Wednesday, May 7, 2008

All about Print Runs

I'm back!! The deadlines from hell are over!! (for now; they'll come back).

I've been pondering what to post on this blog, and many things have occurred to me such as:

Writer's Block
Thoughts on a five year career (which will be six-year by the time I get to this)
Print runs
Another rant about people who say there's no way you can get published in NY

So many topics, so little time.

I've decided I'll do this post on print runs, because it's a practial thing that every writer, sooner or later, needs to understand, plus I can write it in my sleep.

Even if you haven't been published yet, or think print runs/numbers are beyond your grasp, this is something you seriously need to know. (I'm talking about mass market, NY publishers in this post, btw.)

Once I understood print runs and percentages, my stress level went way down, because I can now predict how each of my books will do even before they hit the stands. No more biting my nails and glaring at the Amazon ranks wondering if I can lower them with the power of my eyeballs. (That doesn't work, btw.)

Oh, and I learned that Amazon rank is a piss-poor way of determining whether your sales are good or bad. B&N is a tiny bit better, but still not terrific. Those ranks are way off reality and don't reflect the percentage of your sellthrough, which is much more important. But I digress.

How print runs are determined:

Wait a minute, what on earth is a print run? you ask.

A print run, very simply, is the number of books the publisher prints of your novel right before it goes on sale.

More complicated:

Announced print run: Publishers "announce" print runs, usually for books they're very excited about and want to push. This happens before the book is offered to the distributors. These announced runs can look very good, but it is NOT the actual number of books they ulitmately print. I call it the "cheerleader's" print run (Give me a 2, give me an 0, give me an 0 -0 -0 -0).

Your book might acheive this print run, or it might not. Don't feel bad if it doesn't. No one is disapponted. Publishers announce a big print run to indicate enthusiam and support for a book they think will be big. It's meant to start everyone's engines.

Initial print run: This is more or less the number of books actually printed to be shipped to the distribution points and stores right before the release.

How is the initial print run determined? By the number of orders the publisher receives from distributors and booksellers.

About four-six months before release date, the publishers send their sales reps out to the distributors with a pile o' covers and data on their upcoming releases. The more excited the publisher is about the book the more incentives they will offer to the distributors and buyers.

Incentives can include coop (often offering the book to the distributors as a "buy one get one free"). They can include payment for placement at the front of stores, a "dump" (a single stand filled with one book), and other incentives I don't understand because they involve accounting.

The distributors will look at an author's sales history, how much incentive the publisher is willing to give, what the cover looks like, and other factors (like how well similar books are selling--this is why you see a slew of vampire books or whatever at the same time).

Yes, covers have to do with what distributors purchase, especially if it's a debut author with no sales history. That's because the books are being sold to the distributors/buyers sometimes before the manuscript is even finished, or it might be in the editing stages. These buyers don't even read the book--all they see is the cover and the sales line. (Scary, no? I guarantee you that so far the better my cover, the better my sales).

So--the publisher takes the total number of orders they receive (or promises of orders or whatever), and go back home and determine the print run. They'll print that many plus a little bit more to cover the re-orders. This is your initial print run.

A couple of weeks before release date, the books are shipped out to the distributors, etc. This is called the initial ship.

The number of books initially shipped will probably be a little less than your total print run. Or it could be the whole run

OR, even better, there could be more demand than anticipated and suddenly the print run is completely depleted by orders. This can happen before the book is even released or the same week, or a week after.

This is called selling out the print run, and from here you can go to a second or even third and fourth printing.

Selling out your print run does NOT mean you sold all those books (I wish). It means all those books were ordered by the bookstores/distributors, and the publisher's warehouse has run out. The publisher now needs to print more to fulfill the orders. (The print run can sell out, but the books can be stacked in the back of a store or sit three months at a wholesaler's warehouse unsold. You just don't know.)

Also, a publisher might decide to let the book go out of print and not print any more, for reasons known only to the universe and the accounting and sales departments.

However, quickly selling out a run is a good sign that your book is selling swiftly in the stores and the stores want to reorder to fulfill customer demand.

If the print run doesn't sell out right away, it's not a bad thing either. It means the publisher guessed right.

I've had books go to third printing within weeks; I've had them go to second printing after a couple of months. My early books weren't reprinted until after a couple of years, LOL.

You can guess, from your initial print run, about how many books you'll sell. The average overall sale of mass market paperbacks is 50% of the books printed and shipped. So if my print run is 70,000, I can expect that at least 35,000 will sell. At least. It could be more (which is good). It could be less (not as good). I'm pleased to say that so far (knock heavily on wood), my percentage has been more than the average 50%.

(An aside: It's 50% in romance. I hear that it's less in other genres--I don't know if that's right so someone correct me if so.)

BTW, hardback sellthrough needs to be better, like 70%, trade paperback also 70%.

Do we as authors have any control over the initial print run?

Not really. Especially not if you're brand new or in the midlist.

Your print run will also reflect where you are on the publisher's list:

A-level authors are the leads. They will get the most sales incentives and the biggest push. The most money will be spent on them. (I won't say they get the best covers because I've seen lead authors get putrid covers.) The publisher will print advanced review copies (arcs) for them and spend the most money and time on advertising and marketing. Publishers are looking for big print runs for these people.

