OK, but did you update the catalog price/page number, description, item number, too?
November 23, 2010 9:58 PM   Subscribe

How are mail-order catalogs produced? Yes, I know....with ink and paper and a little elf who runs them through the postage meter. Actually...

Let's say I want to produce a mail-order catalog that combines quirky editorial content, fun design, and, oh, actual products. Kind of like these. What are the business/editorial/production processes that go into producing one of these? What software and other organization tools are involved? How are product descriptions, prices, item numbers, coordinated internally, and what keeps everything from becoming a giant clusterf*#k each time a new issue is produced? It seems like catalogs are a combination of "hard" data points (price, style, item number, color, size, etc..), art/design-work, and copywriting, which would seem to be rather like herding cats to keep organized unless there were some specific software tools and processes applied to it.

What does a small business need to know, do, and arrange to produce one of these without the mail-order catalog production process becoming a total distraction and negatively affecting successful physical store operations with in-person customers?

(Not so interested in mailing/postage/distribution issues; really interested in the nuts-and-bolts of creating, designing, laying out, etc.. the catalog itself).
posted by webhund to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are a lot of factors at play here, but from a production standpoint, I don't see a mail-order as being that much different than publishing any other periodical. You use publishing software like Adobe InDesign/InCopy or Quark Xpress, you outline what pages and spreads you want assigned to what stories, build out rough layouts for each, you assign the pieces to writers, you assign the artwork, etc, etc.

There's project management software to ensure people are meeting deadlines, editors and production managers to yell at people when deadlines are getting close, and people scurrying to deliver what they need by the time they said they'd have it done.

Descriptions and prices and the like are typically not any different from the prices you already charge, generally speaking, which should be tracked SOMEwhere... pull from there and populate the catalog that way.

Companies do have entire catalog departments, responsible for the layout, artwork, descriptions, and editing the entire thing. They are no small undertaking. But there is definitely software out there to facilitate the process and make it more cost effective. In the end, remember that mail order catalogs have been around since the 1800s. Imagine laying, printing, binding, and mailing THOSE piles.
posted by disillusioned at 10:25 PM on November 23, 2010

Catalogs may contain different sections, depending on what region or demographic they're going to. Some companies do extensive data mining and 'customer segmentation' to identify which groups are most receptive to what offers, and then from a selection of catalog building blocks may issue 16 different combinations of sections, each targeting a different group.
posted by zippy at 3:32 AM on November 24, 2010

When I have done this for smaller businesses, the simplest approach seemed to be to use the product database from the website rather than the often separate and less useful inventory. It has made sense in these smaller business workflows because a) You have copy for each item to work with, b) you have pricing for each item, c) the items are already nicely divided up in consumer-friendly categories and d) all of the product options for each item form part of the data set.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:52 AM on November 24, 2010

This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but on the Seinfeld show, Elaine worked at the J.Peterman company doing ad copy for catalogs. There were quite a few episodes that seemed to show some of the day-to-day workings of a catalog company.
posted by CathyG at 6:30 AM on November 24, 2010

I used to work for a company that did much of the production work for a major department store's catalog. We had a photography division that took the pictures of the product, a pre-press department that did image manipulation work (ie color corrections and other photoshop magic I know nothing about), people who worked directly with the client on catalog design/placement issues, and digital press systems for the proofs. While we had small run press capacity in house, the majority of catalogs were printed by a 3rd party.

In terms of how the process was kept organized, we had custom written software (the parts I worked on) that provided web based systems that both our internal groups, and the people at the external client could log into, that would merge the two workflows into a unified product. I can't imagine our process would scale well to a smaller retailer.
posted by nomisxid at 7:56 AM on November 24, 2010

I'm a freelance designer. Here's how I make a catalog for one of my clients. They're a reseller of restaurant equipment. I do all the designing and buy the printing; they provide me the product information, photos, prices and other data. A mail house does the direct mail part.

When I did this project the first time, they came to me with their competitor's 72-page catalog and asked me to bid on making one like it for them.

They sent me a comma-delimited data file to use for product names, prices and whatnot, along with a stack of product photos. We didn't have a ton of editorial content at first, but gradually, they're adding product reviews. I used QuarkXpress to do the first layout. This catalog has since migrated to InDesign. I might get hit pretty hard for saying so, but it doesn't matter which layout program you use. I've known people to get pretty good-looking layouts out of Word Perfect before (that person is a Postscript and emacs programmer, though, so YMMV). Just get to know your page layout program and be sure how you want your pages to look.

We photograph some products in their warehouse, and I have a couple of photographers I work with. Not many clients will want to pay for it, but I have several terrific illustrators that I use every chance I get as well. The catalog I'm talking about has three versions that go out at different times of the year, and I have a kick-ass holiday illustration I'm using this winter.

I can keep as many as a dozen proofreaders busy, both in-house for the client and my own freelancers. I use maybe 3 copywriters to write headlines and descriptive copy, though the client's marketing department works with them more directly than I do.

Some of the data is static (hardly ever changes) and some is dynamic (prices change for holiday sales and stuff like that). Their marketing people send me stacks of greenbar paper printouts with that information on it every round.

The editorial production team (I'm an honorary member) on my end shares a wiki on wikispaces with the marketing team on the client's side where they compose articles, share layout feedback (can you make the logo bigger? how would it look with the text all white on a blue background? that kind of thing), and set schedules.

tl;dr: it's more or less a teeny version of the system nomisxid describes, except 75% of the work is done by freelancers.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 10:04 AM on November 24, 2010

The company I work at now originally contracted me to do their catalog. There is no foolproof way to make sure it's not an epic clusterfuck, unless you are willing to follow the above advice and contract everything out.

The best way I've seen it done—in house at least—is to keep all of the assets on one drive, and nail down the details on a paste up board before you actually try and build it from scratch. Hire an Indesign monkey as a temp, hand him the stack of paste ups, and work him till he dies. He'll appreciate it, I promise.

Unfortunately for you, this means you'll have to include all the copy, content, and prices in the paste ups. We knocked out our 166 page catalog, with 3 people working on it full time in about a year.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:48 PM on November 24, 2010

Be sure to get the mail house involved sooner, rather than later, in the process. Some of the parameters of cost and reliability vis-a-vis mail will affect your design decisions. Long, narrow catalogues, for instance, almost always arrive mangled. DO NOT ASK ME HOW I KNOW THIS still traumatized.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:02 PM on November 24, 2010

Not only do some configurations get mangled, but some will not be accepted by the Postal Service at all. And some will be only be accepted at a higher rate. A good mailing service will know all the rules.
posted by faceonmars at 2:09 PM on November 25, 2010

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