The Common Sense Czar on Printing: To Be or Not To Be. . .

By | October 14, 2010
Terry O'Hara - The Common Sense CzarBy T. J.  O’Hara
The Common Sense Czar 

As an executive consultant, my second favorite Shakespearean line is “To be or not to be:  that is the question” … because it covers so much ground in the “hamlets” within which our businesses reside.  As a political satirist, my favorite line comes from King George, VI:  “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”   Seriously, who can argue with that one?  But back to the original quote.  I find it particularly applicable to the printing industry (an industry in which I spent the better part of 20 years and in which I was raised by the nature of my father’s original occupation as a stereotyper … before that craft was eliminated by technology).

Hamlet goes on to say:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles …”,

It’s almost as if he was speaking directly to the printing industry!  For as long as I can remember, the printing industry has been “Going Out of Business.”  Back in the ‘80s, its death was to be attributed to some mysterious acronym (WYSIWYG).  In the ‘90s, it was digital print and another acronym (BPO) that were going to lead to its demise.  Now, I’ve been informed that it’s a mutated version of those past plagues and yet another deadly acronym (MSP) that will end the printing business as we know it.  Talk about your “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!”  What’s a poor old printer to do … “take up arms against a sea of troubles?”  Hey, why not?  It’s not like “change” is anything new … although you can apparently get elected if you just promise it.

Centuries ago, squid ink on papyrus gave way to block printing … and a lot of Pharaohs, who fretted, went out of business.  Yet, printing survived.  Block printing vanished at the hand of Gutenburg, who introduced the concept of moveable type in 1455.  At least Gutenburg knew how to maintain margins; printing Bibles that cost about three-years of a common worker’s wages.  Of course, the first Bible took him three years to print, so maybe he wasn’t exactly a Wall Street fat cat.  But later that century, Aldus Manutius began the margin erosion we’re still experiencing today … no, not by inventing PageMaker® … but by printing more and more “classics” at a lower price.  Darn him anyhow!  How will printing survive?  Yet, it did.

Today, we bemoan the fact that printing is nothing more than a commodity … and “nobody loves us!”  Of course, Gutenburg probably said the same thing at some point.  Print technology has evolved to the point where anyone can find a niche within which they can compete.  We think it’s a good thing that the hardware manufacturers have had to bring their prices down to the point where most Print Service Providers can afford it.  We also like the fact that the hardware side of the business now makes efficiency and quality more uniformly accessible to PSPs in general.  Commoditization on the hardware side is a good thing.  We just don’t want it creeping into the printing side of the business.

It’s the Print Buyers who have ruined the industry.  I’m just sure of it!  They put a gun to our head and forced us to lower our prices.  We didn’t have any choice.  We entered into document management contracts knowing that we’d initially sustain a loss … but hoping that we could change the specs and ratchet up pricing over time.  Then, those SOBs (which stands for “sons-of-a-businessperson” so as not to offend anyone) would send out an RFP at the end of our contract … just when we started to recover from our earlier losses.  So, we’d just have to repeat our mistake to retain the business.  It reminds me of a quote that’s often attributed to Einstein but actually originated with a printer by the name of Benjamin Franklin: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”  Doesn’t it just drive you crazy?

So, how do we pull out of this death spiral?  How do we restore acceptable margins to our business when print quality and delivery are so close among competitors?  The latest craze seems to be to abandon our role as “Print Services Providers” and head for greener pastures.  We’ll just have to rename what we do to something that sounds more exciting. Yeah, that’s the ticket!  We’ll just re-brand ourselves, and the unsuspecting public won’t know the difference. Hey, I know … let’s call ourselves “Marketing Services Providers.”  That will fix everything!  But first, “let’s kill all the lawyers” … and while we’re at it … all the Print Buyers who just couldn’t get accepted into law school.


Next time (if I’m ever invited back)… I say “we take arms against a sea of troubles” and explore how to actually fix the problem!


 Editors Note: T.J. O’Hara’s books, The Left isn’t Right; The Right is Wrong; and The National Platform of Common Sense are available at and through his website. We are very pleased to have him as a guest blogger here on TheDigitalNirvana and also recommend visiting Terry at

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One thought on “The Common Sense Czar on Printing: To Be or Not To Be. . .

  1. Buzz Tatom

    I have run The Odee Company for going on 25 years. There have been probably 5 major shifts of change in this time. Each time we survived and prospered. The advent of the internet may be the most difficult change that I have seen. The printing business is not a industry that is growing faster than GDP anymore. It is a flat to slowly declining industry these days as a whole but if you embrace the internet there is still real opportunities out there for well run businesses.

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