BOSTON -- Walking around the show floor at Seybold Boston, I couldn't help feeling a little disoriented. You see, Seybold is usually the place where software and hardware companies roll out their latest and greatest publishing tools. But the newest members of the Seybold family have no boxes to sell, no platform requirements, and are as hard to distinguish from one another as the Olson Twins: they're Web sites offering online services to the publishing industry, and they're everywhere.
In truth, the emerging presence of e-commerce companies shouldn't be surprising. The rise of the dot-coms is a national phenomenon. You can do anything online these days -- banking, car buying, even grocery shopping.
"Dot-coms are the green shag wall-to-wall carpeting of the year 2000," said Mark Nieman-Ross of CreativePro.com, which is itself an online resource for design professionals. Web addresses are taking over billboards, television and radio ads and filling the pages of magazines.
But what is new is the acceptance these companies are finding in the publishing industry, a group that has traditionally regarded the Internet with a combination of fear and resentment. In fact, just a few years ago at Seybold, print publishers raised an uproar when it appeared that the conference was shifting its focus away from publishing to the web.
What makes this newest crop of Internet tools different is its message: We don't want to make publishers' irrelevant, say the dot-coms in a soothing voice, just more efficient. And to prove it, a whole host of Web sites unfurled their banners at Seybold and brandished tools to help print publishers get their job done quicker and easier. And the publishing industry took notice.
The most common flavor of dot-com companies attending Seybold were print buying and collaboration sites. There's a good reason for this. Currently, getting a project such as a magazine, brochure or catalogue printed is a complicated process. For one thing, not everyone involved necessarily works in the same place. Take a company brochure, for example: Your marketing staff may be writing the content for the brochure, but the artist may work at a professional design firm across town. And everything has to be approved by your marketing manager, who is currently working from home. Keeping track of who has what takes constant diligence -- and countless phone calls.
But this is only the beginning. Once the brochure is complete, it's time to look for a printer, which means a whole new set of concerns. This involves getting price quotes from competing companies, choosing the best printer and getting the project to them with the fewest problems possible. You must wade through a mind-boggling list of decisions about your inks, paper stock, color process, binding and more -- each choice adding to your price tag. And even after you have given the brochure to the printer, you are still not done. You have to be available to approve the final version (which can take several attempts) and then wait impatiently by the phone for word that the brochure is finished.
And that's just for one brochure. Imagine trying to publish your company's business cards, press materials, and perhaps even a catalog, all at the same time. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Did you sign off on the catalog already, or was that the press kit? Where did you put those quotes from the printers and did they get the note that it was 12 pages, not 16? Between the faxes and e-mails and phone calls, it can be hard to keep up with progress of each project.
This is where the dot-coms step in and strike a heroic pose. More than half a dozen Web sites launched recently promising to simplify this process by improving workflow and facilitating print procurement. The top names include Noosh ( www.noosh.com ), PrintCafe ( www.printcafe.com ), Collabria ( www.collabria.com ) and Impresse ( www.impresse.com ). Although each company has its own quirks and specialties, the main strategy is the same: make collaboration and communication more efficient by keeping all details of a project in one easily accessible place -- the Internet.
To get started with a new project, customers create secure online accounts that are accessed through a Web browser. There is typically no software involved, and Noosh and Impresse even offer training sessions to quickly get you up and running. All of the members of your team are given their own unique login, which determines what degree of access they have to information on the site.
For example, as a project manager, you might set up your account to provide access to every stage of a project. But a freelance designer might only have access to the files for which they are directly responsible. They can't alter content or view your budget information. They also wouldn't have the authority to sign off on projects, thus ensuring that everything follows the correct approval process and no steps are skipped. The Web sites provide an single environment through which projects can be tracked, approved and discussed. The project can also be archived so that if you have to print additional copies months or years later, you can access the previous project for reference.
Print procurement is the second focus of these Web sites. Most of the dot-coms operate on the theory that the publishers already have a small list of printers with whom they prefer to work. The sites let you send out requests for price quotes to these printers (or as many printers as you want). When you decide on a printer, you can invite them to join your online workgroup so they can also be a part of the collaboration environment. This means fewer phone calls and better job tracking once the project is at the printer.
Some sites, including PrintCafe, also take the stress out of choosing a printer by guiding you through the often-baffling process of submitting print bids. Before submitting your project to a printer, you must first wade through thousands of different variables and decisions that will affect both the look and bottom line of your print job. PrintCafe's Web site eases this process by offering templates for different projects such as business cards, magazines and newspapers, helping you visualize your project and then tailoring your options to the decisions you have already made. For example, if you select the magazine template, you will be asked different questions than if you'd selected the newsletter template. And with each decision your other options narrow as well. This will help you immediately detect possible inconsistencies or problems and will suggest alternative solutions.
Although it's hard to say if the current explosion of dot-com companies will be able to keep momentum once the novelty of buying broccoli and shoes online wears off, the new wave of online services directed toward the print publishing industry is certainly a welcome change. Judging by the size and proliferation of dot-com booths at Seybold, the trends appears to have a bright future. It's a message that the printing industry is all too happy to hear. Contrary to earlier reports, print is not dead... but the old methods of setting up print jobs may be.
Assistant Editor KELLY LUNSFORD ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers graphics, publishing, and networking for Macworld.