short run for stationery designer

Is it unreasonable to ask my printer to subtract the cost of my first short run from my second long run? I design stationery and I have found that if I have to pay for a short run (50) to see if a design sells and then have to pay for a long run (1000) once it does seem to be popular then I can’t make any real profit even if the design is popular. Is it okay to ask this?

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Shielddesign… you arn’t going to like my answer, but you get what you pay for. The printer is trying to earn a living and he can’t do that running “free” short runs for people who don’t know what they want. It’s your job to design a peice that will sell, and in doing so you must convey all necessary info to your printer, ie, inks.. paper.. foils,, etc. as well as ART that you designed. Your skill as a designer will be reflected in YOUR sales. Your printers skills will be reflected in the QUALITY of his product. If you arn’t happy with his product.. find another printer. He spent years prefecting his craft, I’m sure he took his lumps along the way…just as you are now experiencing… life is a learning curve. Printers are generally an understand, level headed bunch, perhaps if you spoke to him in advance and told him of you delima he could perhaps respond in kind and give you a brake on the 1000 run, skipping the shorter run of 50 from the start. Good luck, Carl.

Very well put Carl.

Shielddesign - The reason that a short run is so much less cost effective than a longer run is that any print run is going to have an each-time start-up cost that can’t be avoided. This will include readjusting the press for the size and position of your piece, inking your color(s), makeready waste, and the time needed to do all of this, etc. Once this start-up process is complete then it is simply a matter of paper, ink and running time. On your longer run that initial up-front cost is amortized over 1,000 pieces so it is divided by 1,000. On your shorter run that cost is divided by only 50 so your “unit cost” is naturally much greater. The time and material cost per piece, once the press is running, is about the same for both quanities. It is the start-up cost that is the difference in the cost-effectivness.

Printers generally run at a fairly low profit margin when all things are considered, so it is really unfair to ask them to take a risk on the saleability of your design. Would you share your profits with the printer if you ended up with an extremely successful design? I think not.

Rick von Holdt

You are doing your market research after you have the product produced and release it for sale. Why don’t you do your market research BEFORE you produce it. Get a group of people together who reflect your clientele and have them judge computer printouts of new designs before you print them. Or, maybe you could ask for the email addresses of some of your customers and ask if they would look at new designs from time to time. Or, put out new designs where you sell them and ask if customers would buy them.

There is one drawback to this, because people sometimes say they like them and then still don’t buy them. But, a lot of big companies do this, so it must be worthwhile. If you have a connection with your customers like this, you could ask them other things, i.e. do they like the size and the paper, would they like other similar products like holiday cards, etc.

Have you considered getting a small letterpress? Then you could do personalized stationery and cards, which would be value added for you. (I have not done this for many years, so don’t know if it is economically worthwhile or not. I’m sure others on this site could tell you, though). If you still found it necessary to do initial runs of 50, you might be able to do them yourself. If the designs are successful, then you could decide whether to do the longer runs yourself or give them to your printer. If you discussed with your printer in advance what type of plate they can use, then you should be able to give the printer the same plate to print 1000, that you used to print the initial 50.

Okay well thanks for responding, but maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my question:

I don’t want the printer to give me a FREE first run. What I want is that IF a design sells and I order more then I want to roll in the start up cost for that design. So like this (pretend numbers)

I get 50 printed for $200
then design sells so I want 1000 for $400, but instead the printer charges me for 1050 of them and subtracts what I already paid for the first run from the second total. In other words if the design does NOT sell the printer was already paid and I take all the loss. If the design sells the printer pretends I only had one print run.

I would not ask the printer to take a loss for my testing the market, I agree that would be unfair, but that’s not what I was asking. : )

So can I ask THIS or still no?

p.s. I like your idea Geoffrey, but I have tried the computer print out route and it doesn’t work. They usually don’t like it until they see it printed by a great letterpress printer!

Both print runs will take equal effort to set up, so I don’t think I would give a discount for the second run.

I would be able reuse the plates, that’s about it. If you have a set color pallet for your designs, it might help to order a pound of ink for each color so the printer can just dip into the supply without worrying about mixing ink.

Even so, the second run will actually be a bit more worrisome because you have to carefully match the color to the first run. The same ink can look different depending on how you set the press.

If it were my business, I’d risk it and order 1,000 to start. You’ll ensure consistency from piece-to-piece and you’ll save money.

I do not think there is an issue with sitting down and discussing this with your printer. People have different ideas and pricing structures and you both are looking to make a profit on the small and large runs. I use to cost small “prototype” runs a certain way and larger runs in other ways. Sometimes the equipment changes. Some printers will break out all set up costs as a separate charge. Let us know what you come up with!

I know it seems you aren’t, but you are essentially asking the printer to give you a free first run.

You pay $200 for 50 pieces. The printer charges you ~$180 for time processing the file, running film, platemaking, make-ready and clean-up. Perhaps $20 is devoted to the cost of paper, ink and labour for printing those 50 pieces.

You order 1000 more because they sell well. The printer will have to do everything mentioned above again (save running film and platemaking, for which you should not be charged.)

