The Print Run

There’s always a lot of chatter on authors’ blogs about how to improve our sales, how to hit bestseller lists, etc., etc.  People talk about the value of advertising and publicists and book tours — but there’s very little talk about what is perhaps the most vital element in getting on the bestseller list. 

And that’s the size of your print run.

Not that the author has any power over it.  It’s all up to the publisher, and the publisher decides on the print run based on a combination of hard numbers as well as a little bit of hocus pocus and guesswork.   

The print run is the number of copies that the publisher prints of your book.  (I’m going to stick with hardcover numbers here, just to be consistent.)  A high print run indicates the publisher has a lot of faith in the book and expects it to sell well.  It also indicates the publisher is going to put a lot of marketing support behind that book, because they’ve already thrown a huge investment into it just by printing up so many copies.  (cautionary note: Publishers sometimes lie about print runs.  What you see announced in Publishers Weekly is often wildly inflated.  So when you see that Rival Author’s new book has an announced print run of 250,000 copies, take that number with a grain of salt.  The reality may be much smaller.)

How does the publisher come up with the decision to print, say, 100,000 hardcover copies of a novel we’ll call BIG GAMBLE?  Among the figures they’ll go by are the author’s previous sales, and the number of bookstore pre-orders.  If Borders and Barnes and Noble order 50,000 copies, then you can bet the print run is going to be pretty hefty. A film rights sale, media attention, author celebrity, and in-house enthusiasm will also drive up the print run.  The larger the print run, the better the chance the book will hit national bestseller lists.  Part of it is just the visual impact of seeing huge stacks of BIG GAMBLE in  a bookstore — customers see those stacks, assume the book must be important, and are inclined to check it out.  (Seeing only one or two copies of a new novel, conversely, may make the customer think it must not be a very popular book.)  To sell a lot of books, you have to display a lot of books, just to catch the customers’ attention.  Also, if Borders has taken delivery of 30,000 copies, then their sales force will have an incentive to push that title even harder and will offer deeper discounts to move the copies.  

If the simple secret to hitting the bestseller list is just to print a ton of copies, why doesn’t a publisher do it with every book?

Because they’d go out of business fast.  That way lies disaster.

Let’s say the publisher, in its wild enthusiasm, decides that BIG GAMBLE is their fall money-maker and prints up 500,000 copies.  Then the book sells 100,000 copies.  That leaves 400,000 unsold copies, which the stores will ship back to the publisher for full credit.  The publisher now has 400,000 of what is essentially unsellable wood pulp.  They will destroy those books and take a huge loss.  Even though BIG GAMBLE sold 100,000 copies — which would constitute a very respectable, even bestselling figure — the fact that it ended up with such huge returns would make this book an unmitigated disaster for the publisher.  Heads might roll.  And the humiliated author might end up having to move houses.

That’s the danger of choosing too large a print run. You’ll end up with an unhappy publisher who considers BIG GAMBLE a failure — even though it sold 100,000 copies.

But let’s say the publisher had been a little more cautious and printed up only 120,000 copies, out of which they sold 100,000 copies.  Their sell-through would have been 83%, the publisher would be ecstatic, and the author would be considered a huge success for them.  Even though the number of copies actually sold would be identical to scenario #1.

The moral of the story is this: if you’re an author, be careful what you wish for.  A gigantic print run is not necessarily a good thing.

But you do want a large enough print run to maximize your exposure and your sales.  A run of 5,000 copies, for instance, pretty much insures that you will not be hitting any national lists.  Based on the numbers I’ve seen over the past decade, to have any chance of hitting the New York Times bestseller list (top 15) you need a minimum print run of 35,000 copies.  That will get you a decent display in the chains as well as a reasonable presence in the independents and other outlets.  It also allows for fast re-stocking should your book sell incredibly well the first few days. 

Another note on print runs: they are not static numbers.  If a book with a 35,000 print run sells like gangbusters the first week, the publisher will be going back to a second printing.  And maybe a third or more.  That’s the best scenario of all — a book that keeps getting reprinted again and again.  After repeated trips back to press, the book could end up with a massive print run and an ecstatic publisher.  But this sort of success requires the publisher to stay on top of sales trends and reprint quickly.  Because if the stores can’t get them, the customers can’t get them.

And it doesn’t take long for customers to lose interest in a book they can’t get their hands on.


And now, another photo of my books around the world.  This photo is from Singapore, with thanks to Janice!


19 replies
  1. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Wow thanks for the detailed behind the scenes Tess—
    This stuff always fascinates me.

    I always find myself looking at the front
    pages of paperbacks to see how many press runs a book has gotten. (and as you say, the more press runs, the more popular the book and the better the bottom line for both publisher and author)

    A couple examples at random off my bookshelf-

    Laurie Hales Anderson’s SPEAK–
    the paperback version I have says this on the copyrights page:
    12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
    I believe that means that copy is the 11th printing (run) of the paperback

    also–THE BOOK OF JOE
    by Johnathan Tropper
    BVG 10 9 8 7 6
    that SHOULD mean that the paperback version I have is the 5th printing for that run.

