There’s always a lot of chatter on authors’ blogs about how to improve our sales, how to hit bestseller lists, etc., etc.Â 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.Â
And that’s the size of your print run.
Not that the author has any power over it.Â 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.Â Â Â
TheÂ print run is the number of copies that the publisher prints of your book.Â (I’m going to stick with hardcover numbers here, just to be consistent.)Â A high print run indicates the publisher has a lot of faith in the book and expects it to sell well.Â Â It alsoÂ 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.Â (cautionary note: PublishersÂ sometimes lie about print runs.Â What you see announced in Publishers Weekly is often wildly inflated.Â 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.Â The reality may be much smaller.)
How does the publisher come up with the decision to print, say, 100,000 hardcover copies ofÂ a novel we’ll callÂ BIG GAMBLE?Â Among theÂ figures they’ll go by are the author’s previous sales,Â and the number of bookstore pre-orders.Â If Borders and Barnes and Noble order 50,000 copies, then you can bet the print run is going to be pretty hefty.Â A film rights sale, media attention, author celebrity, andÂ in-house enthusiasm will also drive up the print run.Â The larger the print run, the better the chance the book will hit national bestseller lists.Â Part of it isÂ just the visual impact of seeing huge stacks of BIG GAMBLE inÂ a bookstore — customers see those stacks, assume the book must be important, and are inclined to check it out.Â (Seeing only one or two copies of a new novel, conversely, may make the customer think it must not be a very popular book.)Â To sell a lot of books, you have to display a lot of books, just to catch the customers’ attention.Â 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.Â Â
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.Â 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.Â Then the book sells 100,000 copies.Â That leavesÂ 400,000 unsold copies, which the stores will ship back to the publisher for full credit.Â The publisher now has 400,000 of what is essentially unsellable wood pulp.Â They will destroy those books and take a huge loss.Â 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.Â Heads might roll.Â 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 considersÂ BIG GAMBLEÂ 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.Â Their sell-through would have been 83%, the publisher would be ecstatic, and the author would be considered a huge success for them.Â 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.Â Â 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.Â A run of 5,000 copies, for instance, pretty much insures that you will not be hitting any national lists.Â Â Based onÂ the numbers I’ve seen over the past decade, to have any chanceÂ of hitting the New York Times bestseller list (top 15) you need a minimum print run of 35,000 copies.Â That will get you a decent display in the chains as well as a reasonable presence in the independents and other outlets.Â It also allows for fast re-stocking should your book sell incredibly well the first few days.Â
Another note on print runs: they are not static numbers.Â 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.Â And maybe a third or more.Â That’s the best scenario of all — a book that keeps getting reprinted again and again.Â After repeated trips back to press, the book could end up with a massive print run and an ecstatic publisher.Â But this sort of success requires the publisher to stay on top of sales trends and reprint quickly.Â 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.Â This photo is from Singapore, with thanks to Janice!