Of course you want to get the best deal for your employer: that’s never in question.  But in what does the best deal consist?  It’s not obvious to me that the best deal must be the cheapest deal.  Nobody should overpay, but nailing suppliers to the floor jeopardizes their future ability to serve you.  If they are out of business they aren’t going to be much use to you.  There’s a cake there which the publisher and the suppliers need to share.

When I was starting out, the cake tin was no doubt tilted a bit too far towards the printers’ side.  Book prices were rising, and publishers were able to get by without gross, gross margins.  You could tell the suppliers were doing OK by the smart lunches they would take you to.  There’s obviously been a rebalancing now, and that’s probably ultimately to the good — just so long as it doesn’t go too far.

A publisher of a certain size should by and large deal with suppliers of a certain size.  If you are a gigantic publisher, using a small printer/binder is going to cause capacity and schedule troubles.  Even if you only send them a small part of your list, you just have too much work for them to handle comfortably.  And if you can’t send a large part of your list to any one of your suppliers, you are going to end up with far too many suppliers to be able to manage them all well.  A small publisher’s few titles will be totally trivial to a large supplier, whatever they may claim.  Stick with a supplier of whose workload you can be a decent proportion.  If you can noticeably affect the business by withdrawing your titles, the chances of your failing to get good service are greatly reduced.  Of course self-destructive behavior can manifest itself in the strangest places.

There’s no ideal number of suppliers.  You obviously need enough of them to be able to get your work done properly and promptly.  The nature of you list will affect this.  No point is saying to yourself “I can’t have more than three printers” if that means none of the three can handle that little 4-color cheap and cheerful children’s list you have to produce.  It’s all so obvious, but it does conflict with today’s urge to negotiate a scale deal with suppliers who all naturally want to get a volume guarantee in return for their discounted pricing.

The single most important thing a publisher can do to ensure good service and pricing from their suppliers is to pay all invoices on time.  The second, I maintain, is merely to answer the phone when a rep calls, and to see them from time to time.  A rep has a job to do too, and being able to put your name down on a call sheet is not nothing.  Failing to see reps for companies you do not do business with is ostrich behavior.  You need to be aware of what the competition is doing, and you never know when you may need help.

You should aim to estimate high and deliver low.  Things go wrong, and when they do they tend to cost money.  For a job to come in at less than your estimated cost takes a once-in-a-liftime miracle.  Your boss will probably not allow you to add something called a”contingency”, so round up on your estimates as much as you can get away with, so that you are protected against that almost inevitable cost overrun.  I always used to tell my people that if they made a mathematical error and estimated the total cost at $3,500 rather than the $35,000 it really should have been, the editor who got that estimate would say, “Isn’t it wonderful how they really got good pricing on this one.  Most of my books have to sell at between $45 and $50.  It’s great to be able to price this one at $12.95.”  They’d never call you on the error. Every dollar you save off the estimated costs goes straight to the bottom line, and that’s where the difference between a surviving publisher and a successful publisher is laid down.

One depressing reality is however that you can always buy anything cheaper than the cheapest price you have yet been given.  Just ask and you shall receive.  But be careful: too far down this road, and you may get to a place you wish you hadn’t.

However, in a longish career producing books I have never once been thanked for bringing a book in below budget.  I have occasionally been thanked for bringing it in on time or even early, but mostly I have been thanked for making the book beautiful.  This is kind of the opposite of the message that you’d want management to be sending to staff.