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.
Kids at Our House
In Praise of Incremental
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.
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,
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!
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.
A Printing with a Different
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
Having been a retailer for 24
years I believe it is wise to be conservative when venturing into the unknown.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Distributors Set the Lower
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.
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
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!
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!
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
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
The Time It Takes
We’re still struggling with
first-printing questions. Certainly, the first print run should be large enough
to make the investment of time and money in editing, design, typesetting, etc.,
worth it. We do run the “8 × print cost” formula to see if we come up
with a reasonable number for a retail price. Three thousand is the minimum
number that seems to work out for that formula, but sometimes we don’t want to
commit the cash and warehouse space to a 3,000 print run.
Our minimum run is 1,500; our
maximum (so far) is 5,000.
We hope the first run will sell
out in a year, but that seldom happens. Many of our books are regional fiction,
some historical, and these have a longer shelf life than general fiction (but
shorter, of course, than nonfiction). As long as we’re not stuck with copies
and no demand, we’re willing to give a book time and the author our support to
find the market. Of the almost 30 books in our current catalog, only three were
significantly overprinted in the first run. These three have been praised by
critics, but have not sold to our expectations—yet.
One tip in deciding whether to go
POD or offset for your first run: Comparing print costs for the POD company we
use for galleys and ARCs, and the company we regularly use for offset, we’ve
found that we can print 1,500 copies offset for the same price as 600 POD.
A Printer’s Pointers
Several times a month, when
someone asks me as a printer how many books to print, I answer with the
question, “How many books can you sell?” If there is a silence at the other
end, I know the publisher hasn’t done any research, and I recommend not going
to press yet. I also stress that the world won’t beat a path to their door just
because they have a book. It takes at least as much effort to sell books as it
does to bring them to market.
McNaughton& Gunn, Inc.
Small Was Beautiful
Our first run in 1997 was 500
copies. Darn good thing . . . I took one of those copies and got it to Tom
Peters, who then volunteered to write a foreword.
Page Business Plan Company
In for the Long Haul
Although we have published many
titles, choosing numbers for first print runs is still much like spinning the
wheel of fortune. We usually choose the minimum where the price break occurs:
1,500 to 3,000. We let sales happen naturally and order the next printing as
inventory decreases to 300 to 500 copies, to allow sufficient time for the
Experience has taught us that
publishing is a marathon, not a short sprint. It’s not giving birth, but
raising a child, and it’s the old story about the tortoise and the hare. While
we don’t have a crystal ball to determine which books are going to do well, how
and when, we stay in the race, giving it our best with continuing marketing
efforts, and look for long-lived, slow but steady success for our publications.