PMA members who responded to a blast about first print runs were—as you’ll see—generally in agreement about two things: it’s smart to start small, and there’s no surefire way to determine the best number, even for second and later printings. Definitions of “small” vary, though, and so do the factors that publishers recommend taking into account when deciding how many copies of a book to print. As usual, responses represented a wealth of experience. Highlights appear here.
Split Runs Make Sense
We usually do simultaneous hardcover/paperback runs to spread the fixed costs. But we also try to factor in who our audience will be—trade, educational, etc. When we balance the two, we’re usually led down a fairly good path.
For example, when we published Songs for America’s Children, we printed 2,000 hardcover and 5,000 paperback to start. We knew people would want to support this book because it was 100 percent for charity in the aftermath of September 11, and we also knew that shelling out for a hardcover is not always easy. Giving people the chance to participate was important to us. We have sold almost all 7,000 in three and a half years, and more or less proportionately in terms of format.
For our newest book, How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck, we did a split run of 3,000 hardcover and 3,000 paperback, but we will warehouse the paperback for a year before we release it to the trade, although we are making it available immediately for educational distribution (and if you know of any independent regional educational distributors or reps, please don’t be shy!).
We know the biggest sales will probably happen in the first six months, but most books will continue to sell as long as we continue to make public appearances. If we sell a first printing within two or three years we’re thrilled, and if it takes four or five we’d still be happy and probably reprint but not with the same gusto. Beyond five years? Who knows? As of now we’re very pleased with our forecasting, which also works well for our CDs.
The Kids at Our House
In Praise of Incremental Improvements
We specialize in children’s picture books and books with audio CDs.
Factors that influence our print runs include: likely bookstore appeal, special sales appeal, language of the edition, ability of the author and/or illustrator to promote the title. Our first print run quantities range from 4,000 to 10,000.
Since we print in four-color, terribly small runs don’t make sense. We expect not to have to reprint for one to two years.
One way small presses can outmaneuver big ones is by making incremental improvements between printings. For this reason, it makes sense to err on the side of small first printings, especially when publishing nonfiction.
No Panic with Major Publicity
In general, relying on experience rather than a formula, we do first print runs in the range of 2,000 to 5,000 copies. Even when we knew one of our books was going to be highlighted in an issue of People, we didn’t increase the first printing or rush to a second. Instead we alerted the printer that we might need time on press, and we kept in touch about that. In the end, we did go back to press two more times within about six weeks, and we never ran out of books (good news, bad news!).
Generally we budget six to twelve months for first printings to sell out. Way too often our first print run orders are too big.
Meredith Rutter, Publisher
The Review Factor
Pemberley Press publishes mystery novels. We made a mistake with our first print run, assuming that a book by a popular fiction author who had sold in the 10,000s with a major press would sell 3,000 hardcover copies. With no review from any major reviewer, we eventually sold over 1,000.
After another small mystery publisher told us that it never sells more than 2,000 hardcover copies no matter who the author is, we set first print runs at 2,000 hardcover for known authors. With a review from Library Journal, which we now usually get, we can sell almost 1,500 within the first few months of release. Without the LJ review, sales move much more slowly and require more aggressive marketing.
For unknown authors, we print in trade paper and find it hard to create a market unless the author continually promotes. With all the best intentions, this is very hard and expensive. Again, the LJ review is all-important, and to keep the price reasonable, we cannot print too few, so we’ve arrived at an initial trade paper run of 1,500 copies.
What BookSense Bodes
Here’s a hint: This seems incredibly obvious now, but with one of my first two books, I made galleys available through BookSense. Well, when fewer than 10 bookstores requested a galley, I should have known that it would be a challenge to drum up interest in that particular book and shortened my planned print run right then and there!
Rock Spring Press
Checking with the Chains
A first print run should be what you can be 99.9 percent sure that you can sell in one year. Or, as big as what you can fit into your garage or basement storage area along with a dehumidifier.
I always submit a dummy to the two big chains before I order a run to see if they are going to pick up the title. I have developed a pretty good rapport with the buyers in the children’s department and precede my submission with an email letting them know it is on the way. Then I check back after a couple weeks or so to see if they have had time to review the book and make a decision. I consider what they will order, and whether they will order, and add 500 to 1,000 for library sales and 1,000 for myself to sell outright at school visits and functions. If I get pickup from both chains, I think about 4,500 to 5,000 is a good first run, and I want my printings to last no longer than two years.
