This post is the final installment of a story. Read the previous installment or start at the beginning.
The question I’m always asked when I tell the story about outsourcing a print job to Seoul is “would you use those guys again?” Depends on the project. Someone would have to go there and physically stand around to make sure they printed to my standards. Keeping them on track would require someone’s presence as a physical reminder. And I’d want Captain as my onsite project manager and the brilliant night shift man, whose name I found out was Mr. An, to be running the printing machine. (They saved the book in my mind and restored my faith that printing there wasn’t such a disastrous idea.) Even with all of that, given the language barrier and cultural differences, it would still be a struggle.
On paper, the cost saving was unbeatable. The book would have been expensive to produce in the US - $50,000 more expensive. It cost less than $5000 to send me there – a negligible cost, given the overall savings. Time lost from the office doing what I needed to do, and the time it took me to recover from the trip was a mitigating factor though. It's difficult to know if that pricing would bear out in subsequent projects. Young was gracious and accommodating regarding everything extra I made them do but he had to buy more paper because they used up what they had earmarked for the book and took a hit for that. Taking into account that new clients typically impact margins at first he may still have charged me more if he had known how exacting I was going to be about everything.
Day shift man came back on the next to final morning. By then I was beyond tired and had little patience for his attitude. He was a nice enough guy, but he just wasn’t used to doing that level of quality and it wasn’t sitting well with him that I was pushing him. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to push the color the way I knew it could be. Fortunately, he worked slower than night shift guy and serendipitously, his assistant didn’t show up to work so he was left cleaning the rollers and making new plates. This grunt work killed the project schedule, but it saved the quality of my book.
At 7:30 PM Mr. An was safely back in the helm with trusty Captain at his side. Just twelve or so more hours and the book would be completely printed. By 8:45AM on day three the book was almost done. We were printing the cover and one of the bearings broke so we had to stop the presses. Mr. An went home and I was stuck with dayshift man again. (Never did get his name.) Thankfully, Mr. An had mostly color matched the cover before he left so I thought we were in good shape. But I felt some tension returning to my shoulders because the cover was in someone’s hands that I didn’t trust and it was the first thing that everyone would see.
Twenty minutes into the shift day shift man was up to his old tricks again, saying he couldn’t get the cover right. From the looks of the hand signals, he was feeding the same old excuses to Captain about why it wouldn’t work and by then I was just mad and tired of being there. If someone gives me a deliverable and it's not that great but I truly get that they’ve done as much as they absolutely can given their skills, or the time and/or budget constraints of the project then I’m fine with it. It is what it is. But I have little patience for getting something from someone that they know could be better and they are just hoping I’ll accept it or not notice.
Day shift man and Young, who had just shown up, were waiting me out to see what my next move was. Captain just stared at the proofs intently. I could understand that Young was motivated by his bottom line but I held firm. We were printing the covers ‘two-up’ on a sheet and couldn’t keep the color consistent through both, so they decided to remake the plates and print it ‘one-up.’ It dawned on me that this had to be a lack of skill thing on day shift man’s part because it would take twice as much paper and new plates to print this way. Cha-ching. Young must have been really happy with me. Or wishing Mr. An wasn’t sleeping peacefully at home.
After five minutes and much discussion later, Young told me they would just print the covers “two-up” as planned, but print twice as many and use the darker version. Apparently, we were getting kicked off-press as there were other jobs stacked up behind us. Times up. Game over. Fine, but how would I know they’d be using the right version of the cover? I might have to stand there and mark up every sheet (6500 times!) to choose the one they should use.
One hour later, we were into the lunch break, which for hardworking Koreans is a sacred time not to be messed with. Day shift man still hadn’t nailed the color on the cover. Captain actually pulled me outside and told me in his broken English that for every problem he told day shift man to solve, another one cropped up. We burned through 2,000 or so sheets of paper trying to get it right. Captain told me that we should leave now and let day shift man eat his lunch, which I didn’t argue with because I had an uncomfortable feeling that I’d outstayed my welcome. I wasn’t sure what would happen next but he told me he’d come get me and we’d do the cover again tomorrow. Sigh. I was afraid this would happen. At least Captain wasn’t making me settle for something that he knew wasn’t right. He and Mr. An were consummate professionals to the end. Once the printing was done, and I didn’t have to stand vigil at the press, the plan was to come back to the shop periodically to see the coating, binding and stamping process. Unfortunately that never happened due to scheduling constraints. When I received the first sample box of bound books about one week later, I'm happy to report that they looked beautiful. It took another six weeks or so to get the rest.
Would I travel overseas and go through long hours and tough conditions again to get a cost-effective, quality product at the end of it if a client wanted me to? Definitely. With those guys? I've learned over the years never to say never. But a relationship with any printer is trust-based. Good printers will get to know your profile and what you are looking for. Conversely, you’ll know their print style and how they approach their work. It takes time, doing several projects together to build up that trust. If it was a high stakes project, the client and I would have to weigh carefully whether it might produce a better outcome to go with a trusted American printer that I already have relationships with.