On Writing,  publishing

New World of Publishing: What is a Print Run, Grandpa?

(I was cleaning up some old posts tonight and found this one from 2013. It applies even more today, so thought I would give it new life. I updated it just slightly for 2015.)

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 stores 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.

Fade back out of my dreaming-of-old-age-bliss to the present day. The sun is starting to shine and that future of my dream isn’t that far off. In the last three or four years, but even more strikingly in the last year or so, a new reality has burst onto the publishing business. And so far, traditional publishing has not even started to adjust to this new reality.

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.

So what am I talking about? I’m still talking about print runs. Yes, traditional publishers still (right now in 2015) just make a wild guess as to sales and then base all decisions forward in the book publishing process on that guess.

But things in other areas of the industry are changing and changing quickly.

For example, it is an usual bookstore these days that orders more than a few copies of a book for their shelves because they can get the book replaced quickly through their suppliers.

Bookstores are moving to sell-to-replace systems.

Indie publishers are print-on-demand (order) and electronic sales have no production needed once the file is in the distributor, so all electronic sales are to order as well.

And for writers and publishers with their heads still buried in the “print run” thinking, this change seems to be a horrid thing.

But I have yet to meet an indie publisher who can tell me even in a wild guess what the print run of their most recent book will be. (More than likely they would ask “By what year?”

Some History

Traditional publishers do everything in their power to project how many copies a book would sell to set their print run. Many of us call it “rolling dice on a Vegas craps table.”

This projection is based on the following…

— Gut sense of the editor and sales force.

— Previous similar titles and genre sales numbers.

— Previous author sales numbers.

— And then finally, right before “going to press” the actual orders on the book itself from other people along the sales chain making wild guesses.

— Toss in corporate politics and the personal tastes of varied players along the way and you have nothing but a mess.

This projected (guessed) print run is used in a ton of ways inside a publishing house. It controls everything.

— It determines how little or how much promotion a book got. (That’s right, if a book was deemed to have few sales, no promotion was given to help it. Yeah, backwards, but that’s how it has worked for more than fifty years and still does here in 2015.)

–It determines the author’s advance.

— It determines the quality of cover used for the book.

— It determines if the editor snaps off some passive sales copy between meetings, or if the sales force actually do the sales copy.

Then the book order is sent to a big web press, the book print run total is printed (plus/minus 10% as per printing contract) and the books are shipped out to the various warehouses, then onto the distributors warehouses and eventually into the shelves of the bookstores.

If the sales force told a bookstore owner or buyer for a chain that a book was going to be hot, then the buyer would order multiple copies of that book and return what they didn’t sell.

See how it works? Stores used to order ahead of sales to stock their shelves. Publishers print ahead of sales on just a guess and a by-golly calculating system. (This was called “Market Penetration” in the old way of doing things.)

If a store didn’t sell the books, they were destroyed and the publisher gave the store credit for the books destroyed.  And everyone moaned about the returns system.

Folks, for periods of time in publishing in the 1990s, the return rate was accepted at 50%. (That’s right, half of all books produced were destroyed. The most wasteful industry in the nation by factors.) And if a book sold too fast, a second printing might takes months and months to come out, letting customers move on and forget the book.

And this is how traditional publishing still does business.

What Has Changed?

Let me break down what has changed area by area.


First off, books can be sold, then created and shipped to a customer. So inventory controls can be very, very tight in places like Amazon and Baker & Taylor and Ingrams and B&N and so on. They don’t need to stock a hundred copies as they used to do because they know they can get more copies of the book in a few days. Now they stock a few for a quick ship when a book is ordered, but that’s about it.

To a traditional publisher, this tightening of book orders appears (in the old accounting systems and writer’s royalty statements) as lower press runs and lower upfront orders. So to publishers, books are failing.

And for writers, advances are falling.

(But it does not mean a book will sell less over a longer period. It just means that fewer books are stored in warehouses because of better electronic ordering systems.)