Brown Dog Books
A Printing with a Different Price
Selling through the first printing of my first book, Bicycling
Bliss (which is 473 pages and retails for $24.95), took 20 months. My first printing of 3,000 copies reflected a compromise between what I could afford to print and the economies of larger runs.
Sales have been strong to public and academic libraries, and I decided to make the second printing 4,000 partly to reduce the unit cost and partly because I was confident of my storage capacity, I had more funds, and I had increased the list price to $29.95, which increases my profit per book and gives me more latitude in negotiating terms (I made several minor changes to the cover and interior to increase the perceived value).
Having been a retailer for 24 years I believe it is wise to be conservative when venturing into the unknown.
Portia H. Masterson
Try 50 Percent
To get the proper quantity for a first print run, estimate how many books you can sell and then cut that number in half. If that number is 750 or more, go with offset printing. If it’s less than 750, use print-on-demand technology.
Spring Harbor Press.
Try 200 Percent
We print one year’s worth of expected sales, relying heavily on our distributor’s projections. Basically, we double the number they want initially because we know they like to keep six months of inventory on hand. Also, we use historical data about our direct sales (people buy books from us at retreats and on our Web site) in making projections.
Our first print runs range from 2,000 to 5,000, and we expect them to sell out in eight to twelve months. We have been 70 percent right; 15 percent too big, 15 percent too small.
The process lies somewhere between a gamble and an art. Pretty far from science.
The first print run is like the first waffle; there are always flaws that appear despite your best efforts. Better to start small and reprint than be stuck with a lot of books that you can’t move or have to discount. We recently sold film rights to our first book, and a screenplay is being written. If a film is produced, we will increase our print runs to meet demand.
Otis Mountain Press
Our books have an easily targeted customer base, and we have the good fortune of being well known in our field, so first printing decisions are easy. It is with second printings that we sometimes made mistakes.
Almost all our first printings have been 4,000 copies, which usually works out to be a six- to nine-month supply, although in some cases we reprint far sooner.
With a special 25th anniversary edition of our first book—a narrative called Cruising in Seraffyn that had sold more than 50,000 copies in editions from other publishers—we went slightly adrift. Our first printing was a conservative 2,500 in light of the cost of a 16-page color insert. It sold out before pub date because a major marine store chain wanted the book for a Christmas special. Spurred on by this, we printed another 2,500 copies. Three years later, we still have almost half of them. We had based our sales estimates on our other books, which were how-to, not narratives, and originals, not reprints. Fortunately, warehousing the books costs us nothing, and this is our only big mistake in our nine years as publishers.
Three Reasons to Go Low
We chose an initial print run of 3,000 for our first book, Rashi’s Daughters, because: it was a good deal cheaper per copy than 2,000, and not much more expensive than 4,000; we hoped to sell this amount in six months (we ended up selling out in three); and we wanted a small run in order to correct mistakes and add blurbs in future runs.
For the next book in the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, we’ll probably print a bigger run at first, but then we should have preorders from those who liked Book One.
Skinflint Saved from POD
I constantly thank my lucky stars that when I started publishing in 1996, I wasn’t online yet and I knew zip about print-on-demand printers and online publishers. A congenital skinflint, I would have fallen for their pitches regarding small print runs and failed to see how well my books sell when priced competitively. I sold out the first printing of my first big history novel (2,500) in two months, and my next printing of 3,000 in less than a year. I ran 5,000 and 6,000 for the third and fourth printings. My second big novel has done just as well, following in the footsteps of the first, except that I went directly to 3,000-to-5,000 print runs.
The only title I’ve printed POD (400) was a family memoir. It seemed the right book to experiment with, but it ended up being a pain. Every year I was faced with the decision of printing more or letting it go out of print. Responding to a trickle of orders, I printed four more runs of 250 at a high cost per book, because I kept thinking we would reach sell-through.
Finally I bit the bullet and paid the cost of resetting the book for a traditional press run of 1,000. If only I had printed 2,000 the first time! I should have realized my readers would be interested in the grandmother who inspired my life and writing. I would have saved a lot of money, priced the book better, and not seen red ink every time Ingram ordered it.
