Tuesday, August 04, 2009

print runs, for serious here

Argh!! I'm so IRRITATED with everyone in publishing who lies about print runs! Thanks to the Literary Saloon, who exposed this story vis a vis some clever footwork PW did. It's a great example of why LYING about print runs is STUPID.

Harper declared they'd printed 150,000 copies of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. PW checked Nielsen BookScan--which tells no lies*--and noted that only 17,000 copies of The Kindly Ones have actually sold through in retail. What a monumental overprinting flop! Right? Well, now that there's already soot on their nose, Harper confesses they actually only printed 47,000. They blew the number up by 3. Which... is pretty typical. Real times three.

Why this stupidity? Why?

Well, we talked here about why people want first print runs to be huge. There ARE reasons high print runs (or declared high print runs) are beneficial to a book, but this system is unrealistic and stupid.

Awhile ago, I wrote my opinion of a literary success--the answer I gave was any book that sells more than 7,000 copies. Check out the comments if you're interested--I was surprised to see how many people agreed with me.

Which means the figures we throw around--tens, hundreds of thousands, millions of copies--they're all made up, and make everyone have unrealistic expectations. Nielsen BookScan does indicate to anyone who has access that books that are great successes don't necessarily sell even 10,000 copies. A book that's a success is one that's well-written, well-reviewed, appreciated by its readers, and (ideally) one that earns out its advance. At least, that's my idea of success.

I believe in honesty with my authors and agents (and other people, too). But I HATE the sour notes in conversations when I'm talking to an editor from another house and bragging about a book--they ask how many copies we printed, I proudly say 10,000, and they go, "Oh..." I always forget that we're all trained to blow things up, and that that number sounds ridiculous to them.

Let's break the chain of stupidity, guys. I'm for all honesty, all the time.

*cf Mark Twain: "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." And Nielsen BookScan. Which represents 65%-70% of sales, usually, depending on the kind of book it is.

24 comments:

sadock said...

Huh. To me it is amazing to even think of artificially inflating the number. If anything, I'd be inclined to hedge the number downwards so that consumers would purchase more copies. I guess that's my background as the owner of a comic book store and knowing the value some first editions acquire coming to the surface. The world would be much happier if everyone had to be honest, but it just aint so :(

David said...

But realistically, won't a publisher be reluctant to buy an author's next book if the previous one sold only 10,000 copies? Despite good reviews and earning out the advance?

Even worse if the first book sells, say 11,000 and the next one sells 10,000. There's not likely to be a third.

Precie said...

I just don't get it. Is this the New Math? That's crazy.

moonrat said...

David--I really say 7,000 is the breaking point, even for big publishers. (The trouble really comes if authors/agents are trying to pull gihugic advances after first books that didn't perform up to expectations.)

At my tiny indie, where (granted) perspective is a little more modest, we would never say "only 10,000 copies"--10,000 is a number to celebrate. In fact, we're quite happy with 5,000. Again, indie perspective. But not THAT far off.

Charles Gramlich said...

There's less and less information in the world and more and more 'disinformation.'

sadock said...

I don't have the actual statistics, but I assume you are only talking about the first edition of hardcover sales, correct? Well, I work with Scott Sigler who has a book deal with Crown publishing. He got signed to a 3-book deal based upon a number of factors. I do not know a whole lot about the publishing industry, but I expect that multi-book deals are fairly common. Scott did well with the first book, and made the 'alternate' NYT best seller list. His second book made the NYT best seller list, but I think it only stayed on there for a week or two. As I said, I have no idea as to the numbers. Point being, he is self publishing the hard cover about to come out and he is only printing 3000 copies. Now why would he do a print run that low if it didn't make sense?!? He's gotta know the numbers better than anyone and he's self publishing these so it's make or break for him with this.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Mine is bigger than yours? I thought these micturation contests were limited to schoolyards and corporate boardrooms.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

This kind of reminds me of the Great Leap Forward in China where everyone was lying to the government about how much steel they were producing in their backyards ... all while melting down their own cookware, ignoring their crops, and watching their children starve.

Okay, maybe I'm being a little melodramatic, but pumping up numbers never does anyone any good.

