October 4, 2007
What's Your Print Run?
I was with a New York publishing consultant recently and asked, "Out of every ten publishers, how many tell the truth to book buyers about their print runs?"
Immediately he responded, "None."
It is common practice for publishers to include in pre-publication publicity the number of copies to be printed of an upcoming book. This number will often be found in trade ads or catalogs or pitch sheets sales reps take when they present a new list of books to key book buyers at book distributors, bookstore chains or other major outlets. If the figure is not found in print, one of the first questions, sometimes the only question, a book buyer will ask about the book is, "What's its print run?" No questions about content or its value or the author or endorsers or even promotion plans. "What's the print run?" is the shorthand way to find out how big the book will be in the marketplace. It guides the book buyer in deciding how many to order.
Apparently, however, according to my consultant friend, publishers don't tell the truth. Obviously there is tremendous incentive to fudge the number. The bigger a publisher says the print run will be, the more a book buyer will order. If it is common knowledge (and from many conversations with other industry colleagues over the years I think it is) that the number is bogus, why do book buyers believe it? Or, more to the point, why do they make their purchase decisions based on it?
Frankly, I am at a bit of a loss to explain it. Perhaps it is just that habits die hard, that giving a fictitious print run is simply an industry tradition that everyone winks at and moves on. More charitably, maybe everyone knows it is simply an expression of a wish or of enthusiasm by the publisher. The publisher hopes it will be able to print 50,000 copies or is aiming to print 75,000. But when they are presenting the book to buyers six to seven months prior to publication, a lot can happen before it is actually printed and the plan may change. The fact is that if a publisher only has 5,000 back orders for a book by the time it goes to press eight weeks before publication, it is certainly not going to print the advertised 75,000 copies. It may only print 10,000 instead.
Is there a solution to all this? Well, book buyers could be more skeptical. And, of course, publishers could be more honest. Even saying "Projected Print Run" would add a little more integrity to the process. I would certainly welcome other suggestions. After all, publishers live by words. We should therefore live up to our word.