Library Services Centre

Print Run.


Those two words seem so innocuous, but in publishing, they tell you a lot about a book.


If you’re not familiar with what a print run is, it’s the set number of copies that a publisher chooses to print of any given book up front. That decision is made by the publisher in the early planning stages, and is entirely based on how many copies they think they can sell up front.


Setting a print run is no easy feat. When you purchase a book for your library system, you’re using your knowledge of the author or subject to determine how many copies you think you’ll need right away to satisfy demand from your patrons, while still working within your budget. 


Most libraries also don't want a collection entirely comprised of top 40 picks, and making room for sleeper hits , award-winners, and midlist may require buying fewer copies of the 8 Danielle Steel books published annually. It’s a tricky balance, and is often impossible to get just right. Too few and the holds get out of control, too many, and they sit on a shelf collecting dust. 


Now imagine making this decision not only for your library, but for thousands of bookstore/library customers across Canada and the U.S. Print too few and you risk not having enough to fill customer orders which is never a good thing. Print too many, and there can be financial consequences for a publisher. Every unsold copy represents dollars that could have gone into publishng or promoting another title, and  in this case, having a lot of leftovers doesn’t make anyone happy.


The author’s previous sales, and bookstore/wholesale pre-orders definitely factor into deciding whether to print 100 or a million, as do factors such as whether film rights have already been acquired, the interest there was at auction (yes, books go to auction too), enthusiasm by staff at the publishing house, and whether it’s a book by a celebrity.


You might be wondering what a print run actually means, and why anybody cares about it. To the average person, it means nothing directly. Publishers generally don’t share print run information with the public, and the average person buying a book from a book store or signing it out of the library will never know how many copies are printed. However, that data is important on several other levels, some of which do indirectly have an impact on the public.


Believe it or not, the print run can have a huge influence on how well a book sells. The million copy plus print runs afforded to authors such as James Patterson, Jeff Kinney, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and a handful of others definitely tells you something about the publisher’s plans for the book.


A book doesn’t get that kind of initial print run unless the author is well-established and/or the publisher expects there to be a huge demand. These kinds of print runs are usually accompanied by a lot of pre-pub publicity online and in the media, and have a lot of marketing dollars thrown behind them.


For various reasons, some authors switch publishers at some point in their career, and a new publisher may drastically increase the print run, or drastically reduce it, which can signal the buyer to buy fewer or more copies. Bestselling author Ruth Ware, didn’t become a hit until she switched publishers, and her breakout was largely a result of her new publisher's enthusiasm for her work, and an active promotional effort. 


When you’re a bookseller/library purchaser, the print run information can assist you in making an educated guess about how many copies you’ll need, especially if the author isn’t as well known as the superstars I mentioned above. The larger the presence the book has, the more likely it is to become a bestseller, simply because psychologically, people are drawn to a large display and assume it’s an important book worth checking out. I’ve  discovered quite a a few authors by seeing their books in volume and prominently displayed so it works!


At the same time, while print runs can be helpful, they don’t tell the whole story and can be deceiving. While the extremes of a few hundred or a million definitely tell you something, there’s a huge range in between, and it varies from publisher to publisher. 100k might be at the top end of the scale for a bestseller for one publisher, and average for another. The print runs announced at the time the book is first annoucned is also merely an estimate, and depending on demand, it can go up and down.


Another thing to keep in mind is that print runs from Canadian publishers are substantially smaller than their American counterparts, and yet some of these authors are equally or more popular than the bestselling authors whose print runs might be 2 or three times larger. It’s a given that the demand for a new Margaret Atwood will be huge, but even she doesn’t receive a million copy print run from her publisher.


Books are a tricky business, no question, and lacking a crystal ball that can tell us 100% how popular a book is going to be, we use the tools such as print runs to make a judgement call about how many copies of a book we think we need. But as recent break out hits such as The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (print run 50k) or Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson (around 7k initial print run) demonstrate, you can’t judge a book by its print run!


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Happy Reading!



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