another question from googleland

Someone landed at my website after googling the following question:

“how do publishers decide print runs first second printing”

I don’t really know the answer to that question. Or, rather, questions, because the decision on the initial print run is a different (and more complicated question) than whether to reprint or not. If the book’s selling well and likely to sell out the first run, then you print again.

Or, mostly, I have heard horror stories like a recent unexpected bestseller whose first print run sold out flash quick and the editor had to plead with higher ups to do a second print run.

There are also houses that do such tiny initial runs that second printings are inevitable.

One editor told me that they go on instinct when recommending a print run. That if it feels like a 10,000 copy book that’s what they’ll ask for.

But, you know, I only got gossip. Are there any publishing people out there with actual information who want to respond?


  1. Livia on #

    The publishing company I currently work for (which is a non-fiction publisher, FYI) has a rather complicated process for determining print runs, and it’s a combination of instinct, input from a variety of in-house departments, and hard sales information. When the editorial team brings in a project to our weekly proposal meeting, they present a first print run which is based not only on what they feel the book can sell, but on what similar, previously published books have also sold. If the author has a big web presence and can do a fair amount of publicity, and is well-known in their field (in other words, a “platform”), then that bumps the number up. If we feel there’s going to be some competition from similar books by the time our book goes to print (for example, when we were looking at books on the Enron scandals), we’ll be more cautious in our estimates (or we’ll make damn sure we get our book out first). We also look at the format of the book – will it be a hardcover, or trade paperback, will there be a DVD or CD insert, will the jacket be four-color, what kind of paper will be used, will there be illustrations? All those factors can raise the price of the printing, which means a more expensive book. And a more expensive book may mean less sales. The number that’s finally chosen for the first print run has to reflect all of those factors, as well as be a number which we feel will sell out, thus earning back that advance we give to the author.

    Sometimes by the time the book is going into printing, we’ve realized we’ve underestimated the first print number – maybe the author has gotten some phenomenal press, booked a spot on the Today Show, or the subject is suddenly “hot”, and a mention on a website like The Drudge Report increases back orders. When that happens, we try to increase the first print run, but it doesn’t always happen. Ordering a couple thousand more of book X means a couple thousand of book Y may be bumped, and suddenly everyone’s schedule is off. Or the printing press may just not be able to accomodate us so quickly, and so the request for more books turns into a second print run. It’s all a massive juggling act, and sometimes we can get the book out quickly, and sometimes not. Our main goal is to keep the spice flowing, so to speak, and not have any large lags between the time the customer orders the book and the time they receive it, otherwise they’ll grow impatient and cancel.

    Granted, all of this is just how my publisher does it, and each company has their own way of dealing with print runs. When I worked at Tor, it was a bit different. And once the book becomes part of the backlist, the process for ordering reprints is based on other factors, which I won’t go into. I think this comment is long enough!

  2. Justine on #

    Wow, Livia, thanks so much for this! I believe it should satisfy any future print run googlers. And further confirmation that a big web presence is a very good thing for the selling of books.

  3. Livia on #

    a big web presence is good, but i’ve also seen writers with “friends” lists numbering in the thousands who haven’t been able to sell out small, limited print runs of books. i think it’s a combination of ‘interesting’ web presence (which isn’t necessarily the same thing as ‘big’), and a good “live” marketing campaign. that doesn’t mean people have to spend thousands on attending conventions, but they should be saavy enough to check into holding readings/signings at local indy bookstores, getting involved in workshops and classes, check into newspaper/radio interviews, and generally beat the publicity drum in their local haunts. web presence is good, but face-to-face contact is, in my opinion, a must. (so says the woman who has yet to actually publish anything worth hawking in person or public… :P)

  4. Charlie Stross on #

    My experience — as an SF writer on the receiving end — is that for the initial print run they guess, based on the sell-through of previous books and any other factors: just like livia says. And sometimes they guess wrong.

    I had one novel this year that came out in paperback after disappointing hardcover sales … and the print run sold out inside the first week, forcing an immediate decision to reprint. And I had a different novel (different publisher — okay, it was Accelerando) where they printed a bunch more than its’ predecessor — and which out-sold the predecessor’s entire first 12 months by a 50% margin in just 8 weeks, again triggering a reprint.

    An interesting point is that reprinting novels is fairly cheap and fairly fast; turnaround is a couple of weeks and a batch of as few as a thousand hardcovers can be profitable because the existing postscript files are available (and an increasing number of printers use postscript-to-press these days — no need to prepare plates, you just treat it like a godzilla-sized laser printer). However, the dust jackets have a longer lead time and are more costly to set up, so in at least once case one of my publishers printed a thousand spare DJs just in case they needed to run off some extra hardcovers.

    The real fun, as far as I can tell, is trying to figure out whether you *really* need to reprint, or whether the empty warehouse is going to re-fill itself from returns as the boxes of unsold books come back from the bookstores. IIRC scholastic got bitten by this with the latest Harry Potter — they reprinted a couple of million(!) and then began getting returns, in mind-numbing (hundreds of thousands) quantities such that although it outsold the previous title, they were left with a couple of thousand tons of unsold stock.

    Oh, to be in that woman’s shoes!

  5. shana on #

    What Livia said very well, definitely.
    and charlie – add distribution issues and he’s right on the money on the reprinting.

    to add to that: um… it’s also a big guessing game. a hope and a prayer and how much clout your editor has to pull, and how good her marketing & sales teams are, based on the good guesses she’s made before — which are instinct and common sense mingled in a unpredictable fashion.

    which is why publishing, although at its core, it is a business that sells widgets, is far less simple than selling widgets.

    [side note: Justine, will you put up a link to go to the next & previous blog entries? v. handy.]

  6. Justine on #

    Livia: Plus, we all know how much luck has to do with itl!

    Charlie: Thanks so much for this. Confirms my suspicion that it’s a crap shoot. And how could it not be?

    Shana: And why I will never really understand this industry at which I make my living . . .

    Oh, and as to your sidenote: Yeah, yeah, I know, it bugs me, too. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. If anyone can explain in simple language I’d be most grateful.

  7. shana on #

    Justine — this week’s Publishers’ Weekly begins with Sara Nelson’s editorial called “Nobody Knows Anything” … in which she comes to the same conclusion, really.

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