    And as an extreme example (since he’s so darn popular anyhow–) check out the same numbers of most Stephen King paperback books—
    you’ll see the numbers up into the 40’s and 50’s in most cases….thats dozens and dozens of printings of say, 40,000 copies with each run. But again, THAT’S Stephen King.

    But I have searched far and wide on the internet for the above kind of info you gave us a glimpse of Tess, and while it’s a mere slice of the big publishing picture I am sure many of your fans (many of whom are writers like me) are grateful for the behind the curtain peek that many publishers keep very tight lipped about.

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess!

    Thanks for talking about this… It added a lot of information to the bit I already had. It’s amazing how Publishers can make or break a bestseller just with a print run.

    I don’t know if you would know this or not, but what kind of difference in numbers is there between a first-time author the Publisher doesn’t really want to take a risk on, and a FT author they really want to back? Like, what’s the lowest they would bother with…?


    Great to have you back!

  3. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Hey Tuttle,
    You have your numbers wrong, the lowest number that you see is which print run your on. So in the cases that youve stated you have book print 12 and 6.

    Numbers generally given out by publishers however are usually word wide statistics, for example they love saying 100,000 copies sold already, its a trick used to show the popularity of the author.

    As mentioned Great to have you back Tess, its been real quiet without you, and I really cant wait for the next novel. (Incidently if your taking requests, can I ask that Manchester, UK be on the tour again as I loved meeting you that or perhaps Lancaster). LOL

    One of the things that I have ended up wondering if why in an age of syncronised film releases are books not released at the same time world wide. For example your next book is out in September US wise, yet January UK wise. Its a bit annoying as Im really looking forward to it.

    Anyway, nice to see you back, take it easy and remember Blogs dont kill people, writers do. LOL


  4. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess: Great informative post, as always. Regarding your comment that “the publisher now has 400,000 of what is essentially unsellable wood pulp. They will destroy those books and take a huge loss,” what most publishers do in this situation is sell these books for remainders, getting approximately what they paid to have them printed. The books then end up getting reshipped back to the bookstores and end up on the B&N/Borders bargain tables for $6.95. It seems that almost all hardcover books end up at the bargain table sooner or later, meaning that most books are overprinted.

    Your point is a good one that the better the publisher can predict and target the public demand, the better it is for both the author and the publisher.

  5. Tess
    Tess says:

    I don’t think many major publishers would bother to bring out a hardcover book with a print run of under 5,000. For a first-time author, a run of 10,000 isn’t bad. A run of 35,000 or more indicates they consider it a significant release.

  6. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    Thanks for the insight. It’s nice to see a current viewpoint on the inner workings of the industry.

    You mentioned sales to chain booksellers which got me wondering about sales to places like Costco. I’ve heard that they get a deep discount on books (but non-returnable, I think)–a discount so deep that it can cross a threshold and reduce the royalties payable to the author (unless otherwise negotiated).

    Is this the case? Since I was told this (by an editor) I’ve felt kind of guilty for buying hardcovers at Costco.

  7. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    I find it amazing that you always end up blogging about something I have been wanting to know.
    Pre orders and print runs have been on the forefront of my mind.
    BTW I just got a box full of REAL LIVE hardback copies of LOTTERY!
    They are beautious!

  8. struggler
    struggler says:

    Don’t worry Tess, I heard you the first time when you politely told me/us DON’T SELF PUBLISH but your latest set of numbers raises the spectre of SP (in my mind, at any rate) yet again! Suppose I finance the publishing of a 50,000 print-run of my own novel, having of course previously negotiated its prominent display across the entire networks of every major book retailer in my country? If sheer quantity on display kids punters into thinking that it must be a great book, then I say bring it on….

    Somehow I know how you and others will respond to this, but I just can’t stop thinking about it!

  9. Craig
    Craig says:

    [Here I go again on another of my rants.] Well, Struggler, I wish you well and hope the retailers in your country live up to their promises. I know of at least one retailer in this country, who, after cutting a deal with publishers to prominently display their books, reneges on its promises. I know of another retailer who almost ruined a small publisher by placing a massive order and returning a large majority in such poor condition that they couldn’t be re-sold; the publisher almost went bankrupt. The publisher in turn declared war on that retailer and wrote a book about the experience. [You’ll note that I’ve left out names here. I don’t want to make things any tougher for our beloved Tess than they already are.]

    I am convinced that the independents in our country treat books and authors with respect and realize, actually realize that authors are human beings. The Bone Garden will be prominently displayed in the “New Arrival” section for a month or so and any remaining copies will be relocated to a nearby shelf where books are filed alphabetically according to author. I would say off hand that a title would remain in the store at least two months before it was returned. They’re very careful in what they order and how many.

