Ah yes, it’s that time of year again and the sweet smell of program books are in the air. Right about now is when program books start to show up on performing arts organization’s radars and the panic starts to set in. First of all if you’re in this boat, you’re already behind the eight ball. Keep in mind, if you use advertising to offset your costs, it takes at least three months to secure the advertising, but even this is cutting it close.

Regardless, if you do it yourself or if you outsource, we have put some helpful questions together that you should be asking your staff if you’re doing it in-house, or your performing arts program book provider if you’re outsourcing. Asking these questions will help you get a better program book experience.

1. Do you specialize in performing arts program books?

There are all types of publishers, custom publishers, city magazines, local newspapers etc. and even printers out there. They all will most certainly claim that they can easily do performing arts program books. And let’s face it, in today’s print publishing industry–it is certainly tough out there! So why wouldn’t other types of publishers that are struggling in their own print publications look for other things to help diversify them? However, in reality, performing arts program book publishing is a whole different animal. First and foremost, print dates are true print dates in the performing arts, and if one deadline is missed, you don’t have program books for that night’s performance.  Publishers of other types of magazines have the flexibility to move a print date a bit if they’re running late on something so the sense of urgency is certainly compromised when working with someone that does not specialize in performing arts program books.

Second, the ability to be flexible on supplied content from the organization is crucial. Last minute changes are the world you live in and this should be understood by your program book provider as well as accommodated. If they can’t accommodate this tight schedule, they may not be the right program book provider for your organization.

2. How are the advertising sales handled?

This is an especially important question to ask if you’re looking at a local magazine or the local newspaper to help with your program book publishing. Will the local magazine publisher or newspaper bundle your program book advertising in with the advertising sales for their magazine or newspaper, or will they have a special sales force set up for only your program book advertising sales? If the publisher plans on bundling your advertising sales with their flagship publication, you can most certainly guarantee that your publication will play second fiddle! Performing arts program book advertising has a certain demographic that pertains to a select number of advertisers and you shouldn’t diminish your publication because of this. Also, you want a dedicated sales force on your side to act as an ambassador for your organization. What would you rather have:

“With a full page ad in our awesome magazine, we can also give you a free ad in this program book”


“Are you familiar with XYZ’s season line up, let me tell you a bit about the exciting shows that are coming and about the organization…”

The best way to see how this works for yourself and your organization is to call your current program book provider and act like a potential advertiser and see what happens. Also, don’t forget to call advertisers in your program book to get their feedback. Feedback is the breakfast of champions! This also works if you’re doing your program books in-house. If you’re in charge of program book advertising sales, you should be roll playing with the person selling the advertising to make sure they are presenting the image that your organization desires.

3. Do we get to keep our own branding?

You have a brand that you worked hard for to separate your organization from the others. You need to keep that branding for reinforcement in your community. You don’t want to be, and should not have to be pigeon holed into a one size fits all program book. Make sure your program book provider allows you to keep your branding.

4. Do you offer digital as well as a printed product?

Patron’s today will consume their content in all different forms. On the flip side, advertiser’s today plan, budget for, and expect digital advertising in their marketing mix. If your current program book provider doesn’t, or can’t offer a digital version of your program book, you’re going to be left behind. And no, we’re not talking about a page turn. We’re talking about a full blown, customized app of your program book with all the same content but more features expected with an app. Your program book provider should be including this at no additional cost or additional work on your end. Once again, if the program book provider has solid advertising sales, this should be part of the package.

5. How flexible are you with deadlines?

Is your program book provider relying on you to give them dates for content due, sponsor ad copy due dates, print deadlines, etc? Or is it the other way around? Remember you’re outsourcing your program books to make it easy on you and free up your time so you can concentrate on the more important stuff. If your current program book provider is not setting up your program book schedule for you after giving them the dates of your performances, you’re doing extra work that you shouldn’t be. Also, a good program book provider will email and call you with friendly reminders of deadline dates coming up.

6. What is your proofing process like?

Are you getting nickel and dimed for every proof? You shouldn’t be, period! This is a very lucrative revenue stream for custom publishers and especially printers. Printers love changes! Why should you have to pay for something that should be included in a performing arts program book management system? Remember, the advertising is how the program books are able to be provided to you, the organization, at as little cost as possible, or in some cases, free to your organization. If your current program book provider is charging you for all these little extras, this is a sure sign that they’re advertising sales are not very strong. Also, your program book provider should be very flexible with your proofing time because a good program book provider will understand that lots of times it’s just not one person looking at the proof’s but many people in your.

7. What is your customer service like for us and the advertisers?

Can you email or call your program book provider at any time of day (including weekends) and get an answer? As mentioned earlier, performing arts program book publishing is a different kind of animal, and because the majority of your performances take place on the weekend, they should be at your service during these times as well.

How about for the advertisers? What is your program book provider doing for the advertisers? Do they provide free layout and design? Do they provide free changing ads? All of this is crucial to the program book advertising buying experience, and if they are not currently doing this, why not? All of these can easily be tacked on as additional charges, which all leads back to poor advertising sales—revenue has to be generated somewhere else, and what easier way is there than to gouge the advertiser? Make sure your current program book provider are treating the advertisers like they should be treated—the one’s paying the bills!

8. What is your program book delivery process like?

Does your current program book provider leave it to you to track your program books? They shouldn’t because this is part of the service that you should expect. They should keep you apprised of where they are every step of the way, and advise you of any hiccups along the way, good or bad.

9. What happens if we have changes after we receive the program books?

Cast changes are to be expected in the performing arts world. Or how about the huge donor that has a mis-spelled name even after everyone in your organization looked at it? If your current program book provider has a strong digital version of your program book, last minute cast changes, corrected names, etc. can be changed and updated on the spot by your program book provider to keep you from any embarrassment and letting the show go on.

In summary, if your current or potential performing arts program book provider can’t answer all these questions, or if your internal staff has a problem answering these questions, then it’s time to move on and find a program book provider that can. Good selling!

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