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How Many Should I Print?

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If ever there was a contentious issue in publishing, the size of the first print run is one. Look at PW Forecasts each week-first print run 50,000, the New York publishers proudly proclaim. Is that the number that actually rolls off the press? Very rarely. Should you feel intimidated and small because you are printing 3,000 and not 50,000? Absolutely not. There’s no need to be macho about your print run, in fact it’s a big mistake. The idea propagated by agents and some others in the book trade that the size of the first print run is indicative of the extent of your belief in the book is absurd and does very little service to the industry if it encourages bad publishing decisions to be made.

Determining That Magic Number

There is a simple good answer to “How Many Should I Print?” (and lots of bad ones). You should print the minimum quantity that allows you to reach your planned profit on the book at the pricepoint you have determined the market will accept, assuming that quantity bears a close relationship to the number of copies you believe you can sell at that price in the first year (or two, if the book is more academic in nature).You must not cheat on these numbers, so you must start with a number of assumptions that you feed into the equation. First, the price. The price you set must be established from the marketplace, not from some multiple of unit cost at this point. You have to know who you are selling the book to and the top price they will pay for it. Then follow up with your projected sales figure, establish the unit cost for printing that quantity, and work out your Gross Profit on the book. (GP = Net Sales less Production Cost and Royalties). There’s no simple answer to what margin you should aim at-it depends partly on what overhead you count against the book, and so on, but you should have a figure in mind as a percentage to aim for and never publish a book that doesn’t at least reach that figure in your honest projections.

Juggling the Figures

If your answer is below the projected percentage, you need to rethink. The easiest way of making the answer look right is to sit at your computer (or more probably stare at the back of the envelope you’re writing on) and convince yourself that you really could sell another 1,000 copies after all, and that extra run will bring the unit cost down and the margin will magically right itself. A spreadsheet will automatically calculate this for you and it is very easy to talk yourself into it. Don’t. The print run you thought of earlier is probably the right one.You could consider a price hike, but be very careful not to price yourself out of the marketplace. I can’t tell you how many good books get turned back at the Trade Distribution meetings because of carelessness in setting a price that is simply more than the market can bear for that type of book.If you can’t in all honesty get the numbers right at this point, you have to go back and look at the production specs of the book. Can it be shortened? Do you need a 4-color cover? Can you cut back on the illustrations? Is there a possible alternative printer? Would these changes really have a very bad impact on sales, or would nobody but you and the author know? Yes, it’s much easier simply to add $5.00 or 1,000 copies, but very rarely is it the right thing to do.Conversely, if the profit figure is way above what you had in mind, it’s possible that you are overprinting and tying up more cash than you need to (not to mention space in your warehouse or garage). As long as you know you can get a reprint in a timely fashion, you will be better off cutting back the run to the level that gives you your desired margin. If the book doesn’t sell as you had hoped, you won’t be left with all that stock, and you might have more cash to invest in marketing. Yes, it’s tempting to go for the highest GP you can get on paper, but unless you have the orders in hand before you go to the printer, your cashflow will appreciate caution. And the same applies to reprint quantities as well, especially when you never know how many returns you will get.

Sometimes Less Is Best

Honesty is the best policy in determining print run and its relationship to price and profit and cash. The various factors involved in successful print/price calculations must be objectively and independently calculated, and then work in your profitability projections if you are going to publish successfully. Sometimes a lower print run at a higher price is the best publishing decision to make. Sales units are impressive, but they don’t help a publisher if there isn’t a profit at the end of the line. Publishing doesn’t work like online bookselling.


This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor August, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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