If you want the printer to “pretend you only had one print run” you are asking them to eat their time setting up and tearing down your job the second time as well as the consumables involved. Even for a run of 1000 (let alone the run of 50) this cost will overshadow the cost of paper, printing and ink involved in the actual printing.

No printer I know would agree to this. If you find one who does I would still recommend paying them fairly for both runs. If you are unsure of how they will sell, you may have to incorporate that initial $200 cost into the cost of the cards.

Thank you all.

You guys are the experts: how can I lower my costs and still be a good print customer. I am not trying to rip anyone off. : )

The custom ink by pound is a good idea, but would have to come later since I am still developing my full color palette (I have 4 colors so far and am aiming for 10-12)

This is going to sound insane… but could I buy the plate first and just manually press it into the paper once or twice using whatever ink I have at home… take a photo of it and then if it sells give the plate back to my printer and go from there?

I don’t want to be a printer, I like being an illustrator and graphic designer… but I love good letterpress and cotton paper and want to continue to turn out high quality products.


Won’t work, sorry. You’ll have to have faith in your designs or $200 to waste if you want to dive in.


thanks you have some great ideas!

I will just have to find a way to skip the short run in the beginning.

You could buy a small sign or cylinder proof press and print an initial (very) small run yourself. That won’t turn you into a full-time printer, but you’ll get an idea of how your work would look. You might even enjoy the process, and it certainly will give you an appreciation of the effort involved.

Arie - wouldn’t that be like running a proof for another printer who’ll use their own equipment and skillset? You’d have to pass on the ink to the final printer who’ll probably run a different ink weight on their different press. There’s absolutely no guarantee that what you printed at home will look anything like what the printer will produce in the final run. And clients like continuity.

Arie and Poppy,

thanks. Yes I think that is the flip side of each.

Let me ask you guys this: I know how to screen print (simple, short runs in 1 color). I could screen print my designs to test them and then if they work I can get them letterpress printed. Is that crazy? too different to tell if it would sell? My biggest concern would be that I design with delicate lines that would be hard to achieve with screen printing.

What mesh are you using? Using a high count, it shouldn’t be difficult at all to get fine lines.


hmm so do you think it would be weird to offer samples that are screen printed and say if you buy this I will get them letterpress printed? OR do you think I should only letterpress custom jobs from now on and screen print my own stationery line?

p.s. really (this fine?) see attached

image: QueenAnnesOpen.jpg


I am not being a facetious here. Maybe you could try one of thoses new letterpress kits. If the plate(s) you have made for this using on this device are the correct height maybe your printer could use them for the large run. Possibly the ink also if you used the same kind as your printer likes to use. I guess it would be about the size capabilities of the kit. I don’t know what that is.

Imo I think part of the job of the final printer is to match the color of a proof. Given that the processes would be closer than say that of a screen print and letterpress I think a trial run on a small press would be a better plan than screenprinting.

Right. Any printer that you pay should be able to match colors very, very closely. If not it’s time to find a new printer.

Shielddesign, Responding to your thank you to me, you’re welcome and I wish you luck in your enterprise! Geoffrey

hmm I looked into the letterpress for crafters. I guess the thing would be to be able to find a plate maker that would be willing to make plates for it. Then even if my printer had to get new plates made it would still cost less than having a first short run done professionally. Anyone know how I would go about that? I have never contacted a plate maker directly before.

Boxcar Press makes photopolymer plates for letterpress printers all over, you can visit their site for more information on that process.

Owosso Graphics manufactures magnesium and zinc plates and there should be a graphic supply place near wherever you are located that also manufactures mag plates. If you need more information on the process of having plates made I’d read through the archives of this forum—tonnes of questions about platemaking have been asked before.


Okay great i contacted them! I will certainly post again later and let you know how my little stationery adventure works out.


Hodgins Engraving in Batavia NY also has Magnesium plates

I am loving this interaction!!
I am a fairly new printer and am constantly frustrated that I am not more of an “artist” to do some basic design work.
I have all the supplies to print……..I don’t have the design skills ….yet, to make designs that I love.
Paperstoneprinting-I’m looking forward to seeing how your adventure progresses! Keep posting!!

shielddesign as a designer come printer (in that order) I’m interested what it is you feel your clients wouldn’t or don’t like about a computer printed proof when compared to a screenprint etc. I think if you identify what it is your looking to achieve with letterpress then that will help you hugely.

Obviously the screenprinting route gives you more scope with the colours you can print, but I feel is far less representative of a letterpressed design then a well printed digital print.

As an interesting medium between digital and screenprinting I wonder if you have come across a Risograph machine before? This would allow you to design on a computer and reliably and for a low cost while also allowing you to print non CYMK colours.

I agree with itsluke - why go to the effort of screenprinting a short run rather than just a digi print? That would be a quick and cheap way to test your design before you order a full letterpress printed run. I think the only thing that screenprinting would be an advantage over digital proofs is the paper - assuming you wouldn’t use the same paper to digi print on.