    Tess, did I mention that one of the local discussion groups featured Body Double as their choice two months ago?

    By the way, you wouldn’t think of Oklahoma as book country but did you know that Oklahoma City has 3 independents (including my second home), 2 B & N, 1 Borders, 1 Books A Million, 3 Waldens, 2 B Daltons. This isn’t counting the Best Buys and Wal Marts and this is just the north side of town. If you include the entire metropolitan area add 2 Hastings, another B & N and another Borders. If you include the surrounding towns you’re only looking at 750,000 or so. Amazing!!

  10. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    To be honest with you struggler, perhaps set up a website and have extracts of your work up on it. Its how Scott Lynch managed to get a publishing deal, it also gets your work seen and from there you have a certain amount of audience all taken care of without resorting to spending a fortune on the off chance that your work sells.

    Whilst there will always be a number of success stories from self publishing, its seen as a vanity to most people and reviewers rarely touch the books even if theyre sent free. Its a matter of fact and to be honest I think going website wise would probably be your best bet, you’ll also get honest feedback and you wont have spent a fortune on that print run.

  11. struggler
    struggler says:

    Thanks Craig & drosdelnoch – tbh I’ve put self-publishing on the back burner despite my comment above. Tess told me it doesn’t work and I believe her. But I might well try that website idea too.

  12. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Yeah, I was going to go the Self-Published route myself, but then decided that my writing and my time/effort were worth more than that. Most people that do SP really just want to see their book in print, but they don’t realize that publishers actually DO look at those sales numbers! If your book only sells a few copies, that’s very bad… but even if it sells, say, 35,000 copies, then that’s bad as well, because they think that the market for that book is now over saturated. It seems a very lose-lose sort of situation and walking that kind of fine line doesn’t seem very appealing to me at all… So, even in the face of rejection, I’m going to try the old fashioned way.

  13. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    I’m sure your first print runs are massive! But who decides how many copies to print the first go-round? What if to one person [in the publishing house] the story is solid and he or she expects it to sell like wildfire but another person doesn’t think that? Who has the ultimate say on how many prints will be made for a first run to ensure someone isn’t being thrown “under the bus” so to speak? Because I’m sure different people have different opinions of what constitutes a good book from a bad one. And surely readers will reflect on that decision as well with how many copies fly off shelves or not. But anyway, food for thought.
    P.S: Did you invite any author friends on your Turkey trip? I was looking at the picture of all of you, but I couldn’t recognize any familiar faces except for yours of course. Bonne chance avec ton nouveau roman!

  14. M.J.
    M.J. says:

    Great post Tess – but from the comments— first there are many hardcovers published every year by big houses that don’t have print runs higher than 5000.

    Especially in literary fiction there are lots of novels that have less then 3000 copies in the first print run.

    Overall its always about sell through and 85% of 5000 copies is still better than 45% of 10,000 copies. And breaking out can happen with going back to press. And does happen alot. Many hardcovers don’t make the list but establish a title and garner great reviews and then the paperback makes the list.

    The print run isn’t established by the publisher and adhered to regardless of the buy… its a wish on the publisher’s part but they don’t print the number until they have the orders. SO while they may want to do a print run of 35,000 they might wind up doing on ly 7500 when the orders come in.

    So they won’t just say, yes lets do 250,000 copies and do them regardless of the marketplace.

    Also I hate to start a war on this board but there are people who self publish and do it well and go on to do great… Vince Flynn, Zane, Christopher Paolini, Richard Evans… I wouldn’t reccommend it as a route either becuase its more work than most realize but about 40 books a year that are self pubsished do get picked up by major pubishers and go on to do very well.

  15. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    I’ve found that bookstore pre-orders play a large factor in the size of the print run; after all, a publisher needs someplace to send all the copies they print. A publisher can choose to print 50,000 hardcovers, but if there are no shelves to display them, they’ll sit in unopened boxes back at the warehouse.

    Pre-orders also go the other was too. I was recently contacted by an author who was told her book would be cancelled by a big publisher, because the chains didn’t pre-order enough copies.

    That said, the publishers can force the stores to pre-order more copies. They can buy coop space and offer the books at a higher discount. The publisher earns less per book, hoping to make up the difference in quantity.

    This is even riskier for the publishers, because big returns can mean disaster for the bottom line. But it is one of the only ways to get on the bestseller lists, and to get into big box stores (Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target, Costco, etc.)

    Speaking of foreign books, I just got back from a tour in Italy, and saw many copies of your books in the stores I visted. The chain Mondadori had stacks of your books.

  16. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess!

    Are you still working on the edits for TBG? Or have you started work on a new project? How’s it going either way?

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