In this age of email and WhatsApp (or WeChat in China), getting books manufactured overseas is more about ensuring wifi connectivity than battling time zone difference. And if real-time chatting is required, there is always Skype, FaceTime or Google Duo to the rescue. In cases where on-site presence for a press-check or a contract renegotiation is absolutely critical, then jumping onto one of the many flights out to Hong Kong and/or China is a mere call—or a click—away.
PW has a chat with two publishers who have been partnering Hong Kong and China print suppliers for a long time. Here, president and COO George White of Jumping Jack Press, and publisher and photographer Steve Coonan of The Rodder’s Journal share their experiences of, and views on, offshore manufacturing.
But first, a brief introduction is in order. Jumping Jack Press, established in 2007, is the pop-up book imprint of Up with Paper, which specializes in pop-up greeting cards. Its first two publications—Halloween at the Zoo and Christmas at the Zoo—are Moonbeam Children’s Book Award winners. TRJ, on the other hand, is a quarterly magazine for custom car, hot rod and vintage racing enthusiasts, and is famed for its photography and writing. One of its most recent special projects was The Rodder’s Journal Vintage Catalog Collection Box Set, which contains reproductions of 25 catalogues.
When was your first project in Asia?
White: Our core business is pop-up greeting cards, which we first produced in the U.S. In the late 1990s, we moved the production to Mexico, and then, at the start of the new century, to China. We have been using the same factories that have been making our cards in China for our pop-up books.
Coonan: I made my first trip to Hong Kong in 1995, and the intention was then to do the prepress there and print in the U.S. Several TRJ issues later, we started printing in Hong Kong as well.
What prompted you to look at Hong Kong and China in the first place?
Coonan: Cost is the main reason. When I started the magazine, I felt that there were a lot of good printers in the U.S., but they didn’t really serve the niche that we were in as well as I hoped for. We needed a printer that could deliver relatively high quality at a relatively low price.
White: Labor cost is an important factor since pop-up assembly is labor intensive. We look for the right combination of hand-assembly expertise, quality, price, and logistical support. And the factories we use in China—and we normally work with five to seven at a time—offer just the right combination.
What was your major challenge in outsourcing to Hong Kong and China?
White: Shipping lead time is the ongoing challenge. Orders have to be placed three to six months before we need them, and it takes at least another 30 days for the goods to reach our warehouse. So we spend a lot of time and energy managing our inventory to ensure we are ordering what we need when we need it.
Coonan: In my case, my inexperience in doing business outside of the U.S. was a major challenge. I had never travelled out of North America before my first trip to Hong Kong, and at that point I had only been in the publishing business for a couple of years. It was all new, and flying into the old airport—Kai Tak—was an overwhelming and exhilarating experience.
Any issues—frustrating or funny—in terms of communications?
Coonan: It was the biggest variable. At first, I did not know how to communicate when traveling around the city. I wondered if it was rude to just start speaking in English as if I expected people to understand me. But I got over this pretty quickly and found that Hong Kong was actually a pretty easy place to get along in.
White: I have tried to learn some basic Mandarin, but their English is always better than my Mandarin! Fortunately, each factory always has at least one person fairly fluent in English.
Coonan: Yes, it was not as much a problem since I dealt with an English-speaking customer service representative at the printer that I used at the time. For me, I was learning the publishing business as I went along, and so there was a learning curve.
White: So long as our team keeps in mind that English is their second language, it has not been a problem. For assembly or other technical issues, we use videos or even Skype for real-time visuals to resolve problems. The key is in finding factories with hand-assembly capabilities that want to invest in developing and exploring communication methods that meet our needs.
Do you anticipate any issues arising from the current U.S. administration’s stance on outsourcing?
White: No. The U.S. government is significantly divided, which means that current policies will continue largely unchanged. Too much of the U.S. economy is dependent on continued flow of goods between China and the U.S., and indeed the rest of the world. Any policy that would significantly curtail that will have no chance of becoming law.
Coonan: I am not sure about this. I do pay attention to the U.S.-China relations. I think what we do in Hong Kong will be largely unaffected in the short term. My strategy is just to keep an eye on the situation.
