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Ask a Book Question: The 41st in a Series (Inflating print runs)

By posted at 8:37 pm on August 2, 2005 0

Laurie noticed that she sometimes sees two different print numbers for the same book and wrote in with this question:

How do you find out how many copies are being printed of a new book? Is there a single website that lists this? I’ve only occasionally seen the number printed in a first run, sometimes at Amazon, sometimes other sites.

Unfortunately, publishers don’t publish that info regularly. You’ll see it sometimes in the publishers’ catalogs, and Kirkus or PW will sometimes have it in their pre-pub reviews, to illustrate to book buyers if a book is going to be really big… but it’s well-known in the industry that these numbers aren’t always accurate. For example, a publisher may say that the initial print run of a book is 50,000 when, in actuality, it’s much less. They cite the big number in order to generate some hype around the book, though since everyone does it, it’s not terribly useful. Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of PW recently addressed this issue. The article isn’t available online, but I’ve excerpted it below. She starts out by saying that Scholastic’s enormous print run for the new Harry Potter (10.8 million) is important both because of its size and because it is accurate:

The fact that Scholastic’s number is a real one is interesting to the because it suggests that publishing ways are changing a bit. It used to be that the routine inflation of first-printing figures was one of the only ways a publisher could signal enthusiasm to booksellers and the press. “We really, really like this book,” a first printing announcement of 100,000 would say. “We have high hopes for it.” Never mind that the “real” first printing was probably closer to 20,000; we all nudge-nudged and wink-winked and hoped that the buzz would inspire retailers and consumers to pay more attention. Maybe the publisher would eventually print and sell that 100,000–and if not, at least they weren’t going to be left with 80,000 returns.

But with a book like a Harry Potter, you don’t have to do that wishful-thinking kind of promotion: the marketplace (and, to some extent, the story-hungry press that begins tracking a big book like this months in advance) has already done it for you. You don’t have to tap-dance, you don’t have to inflate, you don’t have to fudge the numbers.

With smaller books, of course, publishers still do a fair amount of fibbing–and they continue to do so even though they know that nobody–except, sometimes, the naive first-time author–believes them. That darling, brilliant, moving debut novel you’re going to love supposedly shipped 50,000? Get real: everybody knows it was probably closer to 15,000.

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