is a smpmcer
Printing Impressions-June 2003 Column
Maryland Comp: A Survival Story
LUIGI CALLED me the other day, and it was good to hear from him since we haven't spoken in quite some time. He calls himself Luigi as do almost all of his friends. But he is not a guy that just arrived from Naples. He was born in Philadelphia, in the good old U.S.A., and his real name is Louis. He is of Italian descent and relishes in it to the extent that, well, he's Luigi.

It's just that persona which gives him a unique character that makes him likable, very popular and the good salesperson who worked with me for years. After all, you have to admit so many of us are Italian at heart. The food, the wine, the culture, the cars, Giorgio Armani suits-are compelling reasons to make me an Italian wanna-be.

But perhaps we should move on from dreams of driving a Ferrari through spectacular mountain roads along the Mediterranean sea to a little bistro on the Amalfi coast where the best linguine with clam sauce you've ever tasted is waiting to be savored.

When Luigi told me he works for Maryland Composition I was surprised, to say the least, that the company was still in business. Maryland Comp is a company that I knew back in the heyday of the book composition business. Frankly, I didn't think that this business could survive. Luigi told me that not only is Maryland Comp still around, but some of its contemporaries also survived. Of course, this peaked my curiosity and I had to ask Luigi to explain how they did it.

But first, understand that when I talk about book composition I am not talking about the typesetting of novels. Rather, I'm referring to what was the complex task of typesetting, making up and producing film for math, chemistry, biology and medical books with hundreds of images. Computer composition systems like Penta and Miles that helped automate the task, coupled with a highly organized production staff, contributed to a flourishing business during the '80s.

Although automation at that time is not what we think of today, it required highly skilled mark-up and make-up people. Even as desktop publishing was obsolescing traditional advertising typographers, the book typographer who had systems and personnel skilled in doing specialized titles still prospered-simply because of the complexity of the task. But progress and time caught up to even this niche and. by the mid-'90s, failures were becoming everyday events.

Luigi told me that Maryland Comp is doing what I have been writing about. They adapted to fit the new needs of their established customer base. For example, the contents of a biology book may have to be repurposed and sold as an interactive CD. Maryland Comp can produce and manage the entire project. By adding SGML or XML tags to the file, the material can be produced in a variety of formats, including the interactive CDs that they make and package for their clients.

Maryland Composition started in 1968 as a "comp house" primarily serving the publishing marketplace, with an emphasis on medical textbooks. The medical and technical industries were the driving force of their company-from the days of hot metal through the onset of cold type to electronic page makeup.

The onset of automation processes forced employees whose trades were composition and typesetting to become desktop publishing and prepress specialists. Improvements in technology and employees with shifting skill-sets could now offer the publishing industry and other marketplaces multi-purpose end products, as well as new products.

The problem with a number of composition and typesetting companies is that they did not view the technology and automation processes as a potential threat to their core business. The same changes that forced comp houses to reevaluate their workflows were the same changes that empowered many publishers to create their own internal composition and prepress divisions. This is the simplifying of our business that I discussed in my April column.

Maryland Comp believed that its true mission was always to be a content solutions provider (as they call themselves)-whether it was by pages created and put together on a light table, pages created through a Penta or Miles system, or pages created by converting information stored electronically in a database.

A business philosophy that offers the flexibility of adapting your services to customers needs, while giving you the opportunity to service new markets, is what has allowed some of these companies to be successful and eliminated others that could not make that transition.

Not that these transitions are easy. But such agents of change-updated software, new equipment and technological improvements-forced a paradigm shift in the industry. Is Maryland Comp a typesetting company? No, but it does offer typesetting services. They are offered under the same umbrella as its other solutions for managing content, such as catalog conversions, CD-ROM development, digital asset management, foreign language translation and editorial project management.

Marty Ostendorf, president of Maryland Comp, feels that his company has remained strong even during economic downtimes and transitional periods.

"With more than 30 years of offering in-house publishing services, we maintained our publishing clientele by offering project management on all phases of book and journal publication", Ostendorf states. "And we have also reached out to the printing industry as a prepress specialist. Our customers include a wide base of market segments-pharmaceutical, medical marketing, education, government, advertising and manufacturing. Even so, we are really just offering a variation of our original commodity-converted content."

Change is inevitable and is our only constant. Companies like Maryland Composition that are able to adapt to a technologically advancing world will still have customers to service and products to offer. Medical textbooks still exist-but now so do interactive CD-ROMs, asset libraries of stored medical images, online training materials and articles offered in multiple languages.

Maryland Comp, for the past three years, has been a division of Consolidated Graphics. As a result, Luigi has a whole host of products to offer. However, the main point is that Maryland Comp survived and prospered in a business environment revolution that many, including myself, thought would spell only one word for a company with its specialty-extinction.

But they knew that their key asset wasn't their specialty-of-the-moment; it was their solid base of customers. They are still here because they smartly explored and adapted to the needs of their customer base, as well as offering these new skills to new clients.

The products that maintain their existence today are very different than those in the heyday of book composition. As for the future, Ostendorf reveals, "If you can see the forest through the trees, the opportunities are endless-even for a company like Maryland Comp that started as a book compositor".

Harry Waldman

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