Printing Industry Presses On in Big Way : ‘Desktop Publishing’ Has Revolutionized a Centuries-Old Trade

The Washington Post

George Turner is a printer, and has been for 40 years.

When he started in the business, most type was formed from molten metal and printing was passed down from father to son, keeping the craft in the family.

Today, the hot metal is gone, print shops are franchised like hamburger stands and Turner faces competitors like Johnny Allem, who a few years ago was a political consultant but is now a printer.

“The nature of printing is changing,” said Ron Davis, an economist with Printing Industries of America, a trade group based in Arlington, Va. “It is very much an entrepreneurial industry. Certainly it still requires a lot of skill, but many of the barriers to entry have come down.”


Enormous Demand

And it is a growth industry. Despite the forecasts that personal computers and other electronic gadgets eventually will create a paperless society, demand for the printed word is, if anything, greater than ever.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Washington, the undisputed paper work capital of the universe.

“Washington’s appetite for paper is the hungriest I’ve ever seen,” said Turner, noting that except during a cutback in government printing contracts in the early ‘80s, this area “is notorious for not having recessions in printing.”

“Washington has no industry, so it generates paper work, and that’s reflected in printing,” said John Gelzer, who with partner Bill Beall operates two Minuteman Press franchise shops here.

Instead of eliminating printing, technological advances have instead made it dramatically easier to commit words and images to paper, and opened new doors to those who want to make a living in the printing business.

No longer is printing the exclusive province of shops with expensive, heavy-duty presses. For some jobs, a high-quality photocopying machine will suffice. And advances in personal computing in recent years--better graphics, easy-to-use layout programs and relatively inexpensive laser printers among them--have created the business of “desktop publishing,” putting even sophisticated typesetting and printing skills in a wider number of hands and furthering the printing revolution.

Much Cleaner Process

“We like to think printing is really a part of the new information age,” Davis said. “It’s the industry that puts information into tangible form, and that’s the reason it has grown so spectacularly over the past few years.”

Perhaps the most visible change in the printing business in the past few years has been the rise of the “quick printer,” who can turn jobs around in a matter of days--or even hours--compared to the weeks it usually takes a medium-sized commercial printer.

Quick printing is based on two innovations: the small high-speed offset press and a special camera that can photograph the material to be printed and convert that picture into a plate for the press all in one step.

This process means that a customer can bring in “camera-ready” material--which might be typewritten, composed on a personal computer, or prepared professionually by a typographer--and the printer can make a plate and get it onto the press in a matter of hours.

The operation is quick and clean, allowing quick printers to set up shop in retail areas and cater to nearby offices.

“Convenience is a big thing in this business,” Gelzer said. “People don’t like to walk much more than a block and half. Our market area is really a relatively small radius.”

“What attracted me (to quick printing) was that you could target a share of the market that wanted speed and service and was not necessarily quite as price-conscious, and you could do it with machines that could be located in a high-rent district,” said Allem, who also has two Minuteman franchises here.

Another appeal of quick printing is the relatively low cost of getting started. PIP Printing Inc., another franchise operation, figures that equipment and fixtures for an average start-up run about $60,000. Minuteman says the figure can be much lower in a low-cost area.

However, both franchisers charge hefty license fees--$40,000 for PIP and $24,500 for Minuteman--so a franchisee would need $85,000 to $100,000 to buy in. This is hardly pocket change, but it is within reach of far more would-be entrepreneurs than the costs of equipping a medium-sized commercial print shop.

Meteoric Growth

Allem, who was a newspaper reporter before stints in public relations and political consulting, said: “I wanted a small business that would allow me to stop traveling and give me some equity when I grow old . . . I don’t know how wealthy I’m going to be, but I’m having fun.”

He said Minuteman primarily gave him the confidence to get started. He attended the company’s two-week training course on Long Island, which gave him the basics of operating the equipment, though now he has employees to do that.

The growth of quick printing has been meteoric. In 1969, according the National Assn. of Quick Printers, there were roughly 1,100 quick printers nationally. By 1982, there were 14,000, and by last year, 24,000. About a quarter of these are franchises, the rest independently owned.

In 1982, according to most recent Commerce Department figures, there were 36,000 printing establishments of all kinds in the United States.

But while quick printers account for a majority of the nation’s print shops, they remain a small minority economically. As the Printing Industries group defines it, printing is a $67-billion-a-year business in the United States, while the quick printers put their volume at about $6 billion.

The quick-print industry concedes that the era of spectacular growth is probably over, and officials expect that there may even be some shrinkage in the next few years.

Technological Revolution

Partly, the reason is saturation, and partly it is a matter of technology. New high-speed, high-quality copying machines made by Xerox, Kodak and others are nibbling away at the lower end of the quick printers’ business.

“What erodes our printing (business) is the quality of the copies,” Gelzer said. “Copy quality is higher now,” and it often is “sufficient to run something off on the copier” when a small number of copies is wanted. “The customer gets it all--price, speed, quality.”

Quick printers now face competition from people like Jerry Cooper, who helped found Copy General Inc., which now has six stores and a production center as well as a new, related company called Laser Images, which specializes in desktop publishing.