What are your recent concerns when it comes to manufacturing in Hong Kong or China?
Coonan: Our main concern is basically about getting the best value that is a good combination of quality at a reasonable cost.
White: Rising costs in China is an issue for us, and pop-ups require a very high level of handwork. Then there are potential production disruptions and delays in shipping. The latter is the most infuriating in that we have so little control over it. But the former will always be there.
What are the two biggest changes that you have experienced in the Hong Kong/China manufacturing industry?
Coonan: For me, the biggest change is the transition to digital in everything, from photography to prepress and printing. Technology has really changed in the 20-plus years we have been around. When we started we were called desktop publishers and now virtually all publishing falls into that category. As a guy who started as a photographer, I clung to film for as long as possible. But now I believe that digital photography has advantages that outweigh traditional film photography for magazine reproduction.
White: Firstly, there is the normalization of the process. It was so strange and foreign to outsource to China at first. Fifteen years later, we are accustomed to it. Technology makes the process easy but it is also a mindset. Then there is the evolution of the client-supplier partnership. When we first started, we pretty much told the suppliers what we wanted, and they produced it. Over time, as they developed expertise and an understanding of our business and branding, it is much more of a partnership, where they will make suggestions for improvement, or even catch errors we have made.
What about changes on your side?
White: Cost is certainly more of a focus now than when we first moved to Chinese factories. I am also much more attuned on what to look for in the factories in terms of worker welfare, and social and environmental concerns. But it is rare for me to see an issue of concern since the factories we work with have passed major U.S. company audits.
Coonan: One thing that we have learned is that, for a small publisher like us, it is best to let the printer source the paper.
How many print suppliers do you use in China or Hong Kong?
Coonan: At this point, we are really only using one supplier on a regular basis, and that is Magnum Offset in Hong Kong.
White: We use four on a regular basis, and up to three others depending on the need. We have used the two largest—Hung Hing and Starlite—for specific products, including our highest quality Howler card for Universal and some of our books. But our main product lines are primarily produced at smaller factories that focus on hand-assembly and paper-engineered products.
Coonan: Hong Kong is a good source of printing, with plenty of printers offering quality work. I have used a few printers there, but I have been working with Magnum for more than a decade now.
Please talk about one particularly challenging project.
White: The aforementioned Howler card, which was produced at both Hung Hing and Starlite, has been most interesting. We needed the highest quality re-recordable sound chip and hand-assemble it at a plant that has passed the Universal audit, which is among the toughest. How to trigger the sound chip, assemble the cards correctly, and do that for a significant volume was the big challenge.
Coonan: The most complex thing for us is in trying to get the color in the magazine where we want it to be. We take great pains to make the color as accurate as possible. Since TRJ showcases many cars with colorful and intricate paint jobs, we try to bring the look of these cars to the printed page. I always say that you cannot make ink on paper look like paint on steel, but that does not mean we are not going to try.
So what can you do or try?
Coonan: I usually bring a small metal part with the actual paint to Hong Kong. We do this for most of the major features in the magazine. I am sure this tests the patience of everyone from the car owner, builders and painters to my staff and the staff at Magnum. But I think the results are well worth the effort.
What is your advice to those thinking of outsourcing to China and Hong Kong?
White: Firstly, personally visit any factory you are going to work with. Meet the people in charge, tour the facilities, and check out other products that they are making. Are you happy with all three? Secondly, use direct English without idioms, humor, etc. since it is their second language. Finally, make sure you understand the real time and financial costs of outsourcing, and evaluate that against your onshore options to make sure the China alternative is truly the deal it appears.
Coonan: I think the secret is to involve your printer of choice in the project from start to finish. It is very important to communicate just what you are looking for—and this can be a problem in any business, not just in printing, and not just in Hong Kong. While you cannot get good results without a good printer, quality control is ultimately the responsibility of the publisher. You just have to find a printer that you work well with. I believe the same approach works wherever you print. From my experience, outsourcing to Hong Kong is more a question of logistics than approach.