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A Poorly Printed Book: Maybe We Should Ask Why

I bought one of those modern day classics on amazon.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: January 28, 2009

I bought one of those modern day classics on amazon.com, “North American Industry Classification System, United States, 2007.” Yes, it's a real spine-tingler. Sure, all of the content is on the Census website, but the reference has a certain utility in its nearly 1400-page book form that made it well worth the forty bucks; but it's not coming on any trips with me at that size!

As I opened the book, I realized what a bad printing job it was. Page numbers are not always in the proper position. Some pages are crooked. Some pages are dark. Some pages are light. Some pages are both. Some text is plugged. Some is clear. The signatures are different shades of white. The side of the book could be used as a paint chart showing shades of white. The book is not squarely cut. It's a reminder of the old saying “close enough for government work.” Well, it is a government book...

I have to say that I was taken aback by this book's bad printing. Why didn't the publisher reject it?

As a reference book, the content transcends its print quality. That is, even if printed badly, I can still use it. Does print quality matter for a reference book? But what if this print job was a marketing piece, where the perception of the product's quality might be affected by the nature of the print job?

It's a reminder that when print is used in marketing, one of its tasks is to create a “halo effect.” In psychology, a halo effect is the tendency to perceive the characteristics of a person or objects without objectivity. In management, this might be manifest in employee reviews, where likeable employees with average productivity might get bigger raises than high productivity sourpusses. In shopping, it's why brands often sell better than other similar products where there is no evidence of difference. Cutting through the halo effect was the intent of products like Consumer Reports.

Print buyers choose print, and printers, for a reason. What is printed needs to convey a positive sense to the reader and user, and not detract from it. This is why we are often obsessed with measuring performance, resolution, densitometry, color balance, and a host of others. But we can't forget that we measure those things only because we can. We can measure the satisfaction of the print buyer by asking them or noting whether they come back with new orders or not. But we can't measure the satisfaction of the reader or the user at the time they have the paper in front of them. Even a reference book can benefit from good printing. It's only because I know the authority of the contents of this book that I can look past its poor quality. Can others? Will the poor quality of the print undermine the intent of the content creators?

It may surprise you, but that is one of the compelling reasons why many communicators say they are happier with digital media compared to print. Reader's actions before and after they hit an Internet page can be tracked, as well as the amount of time they spend there, and many other factors. For the most part, digital content's formats can be more predictably displayed on up-to-date devices. It does not have to worry about waste or spoilage, or other factors of physical production.

So while we're always measuring pressroom things, it would be about time we started measuring how print is used and why, and the satisfaction of our buyers, and how well what we print was satisfactory to their audience. Sometimes all we have to do is ask, but we have to ask the right people, the users. Are we afraid to?

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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