Cooper’s experience demonstrates how the technology revolution is changing the way people get into the printing business.

A decade ago, Cooper was working for a typesetting company, learning the business and expecting to follow his father into his printing business in Philadelphia. But he noticed that the typesetting company was always having difficulty finding high-quality photocopying service. So Cooper went into that end of the business.

Copy General’s clients range from lawyers who might need “everything in someone’s files copied quickly, accurately and confidentially,” Cooper said, to “consultants who are doing nice presentations” and need something duplicated that the consultant has produced on his or her own computer.

Competitive Pressures

“We do work people choose not to do, stuff that is too difficult, too hard, too nasty,” Cooper said.

But Copy General also does fancy copying. It can, for example, duplicate big signs on cardboard that have been created on desktop publishing systems. The firm has just installed a machine that will do full-color copies up to 18-by-24 inches on card stock.

Cooper said the desktop-publishing enterprise gives his business another dimension. With desktop publishing--essentially a combination of a personal computer, special software and a high-quality laser printer--he can create material that before “might have gone to a type house or a full-service printer.”

Feeling the pressure from competitors like Cooper, many quick printers are moving to add photocopying to their services. Said Allem: “The fast-print business in Washington seems to include the high-volume copying business, so we got into that, too.”

PIP Printing is moving to reposition its 900 franchisees as “business printers rather than quick printers,” said company spokeswoman Susan Falck. To that end, PIP has changed its name--it used to be Postal Instant Press because its founder started it printing postcards “while you wait"--and has launched a national television advertising campaign.

“We wanted to break out of the mold of the copy shop,” Falck said. “We wanted to separate ourselves and bring in the more profitable jobs.”

New Customer Demands

Some quick printers are moving in the other direction, taking on more complicated work.

Gelzer and his partner Beall, who had been a commercial printer, bought a bigger press and opened a commercial printing operation in Lanham, Md. There, they can do jobs that are too big for their quick-print operation.

Thus, as the copy shops nibble at the quick printers, the quick printers nibble at the bigger commercial printers. “It seems to go up the ladder,” Gelzer said.

Up the ladder is George Turner, who is part owner of Taylor Printing Co. in Hyattsville, Md. A traditional commercial printer, Taylor does a lot of work for trade associations, as well as all manner of general commercial printing.

Turner said his firm has built its business on press runs of 5,000 to 20,000 in book work and up to 4 million copies of much simpler work.

But he said he can see the impact of the quick printers. Small orders of 100 to 200 copies have all but dried up.

“The biggest change is the quickness of turnaround that people expect,” Turner said. Quick printers “taught people to expect that everything can be turned around quickly,” he said. On some types of jobs that used to be done in seven to 10 working days, Turner said, “now we’re lucky to get three to five (days).”

But in the current competitive environment, the company has to do its best to meet customers’ expectations. In the one local printing recession a few years ago, which came when the Government Printing Office stopped publishing a large number of publications that had been contracted to local printers, firms that depended on that work were thrown into the general commercial market.

Graphics Industry Squeezed

For two or three years “it wasn’t just competition, it was cutthroat,” Turner said. “There were a lot of bankruptcies.”

The market has stabilized now, he added, “but it is still more competitive than it was before.”

Other businesses connected to printing also are beginning to feel the effects of desktop publishing, which is allowing just about anyone with a personal computer system and the right software to do complicated typesetting jobs--including advanced graphics work--that a few years ago could only be done by professional composing shops.

“This end of the industry is in total chaos,” said Adele Robey of Robey Graphics, a typography and graphic-design business in Washington. At a meeting of a trade association, she said, “we spend half our days asking, ‘Who are we? Who do we want to serve?’ ”

In the last six months, she said, some large clients have found themselves squeezed financially and have reacted by deciding they can do some of their production work in-house using desktop publishing.

Robey and Turner agreed that a real problem that both quality printers and graphics experts face is that many customers cannot tell a good job from a mediocre one.

“Whether they don’t know, or don’t care, or because they produced it themselves and are loath to say it looks lousy,” people are willing to put up with poor quality work, Robey said.

In fact, she noted wryly, she has to be careful not to be too critical of work customers bring in for help because it “may be their own little brainchild.”

In addition, technical change is overtaking the composition shops’ equipment, meaning that constant updating of hardware and software drain away profits. Robey Graphics just invested $30,000 in a new output machine that is compatible with the desktop-publishing PostScript graphics standard, even though the firm hasn’t finished paying for the equipment it is replacing.

Worldwide Operation

One national company attempting to cash in on the desktop publishing boom is AlphaGraphics Inc., which bills itself as running the “print shops of the future.”

A Tucson, Ariz.-based franchiser, AlphaGraphics has a desktop-publishing system that ties its printing customers to its franchisees.

AlphaGraphics franchisees sell hardware-software desktop publishing packages, known as Personal Printshops, to customers, usually large corporations or institutions. The customers can prepare their own material and then transmit it by satellite to AlphaGraphics shops around the world, where it is printed and delivered.

AlphaGraphics currently has about 250 stores around the world and expects to open two in Moscow soon.

Robey, however, believes, that in time, the business will return to something like its past form, with professionals doing much of the composition and layout work.

“The chaos will shake out,” she said.