Challenge,  publishing

And Old Projection Brought Forward For Fun…

What is a Print Run, Grandpa?

I wrote this as a start of a blog in 2013… Projecting what I thought might be the future.  Wow, took less than thirty years, except in traditional book publishers. Here is what I wrote eight years ago…


I can imagine myself in thirty years sitting in a bar, my cane nearby to fight off any unwanted advances from elderly women while Kris sits there laughing at my delusions. Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a young writer walks up to me and asks “What is a print run, Grandpa?”

And I’ll have to answer that back in the days before the oceans came up… back in the days when writers had to trek both directions in the snow to beg publishers with a tin cup in hand to buy our books… back in the days when agents kept our money and wouldn’t tell us what we had earned… back in those days a print run was the number of books a publisher guessed might sell.

And the young writer would ask, “Grandpa, why would they do that? Isn’t a book just produced when a reader orders it?”

And I would answer in my grandpa (get off my lawn) fashion that yes, they are. And bookstores only order a book when a customer wants it. But back in the dark ages when we had to beg and plead and hope royalty statements (even years after publication) were right, publishers just guessed as to how many books would sell and then stuck to that guess even if they were proven wrong.

At that point the poor young writer would walk away thinking I had lost my old mind. No publisher would ever do that. (Thank heavens he didn’t ask me about paper form rejections.)


Fade back out of my dreaming-of-old-age-bliss to the present day of 2021.

From all my sources, it seems that standard old profit-and-loss statements are still being generated in the decision process based on a projected sales (print run) for a book in traditional publishing. In other words, they are still just guessing and basing author advances and promotion and so much more on that guess.

Yes, I’m still talking about print runs. Yes, traditional publishers still  just make a wild guess as to projected sales and then base all decisions forward in the book publishing process on that guess, including how many books to print way ahead of any reader buying it.

Here in 2021 I have no idea why any writer would spend years and years chasing agents and the few remaining traditional book publishers just to toss their book into that mess and lose all their rights forever in the process. And then get ripped off by the publisher and by the agent. It just makes no sense, yet over the last week or so, I have come across three different writers still headed down that path.

I said nothing to those three writers, nothing I can say because they were so excited, one about getting agent known to be one of the biggest scam artists working.  The movie quote that applies is “Stupid is as stupid does.”

And two of them have already spent years at it. Years!!! Their writing does not consist of writing new books and publishing them, their writing consists of polishing their one book and working on writing better pitches to agents.

So on this Friday night, when things are dead and I finished my word count for the day on a book I’m working on and am now going back to laying out Issue #48 of my own monthly magazine, I thought I would bring just the opening of that old 2013 post forward. Amazing how accurate it was.

And sad that all writers haven’t finally caught a clue. A lot of great books and talent being lost.


  • JM6

    You could’ve done something similar with agents. (What was a literary agent, Grandpa?)

    On Twitter, this week, SFWA brought forward a website article from January of last year in which an agent wrote: “If you get a book deal, be sure to read the deal memo and contract and ask your agent about what the terms are and what they mean for you.” The agent writing it didn’t mention a law degree in her background; she didn’t mention lawyers at all.

    Now, I know SFWA is firmly in the traditional pubishing camp, but I was surprised to see them let that comment go unremarked.

    • dwsmith

      There is nothing about SFWA that surprises me.

      And most agents are not lawyers, thus are breaking the law negotiating a contract for you and giving legal advice. Might as well have your sales clerk neighbor do it.

  • Kristi N.

    I’ve seen a surprising number of first time writers still looking for agents and traditional publishers, and a few have been able to articulate that they are afraid of the work of self-publishing. (A few others are afraid their first book is not going to make any sales, and think traditional publishing is the way to ensure they get the sales they believe to be proper for a book.)

