50% of the processes in-house.  For Gateway, geography is a key factor, as Dallas, lacking a robust publishing infrastructure, does not have a deep bench of potential experienced prepress hires (and she says that moving to NYC is not an option).

Iron Stream Media publishes about 60 books per year.  Like Gateway, they outsource about half of their prepress needs.  Per Bradley Isbell, Director of Operations, “because our production is not constant from month to month, we benefit from the variable cost nature implicit in certain aspects of outsourcing prepress functions”.

Cynthia Sherry is Group Publisher of two publishing houses, Chicago Review Press and Triumph Books, publishing about 125 books per year.  Cynthia uses outsourcing strategically, employing in-house resources for the most heavily designed, creative books, which require more supervision and publisher input.  Per Cynthia, “outsourcing reduces our overall costs, it helps to give us a variety of looks, it improves our cash flow, and most importantly it helps with scheduling, especially in crunch situations”.  

The chart below shows, very generally, the main advantages and disadvantages of the three options:

So, is outsourcing an option you should consider?  I hope that this article gives you some tips to reach the best decision for your publishing operation.




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