Even though everyone believes the myths that bookstores are dying, they are not. (But what do facts have to do with myths, right? FACT: Six years running there are more brick-an-mortar bookstores than the previous year. AND THAT’S NOT COUNTING ONLINE BOOKSTORES.)

However, the old-style bookstores are dying. That I agree with. The bookstores that insisted on stocking their shelves with ten copies of an author’s books. The bookstores that ran the old buy-and-return-half-their-books wasteful system. They are dying and not understanding what is even killing them.  (Most of these older bookstores claim online selling is killing them, don’t even have a computer controlled inventory system, and wouldn’t know how to start an online bookstore if someone offered to do it for them.)

The new bookstores are thriving and making money. They are the stores who sell not only to their local customers, but online to national customers. They focus on knowing what their customers want and only stocking one or two copies of any book. They are regional or genre-focused. They can get a book quickly for a customer on order and replace a book quickly bought off a shelf, either in the store or online.

In other words, the bookstores that are thriving and growing are using their shelf space to the max, plus using online shelf space to the max.

The bookstores that are growing and surviving and starting up new have moved into today’s electronic ordering world and are going great toward a fantastic future. But some of the older stores with owners still stuck in the past must still die off, sadly. Nature of survival of the fittest in business.

Indie Publishing

For the first time since this started, there is clear evidence that indie publishing is starting to really form a new model for the future. No matter whose data you believe, the shadow industry of indie publishing and small publishers controls a very large percentage of books on the market.

Indie publishing writers now have professional-looking covers that can stand beside anything from traditional and no reader will know or care.

Indie publishing blogs and comment boards have now convinced most indie publishers to do a decent proofing job on most of their books, so often (if not all the time now in 2015) indie books are higher quality than traditional books. Or at least the same.

Indie publishing is moving to producing more paper books. And realizing that they also can get into bookstores just by getting their book out there.

And even more importantly, readers and the newer bookstore owners are not caring who published the book as long as they can order the book for a customer who wants it through their normal channels.

As a publisher you need to get your book available. Then you need to make sure the bookstores know about your book.

Then, as always in this business, it comes down to your book. If the cover is professional and tells the reader the genre, if the blurbs are professional, if the opening grabs the reader, and if you have enough other products, your books will find homes if you are a good storyteller.

It always comes back to the writing. Always. You must continue to learn how to tell better stories all the time. And be productive.

But think about it…. When you put that new book up for sale, will you know the print run??? Or even care??

Nope. And why in the world would you ever limit your book, your work, your sales to a certain print run?

You wouldn’t, of course. Doing so as traditional publishers still do is very old thinking.


Many things are changing and changing quickly in this new world of publishing.

— Bookstores are selling and then ordering and using their shelves for only display for the most part. They are selling to order and selling online. When a book does sell off a shelf they replace it quickly. Ordering large numbers of copies ahead from any publisher, indie or traditional, is long gone for bookstores. Customers determine what a bookstore orders, often after a sale.

— Online paper ordering, either from your local bookstore’s web page or Amazon or Kobo or B&N has increased. The paper books bought online are often either produced instantly or replaced instantly by print-on-demand services.  The increase in this method of getting paper books has exploded in the last few years. And will continue to grow.

— Electronic books have made the idea of a fixed print run just seem flat silly. Yet traditional publishers continue to function with the same accounting methods, setting print runs, producing books to be shipped to massive warehouses where they sit and eventually are destroyed in the returns system.

— Indie publishing has allowed hundreds of thousands of authors to get their work to readers, directly to readers. And that means traditional publishing gatekeepers (agents and editors) are like the toll booth on the trail in the Blazing Saddles movie. Writer after writer will still line up to pay that toll, sure. But many more are just shaking their heads and going around.

We are in a great time of change in the publishing industry. One of the great changes will be the final end to the term “print run.”

Now a book doesn’t spoil. A book can last forever, be in print forever.

And should be.


Copyright © 2015 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime


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