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, the flaw in that thinking is that a book will sell more copies if traditional publishers put it on the shelf than if an indie publisher puts it on the same shelf. Yet ask any reader and not a one of them bought a book because it had a traditional publisher’s name or imprint on it. Not a one. Readers by because cover looks good enough to attract them, sales sounds like a book they want to read, and the genre is clear. Anyone can learn how to do all those things while learning how to write a better story.

      Sadly, writers who think that way are not writers. They are authors with one book in them and done. Indie publishing is for writers.

  • David Anthony Brown

    I bought a bundle of online classes recently, because they were relatively cheap and I have no idea what gems they’ll have. But in the first workshop I dove into, the instructor mentioned something about querying agents in the opening video. So I guess the old advice still gets bandied about in certain circles.

    I completed my first novel in 2009 and only just now published it this year. That book got killed early on partly because of the rewrite myth (I saved the original draft file, thankfully) and the agent/trad pub myths. Took me over a decade to finally grow the backbone to indie publish it. Even after publishing a half dozen novels and I’ve lost track of how many short stories.

    The myths really hurt me, and there was nothing you could’ve said to me back in 2009 to change my mind. I wonder sometimes how exactly I survived those early hurdles.

    • dwsmith

      Well, sadly, most writers don’t. I spent seven years lost in the rewriting and polish myth and was about to quit when I found Heinlein’s Rules. They key is that you and I somehow made it through and shed the myths. Most writers do not and are gone in a matter of time.

  • C.E. Petit

    Just a couple of random notes, from someone who spent time on the Dark Side of the Editorial Desk…

    (1) They shouldn’t be called profit-loss projections, because they have nothing to do with either. “Profit” and “loss” cannot be accurately and indisputably granularized down to a single title for any operation with more than one person. They should be called “cost-sales projections.”
    Here’s an example. The numbers are real; only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
    BigAuthor1, MidlistAuthor2, and FirstTimeAuthor3 are all funneled in through the same editorial and production stack at the same imprint. (That is, same acquiring editor, managing/developmental editor, editorial assistant, graphic designer, cover designer, marketing personnel, production buyer, etc.) So, we can accurately allocate things just by estimated hours, right? Nope. Not even close. We won’t subdivide the rent, furniture, etc. for the editorial assistant’s office based on actual demands, even if they’re anticipated (e.g., MidlistAuthor2 writes so many letters back and forth — on lavender-scented paper — that there’s a whole file drawer just for his correspondence, and this is not hypothetical); we do it purely by number-of-titles without regard to anything else. And so on.
    On the best day they ever had, those spreadsheets and models (many of the parameters in which haven’t changed since the 1960s, such as the “six times extended cost/ten times PPP cost” estimate for the cover price, which also assumes that the long discount is 40% and that less than 5% of all sales will be high discount) couldn’t do what they’re supposed to. And it’s been at least three decades since the best days they ever had.

    (2) The example of “producing books to order” isn’t going to happen for at least two further generations of fast-printing technology, because books produced with current technology are not suitable for the library or reference markets (they just won’t last; it’s a combination of paper chemistry, glue chemistry, print durability, and outgassing).

    (3) Unfortunately, “breaking the law” is a slight overstatement in most states. In most states, unauthorized practice of law is at most a misdemeanor equivalent to a mid-range traffic offense, punishable only with a fine… and the definition is becoming ever narrower. In some ways, that’s good — those who are actually enforcing UPL provisions when they do so are not trustworthy, and are acting to protect their trade rights and not the public. (The Texas Bar tried to sanction Nolo Press not very long ago because Nolo Press publishes books that include legal advice, by lawyers; just by coincidence, that action was filed just after one of those books criticized Texas probate law for being completely unclear…) In other ways, however, it’s not, as in the “literary/screen/musical/artist agent” situation, in which the agents don’t just apply business judgment to truly standard terms (e.g., buying/selling a house in an existing subdivision), but are applying legal judgment.
    Saying that the community of agents and managers in the arts has poor judgment is being far too polite and generous, even for a weekend afternoon.