Whirlochre said...

No doubt all the world's newspapers will tomorrow (once again) lead with something like Jacko Still Dead or Jacko Not Dead or Jacko And Elvis In Seance Grudge Match, but I'd like to hope that somewhere, one will run with




RAT BRANDISHES SWORD OF TRUTH WITH TAIL

moonrat said...

thanks, Whirl :)

Rebecca Knight said...

Just... WOW. For some reason, I'm still learning that people can be liar liar pants-on-fire even in the business world.

It's just so bizarre. You'd think that would make your stockholders cranky!

Thanks for the insight, Moonie! :D

editor out west said...

I had always heard that everyone inflates numbers because it shows buyers for all the important accounts (BN, Borders, Amazon, etc.) how serious you are about a title, as a publishing company. If we told them we're only printing 2,500 copies, they don't think we'll really be putting an emphasis on marketing and thus helping to sell the book. And then we've just killed the preorders for the book. Seems to me that the buyers have to evaluate their choices by something other than print run, then we can all stop talking about how big a print run is (because who cares, really, if that huge printing doesn't sell). Viva la revolution!

pacatrue said...

My print run was the mostest ever. I printed one gajillion copies.

Yes, my publisher is 6.

kathleen duey said...

Thanks for this post...

I think all the big publishers are making smaller print runs now, to avoid warehousing costs and other cash-drains. It only makes sense...

I think the inflated print run numbers are most common in promotional materials pre-release. A BIG number seems to make people think it's an important book that everyone will want to read. It creates that every-popular vibe of:

Don't be left out! Be the first one on your block to have...! Everyone is talking about...!

And, really, it makes me happy to know it is a fib in many cases. It seemed so stupid when I assumed it was true.

Anonymous said...

I agree with editor out west 100 percent. Neither B&N nor Borders would pick up significant orders if the initial print run was too low, and without those accounts, the book would be dead in the water.

Alissa said...

On what Editor Out West and Anonymous said:
Are B&N and Borders really that stupid? Surely they must realize that numbers are being inflated.

Liz Kreger said...

Incredible. I'd rather hear the honest numbers than something that's inflated. Personally, as an author published with a small publisher, I'd be delighted with 10,000.

Kiersten said...

My favorite part of the whole thing is the title: "for serious here"

For serious. Tee hee hee.

But really, excellent points, all of them.

Maria said...

Great info. (Including the previous posts on the subject.)

Thanks for posting it.

Kristin Tubb said...

My question is about the author - is s/he told the "correct" print run, or an inflated number as well? Surely the numbers given in contracts and offers aren't inflated? And then how awkward to see your book, which you know has a print run of X, being reviewed by Big Name Reviewer, which mentions your print run of Xx3. One couldn't exactly correct Big Name Reviewer, which seems to put the author in an awkward position as well.

moonrat said...

Kristin--one of the key problems here is that the answer to your question is YES, the author is lied to. Most editors give their authors vague or even misleading answers about print runs so they don't look bad. (I have at least two ridiculous stories from readers of this blog--they're bad. One of them was a 3x markup, one was actually a 5x markup.) Editors are taught to never give straight answers about anything--it's something I hope to correct with this blog.

Furthermore, there is a similar (if not as acute) kind of false buzz-building within house, to get different teams excited about the book. Which can REALLY backfire if you persuade (brainwash) people in the money positions of false potential and then are allowed to offer too much for a book--that's where companies go bankrupt, in stupid advances that weren't merited.

moonrat said...

(and also in production costs on overprinting--the printer will HARDLY take back an overprinted book the way a publisher is expected to take back copies that haven't sold.)

editor out west said...

Maybe you can throw the question of BN and Borders believing the inflated numbers over to Pimp My Novel? What's his take, as a sales rep?

Beth Groundwater said...

One thing to add to the discussion is format. 10,000 copies for a hardcover is definitely a success, while for a mass market paperback, 25-30,000 copies may be required. My mid-sized hardcover publisher considers their authors who sell more than 2,000 hardcover copies of one of their books to be very successful and will ask for more manuscripts from them.