When I finish the novel I’m now writing—the last of my California trilogy—I’ll print 5,000 and expect at least half the cost to be prepaid by loyal readers. These numbers allow me to set the retail price low enough to move hefty books.
The time it takes me to sell out a printing depends on how much promotion I’m doing. Fortunately, I own a ranch with an old turkey hatchery that serves as a warehouse. This allows me to keep all my titles stocked in fairly large numbers. At first, stacks of unsold books jacked up my blood pressure, but now I breathe easier knowing they’re there. They give me more time to write—the work I enjoy most.
Bridge House Books
Distributors Set the Lower Limit
My first print runs range from 4,000 to 5,000. Each of my two distributors needs 2,000 minimum to begin selling a new title.
I used to start with 7,000 to 10,000, and that was too big; plus sometimes I had a lot of books out there in need of corrections that would never happen. So I like going smaller on the first run. Second run, I go to 5,000 to 7,000.
Bright Ring Publishing
The Author’s Effect
We are primarily interested in bulk sales that author appearances can produce, and we encourage authors to help in the planning for the first print run and all the rest.
Our smallest print run for a book is 1,000 units, but if we know in advance about engagements the author has lined up, we use numbers based on anticipated back-of-the-room sales, or orders from a host group that buys copies at a discount for every attendee, or likely orders stemming from consulting.
First print runs for us average 3,000 and have been as high as 50,000.
During the past 15 years, I have made the mistake of overprinting first runs three times and underprinting four times. That means that we’re about “just right” more than 75 percent of the time.
I just don’t believe there is a golden formula for choosing first-run numbers. As I tell authors, “I’ll print as many as we can sell. Too many books in a warehouse really aren’t books. They are fire hazards and dust collectors. So, help me move your title and I’ll keep reprinting as often as I’m ‘forced’ to print.” First print runs are important in that they get the book out there. However, if you have a good relationship with a quality printer—one that has excellent turnaround times—you can quickly get another printing out and into the hands of those who “must have” the books quickly.
Moving On Up from Kinko’s
I printed 300 copies of the first edition of The
Dietitian’s Cancer Story at Kinko’s and stapled them together there after doing the math and deciding that the total cost would not bankrupt me. If nothing sold, I thought I could give 300 copies away to my friends, family members, colleagues, and cancer centers.
Not very scientific and not based on any experience, but it worked for me. The first edition sold out in six weeks, and then I had the courage to print 500 copies the next time around. I now do print runs of 5,000 a year—and I no longer do them at Kinko’s!
Author of A Dietitian’s Cancer Story
Filling Availability Gaps
Because I sell 1,000 to ,1500 copies of a title per year (and create a new title each year), I print 3,000 on a first run and 3,000 on a subsequent run so I can get best pricing. When I’m down to 300 to 500 copies of a title, I reorder; and if I can’t quite make it until the press run comes in, I order 100 to 200 digital copies at a little higher cost to tide me over.
Because Dogwise sells books by other publishers in our niche—dogs (!)—we believe we have a really good feel for the marketplace. In deciding print-run quantity, we ask ourselves, “How many copies can we sell in the first year?” and then try to print enough to get us through the 18 to 24 months. We also take into consideration price breaks for various print quantities. Our print runs are 1,000 to 5,000.
The one time we overestimated demand for the second printing, it was because we didn’t look at the slightly declining numbers for this title in the preceding few months. When we underestimate demand and have to quickly reprint, we rejoice!
Charlene and Larry Woodward
Presold Copies Cover Costs
I believe that the first big question to ask yourself is, Will this book be sold to a niche market? I sell mine to the military, so I was able to do research on how many bases would be purchasing it. I think forecasting bookstore sales (and returns) would be more difficult.
When I ordered a first print run of 6,000 for my book’s first edition, I had already presold 1,700, and I knew that my costs would be covered. I budgeted about 16 months for that printing to sell, but it sold out in about 10, so I had a lag until the second print run (15,000) was done. The first printing for my new edition was 10,000 (I split the difference from my print runs for the first edition), and I expect to need a second run of 15,000 in nine to twelve months. I stay away from larger runs because my topic needs to be kept current.
Before printing my first book, I ordered 500 print-on-demand to use only for publicity and as samples sent to people with the authority to purchase. Then I called them and asked them how many they thought they might want. That was a big help in gauging how many to print.
Elaine G. Dumler