    • dwsmith

      C.E., only think I am disagreeing with is #2. Technology is actually better than offset and through Ingram Spark you can get the same exact paper that offsets use. Plus most of us Indie presses get into just about all library systems through about a dozen different distributors. And we hold our prices the same for libraries as well, unlike traditional, so libraries really like our presses.

      And not at all sure what you mean it isn’t going to happen? It has been happening for a decade now. And even more interesting, Pulphouse Books were all printed to order back in 1987-1996. On high-quality, acid-free paper and trust me, they are holding up a ton better than all those hardbacks and paperbacks from the 1990s.

      So you are way off on that one, but I agree with your other two points. Realize I am talking to beginning writers to try to get them to kill the myth of traditional. And every agent Kris and I had didn’t hold fiduciary duty with my money and negotiated contracts just like a lawyer. And called themselves agents, which we both know has added responsibilities of a nature. Just not my audience in this blog to go too deep. However, when a writer contracts me and wants deeper information, I send them to your great blog.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • C.E. Petit

        Remember, as we discussed off-site I’m looking at a much broader range of books than is ordinarily of concern to fiction writers; not just the 6×9 (or thereabouts) trade format, almost-all-narrative-text, but other sizes, illustrations, tabular material, and so on — and that’s just in trade. Now throw in all of the non-trade books (which is where the publishers make their big money — the average unit profit margin for Reed-Elsevier was in the 30%+ range in 2016, excluding the even-more-profitable limited-circulation periodicals).

        My real point is that the whole of “printing” isn’t ready to change because the high-profit-margin areas aren’t. That’s going to make things… interesting. And fragmented. And difficult to predict.

        • dwsmith

          C.E. is dead right. My focus is only on fiction and I know flat nothing about the rest of the publishing field where C.E. focuses are far wider. And he is right about the problems in the other areas completely.

  • Vincent Zandri

    You’ll get a kick out of this Dean. I’m still a bit of a hybrid guy, meaning I work with traditional pubs and have my own ever expanding indie list (I’m currently trying to write ten short stories and/or novelettes in ten weeks). Like you, I do this full-time and have been for 20+ years.
    But I have a manuscript, American Crimes, that my agent (I know you’re not into agents anymore, but I still work with one) wants to shop. Now, I’ve sold close to or more than a million editions of my novels, worked with publishers from Delacorte to Thomas & Mercer to Oceanview and many more. I’ve won the Thriller Award, the Shamus Award, been a finalist for the Derringer. I’ve nailed the New York Times, USA Today, hit the overall Amazon No. 1 spot twice and the top ten several times, been on Fox News, Bloomberg TV, been written about in the New York Times, PUb Weekly, Business Insider, etc. I have close to 10K FB followers, close to 10K Twitter followers, and a 10K subscriber list. In other words, I have a very solid foundation under me for selling books.

    And yet some of the big publishers right off the bat said they wouldn’t even consider a submission from me because I, get this, put out way too much material. An editor at St. Martins (a company I’ve provided blurbs for!!!!), came back and said, “This writing crackles off the page. I love this book…” But, he goes on, “I don’t think we could grow him in any meaningful way.” What???? What does that mean???

    My agent and I actually had to laugh at that. There is just no logic to this business, and it’s why I’m leaning more and more to the indie side of things. Trad publishing in in my humble opinion is just broken beyond repair.

    Sorry for the rant LOL….

    • dwsmith

      Totally broken because on top of that, they take all rights and you will never get them back. And yeah, too much drives them crazy. That’s why in my traditional days in the 1990s, I worked for four or five publishers at a time, under dozens of different pen names because I was far too fast for any one or two publisher. Too stupid for words.

      And even worse, they give you maybe 20% of net (and you pay an agent out of that) for electronic where indie you get 70% or higher if you sell it through your own store or other places like Patreon or Kickstarter. And considering that all they do it stick it in an almost dead trade channel and put it on Amazon like you can do, that is a hell of a pay cut.

      Traditional book publishing makes no sense at all.