Don’t Print Off More Than You Can Sell

By Candice Adams

Book publishing is a lot of things, but an exact science it is not. In fact, it’s an educated guess at best. So what do you do when you finally get down to deciding the hard numbers of how many books you need for an initial print run? First day sales for Bill Clinton’s My Life exceeded 400,000, prompting the publisher to print 725,000 more copies beyond the initial 1.5 million printed. So does that mean that all books on famous people will have instant success? Hardly. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2005, the book Brad & Jen: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Golden Couple, shockingly or not, sold a meager 4,000 copies. There is no magic answer, but there are factors to take in account when making your decision.

  • Direct sales: You don’t have to be famous to draw a crowd. If you’re a public speaker with a lot of engagements, a decent following, and a large potential for back-of-room sales, assume that you can inspire at least half of those people to buy a copy of the book from you. Popular websites that already generate a fair amount of traffic can act as advertising space and give your existing audience instant access to the book. Also, never discount the number of people who you know directly (i.e., clients, colleagues, family, and friends).
  • Price per unit: There is one aspect of exact science in publishing that you can hold on to. As print quantities increase, price per unit decreases. It’s a good idea at the beginning of the project to get three print quotes, so that you can see what numbers work best for the price you are paying.
  • Timeline for reprints: Make sure to factor in time for reprints to reprint. For U.S. printers, the time frame is about 8-12 weeks; for overseas printing, you’re looking at 3-4 months. If demand is high enough that you need to reprint, then you definitely don’t want to run out and miss sales.
  • Marketing: Books unfortunately do not sell themselves, but when authors actively market their books, it creates demand. When there is increased demand, you want to have the supply to meet it.
  • Co-ops: Co-op is the intensely coveted space in bookstores—endcap displays, front of house, and forward facing books on shelves. This space is expensive and hard to get, but if you’re one of the lucky ones to get these highly visible spots, then buyers will often pull in large quantities of your book to fill the space.
  • Distribution: If you’ve got a quality distributor and want national distribution with the major retailers and independent bookstores, then you’re going to need more copies available than if you were going for strictly regional, online, or direct sale distribution.
  • Size of audience: If you’re writing a ground-breaking book on how to reverse global warming, then you’re audience is going to be a lot larger than if you were writing a book about knitting sweaters for kittens. If you’re writing to a niche audience, you might want to be more conservative in your estimates.
  • Storage cost: When books are not on the shelves, they have to be somewhere. Where you don’t want a lot of them is in a storage facility collecting dust as you are being charged per month, per book. A realistic print run in the beginning can save you a lot in future storage costs.

When considering the number of books to print, it doesn’t require that you err on the side of being conservative or liberal with your estimates, but you do want to stick closely to reality. You want to make the most money you can early in the life of your book when marketing efforts work and demand is at its peak. It’s impossible to predict audience demands, trends, and the overall success of the book, but an educated guess beats any shot in the dark.

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