Designers: How to handle printing markups?

Here’s another excerpt from a discussion in the Creative Freelancer Conference LinkedIn group. (And if you’re not using LinkedIn to get clients and want to know how, sign up for my March 15 webcast on exactly that topic.).

Design firm owner, Johanna Goldfeld, wants to know the logistics of brokering and marking up printing costs. She asks:

I’ve always had my clients pay printers directly, though I understand some designers include printing in their contracts and also markup printing fees.

How does this work logistically and financially? i.e. do you negotiate ‘designer discounts’ from the printers? are there sales tax issues to deal with? is it worth the stress of being ‘responsible’ for the printing?

In one of the many responses to Johanna’s question, veteran designer and CFC attendee, Laurel Black, says:

Personally, I think if you are not brokering and managing your clients’ print projects, you are leaving money on the table. Print mark-ups are about 20% of my income. I have been doing this for years and think it is well worth the risk of being responsible for the outcome of print projects. Of course, it is imperative that you understand printing processes really well, or you will not be able to adequately manage the vendors, or establish trade relationships with them. Some printers will not give trade discounts, but most recognize that designers can be steady customers with no cost of sales, and that is worth something. The stress is inversely proportional to how well you understand printing and how much you trust your vendor. As for sales tax, it varies from state to state. In Washington, the final seller adds the tax, collecting for the state, and also has to pay a Business and Occupation (amount x .00484) on the retail amount. Your state Department of Revenue should be able to tell you how to handle retail sales.

How do you handle print markups? Want to see what other creatives are doing?

Comment here or join this discussion

3 thoughts on “Designers: How to handle printing markups?

  1. Elizabeth Whelan

    I spent a lot of time debating this issue myself a few years ago, and upon the advice of a print professional started to work mark-ups into my operation. However I found that as a business that focused more on illustration than dealing with the end product (although I was doing a certain amount of graphic design/print as well) it became very stressful to handle the print end of things, particularly when the printer proved unreliable and my upfront costs high.
    Now I have resorted to another means when I handle print which is more comfortable for me and still gives me income for my time spent. First, I let my client know that they will be paying the printer’s cost without markup, but that I will be charging for the time I spend coordinating the job. That charge is at my usual rate. The client can either pay the printer directly or I can handle the payment and in that case the print $ comes to me from the client first, I do not put my money up for the client’s job. This reduces my risk substantially — if a client is slow to pay the final bill, I am not in the hole for thousands of dollars of print in addition to the design work.
    What I like about this method is the transparency. The client doesn’t have to wonder what sort of markup I may be adding on, and also the quality of the print is attributed to the printer, I don’t end up taking the rap for a less than stellar print job or for the uncertainties when working with a new printer. This works out for the printer as well, as they get the exposure and possible repeat business from my client when the job prints beautifully!
    At the end of the day I really don’t want to be a broker, I just want to help my client get the job done as simply as possible. If they don’t want to deal with the printer I am happy to do so, as long as I am reimbursed for my time.

  2. Tristan

    I think half the battle in brokering is finding reliable printers. It’s impossible to do until you try them. In Australia there alot of “trade-only” printers. They usually only provide a limited service like business cards or stationery etc, but they don’t service the public and rely on agencies and trades to feed them business. This means their prices are lower, so you can mark up and still charge a reasonable price.
    Small jobs like business cards and trade-only printers are a good way to dip your toe into brokering. Little jobs are also ideal for testing out these printers without too much investment.

    When you move up into the realm of fine printing or huge quantities, I usually offer my clients a choice. Do they want to deal with the printer and pay direct, or do they want me to handle everything. Then the markup essentially becomes compensation for your expertise, experience, time AND the cost of taking a hit for the cost of printing until your client pays (banks charge interest for doing that!).

    Don’t be afraid to markup printing, you are not ripping the client off, you are providing another service for them! It’s much easier for you to handle a print job when you know what you’re doing, rather than the client doing it themselves. That’s what the markup is for.

    If my clients want to handle all of the printing themselves, I usually add a little to the quote for finding out their printer’s artwork specs and making sure their artwork is print ready for that particular printer.

    I have a few policies for printing I have set for myself to make things easier.
    I have 3 limits for cost of printing:

    The first limit is the value I will take full responsibility for the printing – i.e. I pay the printer, I handle the whole job then deliver the prints to my client who will hopefully pay me 🙂 This limit has the largest % of markup.

    The second limit is where I’m still responsible for the job and choosing a printer, however I ask for full payment of printing from the client upfront. This takes the financial burden off me, but I’m still responsible if the printer can’t deliver, or something comes out wrong. This limit has a smaller % markup (less financial risk).

    Then anything above that I will simply charge “print management” fees to cover time for my dealings with the printer. But the final choice of printer and the responsibility of payment is now the clients.

    It’s easier of you start with small print jobs, get comfortable, set your own guides or policies, and as you get more confidence and experience with different printers you’ll be able to offer more for your clients.
    I think you’ll find alot of clients don’t mind paying extra if you are taking the burden away of dealing with the printer.

  3. Christine

    I work primarily with small business owners and have found that offering printing/print management is a huge service to these clients. Most know NOTHING about print, and I know if I handle the print, my clients are more likely to end up happy with the final product.

    Having worked in a print shop, I’ve seen the other side of the coin. There were several occasions where customers would send files from their graphic designers and we would run into issues (maybe a font not converted to curves, or the customer requested a size or printing process not compatible with the file). The customer would be frustrated and not understand the problem, think their designer gave them the wrong type of file, etc. I much prefer mediating this on behalf of my design clients, and there’s decent money to be made print brokering. Worth the added stress, in my opinion.