I'm a recently published author. I just got my first-ever royalty statement from my agent, and it turns out my book hasn't earned out yet. I was surprised, because I heard a couple months ago that the book went into a second printing only three weeks after publication. I did some math for myself, and I don't understand how the book couldn't have earned out if the first print run sold out. Can you explain? Should I be worried something fishy is going on?
First of all, my dear, you should be very happy about the second printing--that means that the performance of your book exceeded expectation (as expectation was established after sell-in).
But to answer your question, no, you shouldn't be worried about fishiness. There are many reasons a book goes back to press, and all of them have something to do with stock availability (while only some have to do with sell-through).
Two things to remember:
1) Publishers only expect (on average) a 60% sell-through (in the US--UK and Commonwealth are smarter about their stocking and tend to not get as many returns, although exactly how much smarter I'm not sure). However, almost 100% of the first printing is shipped out to stores. The other 40% is returned after 2 months or so (or the laydown period).
2) Books always sell more strongly in certain markets than others. If you write a book about cow farming, it is simply not going to sell as strongly in urban areas as it does in rural, even if it becomes a national bestseller. So certain vendors will return in a higher portion than others, depending on your particular book.
You say your second printing was only three weeks after the book came out--to me that says that the book was selling successfully in various accounts, who then proceeded to run out. But they ran out so close to the initial pub date, returns hadn't come in from other accounts yet, meaning there was no available stock to send to the placed that needed it. Your publisher needed to reprint in order to provide stock to the vendors that were selling it strongly.
Another reason your publisher may have to reprint without selling out is a surprise order. This may come from a book club sale--some book clubs buy finished copies instead of printing their own. It may also come from an unusual account. Some of the box stores like Walmart or Costco come in with last-minute very large orders, and your publisher may have already printed without enough run-off to accommodate these large orders.
This means that a second--or even a third, or even a fourth--printing doesn't necessarily indicate that the first printing sold out. What's a better indicator of whether your first printing has sold out is how much time has elapsed since your book came out combined with the number of reprints. After two months, accounts that were not selling your book will have returned it, and those returned copies will be recycled to accounts that are selling. So if you go back to press after that two-month mark, for example, that's probably a very good indicator that your first printing is gonesville (in a good way).
Does this help?