How long does it actually take to produce a catalog? The answer depends on if you’re trying to do it the textbook way or the other way …
March 20th. The phone rings.
New cataloger: “Hi, I just printed my first catalog, so now I need some lists. Can you get me some lists so I can mail my catalog by the end of this month?”
“You want to be in the mail in 10 days, and you’re starting the list process now?”
“You bet. I wanted to leave you plenty of time.”
Producing a catalog basically is a two-part process, with each part occurring simultaneously. Imagine two trains rolling side-by-side on parallel tracks. One track is the merchandise/creative process, the other is the list acquisition process.
In the true-life example above, this first-time cataloger followed the incorrect plan of running his trains sequentially. That is, he wanted to create and print the catalog, then get lists and mail it. That won’t work if you want to mail soon after you print.
This cataloger was missing two things: a proper understanding of the simultaneous nature of the catalog-building process and a proper schedule for the list process.
A Schedule for Lists
Following is a schedule this cataloger should have used for handling the list half of his catalog-building process:
Step 1 — About the same time as you start catalog design, call a list broker, discuss your project and request recommendations. Time until recommendations arrive: one week, maybe two.
Step 2 — From those recommendations, choose 30 percent more lists than you actually will use. Have your broker submit “pre-clears.” That is, have the broker ask the list owner: “If I order this list, will you be able to rent it to me?” Time until pre-clears arrive: two to three weeks. List owners respond slowly to pre-clear requests.
Step 3 — From all list owners who said “yes” to your pre-clears, select your top picks and place your orders. If too few approve your pre-clears, request more pre-clears. If pre-cleared acceptances turn to nays when you actually order, request more pre-clears. Time until you have enough list orders to equal your mailing requirement: two days to two weeks. Again, the bottleneck often is the list owners.
Step 4 — Your data-processing vendor gets name files, does the merge/purge, sends you reports and ships files to the printer for addressing catalogs. Time for data processing: one to two weeks, which includes time for lists to arrive with too few names, wrong names, corrupted files, etc.
Step 5 — Your printer gets name file, binds and addresses your catalogs, loads them on trucks, and delivers them to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Time for binding/mailing: one to two weeks (binding is physically much slower than printing).
Step 6 — USPS receives and delivers your mail. Time: three days (if you do bulk mail center entry) to three weeks. Tip: Try to mail at the nearest post office that accepts bulk mail.
Total time for the complete list-to-mailbox process: seven to 14 weeks. Can you do it faster? Yes. In the case study I noted earlier, we confined our list selections to those most likely to be approved; we used a data processing house willing to work nights and weekends; and we started all processes immediately. It went very quickly, but we weren’t in-home in the cataloger’s hoped-for 10 days.
The Creative Side
Catalog owner: “We need advice. No matter what we do, we can’t get our catalog in-home before Thanksgiving. We’re losing sales.”
I asked, “When do you start design?”
“Sometime in September.”
“Have you tried earlier, like May?”
“Why would we start that early?”
This cataloger’s team actually was quite efficient, but the owner had never mapped out the time needed for the creative side of the catalog-building process.
Here’s the schedule this cataloger should have had:
Step 1 — Your designer creates test layouts with fonts, designs and photo concepts. You review, change and decide on the final look. Allow one to two weeks — or if you have a lot of committees, one to two months.
Step 2 — Your designer lays out each page using real images and copy. Allow three to six pages per day to reach first-round design, or double that if the designer is working on other projects simultaneously, which most outside creative designers do.
Step 3 — Proof carefully on the first round. This sharply cuts later design rounds. Allow two to four pages per hour per person for a good detailed proofing of the first round; allow half or less for later rounds.
Step 4 — After proofing turns up errors and needed changes, pay careful attention to how you communicate them to your designer. Do it carelessly, and you’ll end up with a lot more revision rounds.
Neatly and clearly mark all changes on a printed layout, type a careful explanation of each change, or give changes via the phone. Tip: Speak slowly while your designer makes changes on the screen. Have the designer then repeat changes back to you.
For all these rounds combined, allow two pages per hour total for communicating changes to your designer.
Step 5 — Your designer makes revisions. For all rounds combined, allow about two pages an hour (16 pages per eight-hour day). This assumes two to three entire rounds of revisions.
Step 6 — Copywriting usually can proceed simultaneously with design and/or photography, so you needn’t add extra time to the schedule for copywriting. After the copywriter has samples and complete product data, allow one to three pages per day for ready-to-proof copy.
Takeaway Tip: Copy for low-product-density and high-product-density pages takes about the same overall time to write on a per-page basis. So don’t count on time savings in copywriting from a lower product density.
Step 7 — Allow for two complete rounds of copy revisions on average (some pages will need more, some less). Copy proofing and revisions take about the same time as design (see above), and can happen simultaneously if you have enough people proofing.
Step 8 — For cover photography allow a half day per cover for tabletop, and up to two days for a complex location shot. For product shots, allow six to 12 shots per day, depending on how fancy you’re getting. Some types of photography happen quickly (e.g., athletic shoes, drill bits), while some take more time (e.g., cooked food, fashion apparel on life-like forms).
Step 9 — As our technology advances, more prepress operations, such as color correction and page assembly, are migrating in-house. But don’t expect to save time. Begin page assembly as soon as the first spread is approved. Don’t wait for your designer to finish. A skilled operator with no missing images can assemble one page every one to two hours, depending on how much high-resolution work is needed. Add one week for unexpected additional prepress duties.
The above nine steps generally take one to one-and-a-half work days per completed catalog page, from pagination (what goes where on each page) to printer turn-in. And, if you have the time, adding four to eight more weeks to the front of the schedule for strategy, competitive analysis, product selection and pagination eventually will produce better sales.
Regarding the true-life example that began this section on creative: To get an Oct. 1 in-home date, this merchant’s 24-page catalog with two extra front/back covers (28 pages total) adds up to this:
* planning — one to two months;
* design, copy, photo — one to one-and-a-half days per page, x 28 pages = six to nine weeks; and
* printer to mailbox — four weeks.
Grand total: 14 to 21 weeks.
Starting in early May to mid-June would generate a comfortable October in-home.
Susan McIntyre is president of McIntyre Direct, a full-service catalog agency and consulting firm based in Portland, Ore. She can be reached at (503) 286-1400.