Why? Because these authors either have a good history of big sales or they have such a fantastic debut novel that the publisher is willing to back them. The publisher feels that with these authors, they'll get their money back.

(Although--I hear many tales of the big, big, big authors getting such high advances and such unbelievable marketing push that publishers actually lose money on them. Loss leaders, I guess.)

Try this: Think of a genre, and think of the authors that spring immediately to mind. Think of authors who are household names, or the ones you see the most often in the grocery stores or airports. Those are A-level authors, the ones every budding novelist aspires to be.

B-level authors are often called the 2nd leads. They get more push than the lower midlist, but often not as much money/incentives as the A levels. However, these authors can do very well and get solid sales and pretty good print runs. B-level authors can often make bestseller lists (which you need a good print run to do).

C and D level authors are the midlist authors. C's probably get a little more push than D's. These books can sell solidly, and are kind of "bread-and-butter" books. Many authors are started here when the publisher simply wants to see how they do. (This is where I started, btw!)

Another point I want to make about print runs is this: That the success of your book is pretty much determined four to six months before readers even see it.

That's not to say the book can't do surprisingly well, or that your efforts marketing to readers is completely useless.

But realistically, most books are sold by word or mouth and by impulse buy. That's why we all want our publishers to get those front-of-store or end-of-shelf spaces at the bookstores and mass retailers.

So what can we as authors do to get a big print run and front of store placement??

Here's the answer (deep breath):


(Caveat: A damn good book that has wide appeal.)

Have a catchy premise.

Write characters that spring off the page and people can fall in love with (or at least find so interesting they have to come back to them again and again).

Write solid stories without plot holes or too much meandering or dead wood.

Write strong dialog between your characters and keep the most interesting characters on your pages at all times.

Develop a strong, full, interesting voice. (Please don't ask me how!! I dunno, except practice, practice, practice.)

A damn good novel is no guaratee you'll be put at the top of the list, get huge advances, and a huge print run. Publishers and distributors can guess wrong

But if readers think it's a damn good book, you're off in the right direction.

I hope you find this information helpful, and as always, please correct me where I'm wrong. I want to learn too (although I reserve the right to argue).


Jenny Gardiner said...

Hey Jennifer! thanks for the informative tutorial on print runs! I found it useful!

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks for sharing all that Jennifer! By August, I'll have 5 books in print and this information was still a revelation to me. I really have very little control over how my books do, so I need to stop stressing that I'm not doing enough to promote them.

It all comes back to the writing, doesn't it? We just have to write the best dang story we can and let the rest of the cogs in the big publishing wheel take care of it from there.

That is both reassuring and terrifying at once!

Back to the grindstone,

Farrah Rochon said...

Thanks for all the wonderful info, Jennifer. I'm still confused about the numbers game, so having print runs broken down in plain English is a huge help.

C.L. Wilson said...

Excellent--and very informative--post!

Colleen Thompson said...

Fantastic information. Thanks for posting. I'm going to add a link from Boxing the Octopus!

Unknown said...

Ditto on the thanks. I actually enjoyed reading about the numbers game when you told it!

N.J.Walters said...

Thanks so much for all the information on print runs.

I sort of had an idea about how it worked. Now I know how it works!:-)

N.J.Walters said...

Thanks so much for all the information on print runs.

I sort of had an idea about how it worked. Now I know how it works!:-)

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Thanks for all your comments and I hope the info was helpful. :-)

My apologies if it took your comment a while to appear. I had moderation turned on (I don't know how that happened), and sometimes I got a notification, sometimes I didn't. Sorry about that!

But thanks for the comments!!

Unknown said...

Can you tell me numbers?
What do you think how many copies will print a non-profit and small publisher?
How many can be their avarege print run?

Unknown said...

Hi Jennifer, I realize I'm commenting a decade late and I hope you are still around. My book is showing sold out on the publisher website and I am speaking at an event in 2 weeks and I'm terrified there will not be any books at the event. Thoughts for me? Or advice?

Unknown said...

"Hi Jennifer, I realize I'm commenting a decade late and I hope you are still around. My book is showing sold out on the publisher website and I am speaking at an event in 2 weeks and I'm terrified there will not be any books at the event. Thoughts for me? Or advice?"

Glad someone still reads this! It depends on your publisher--ask them if they have any books in stock. Sometimes they hold books for promo, or they might have ordered more but they're not showing on the site. All you can do is ask. If there are no books, don't panic. Take promo items like bookmarks or brochures about your work and sign those. Events and signings won't make or break your career. I was just at a signing where my latest book was not there, but it wasn't a big deal. People were still interested in learning what I wrote. Good luck!

Kevin Q said...

Some authors go around a sell their books in large quantities, one author, I've just read landed one sell of her book in an order of 70,000 books all at once, would you care to talk about this at all and how it's done, I know a little but not enough to do it myself.

Unknown said...

A person selling their book in one 70K order (I'm assuming self-published?) is highly unusual. They might be a non-fiction author, well-known in their field with a platform that attracts a lot of sales. She could have had a packager pick up the book and sell it on for her. There can be many ways that this happened, but as I don't know what author and what book, I can't speculate on anything specific (you can always try to contact her and ask her). But again, this is highly unusual for self-publishing. In traditional publishing (if she's with a large publishing company, and the book is hyper hyped), then one store or wholesaler could order that many copies at once.