A Publisher's Conversation with Authors: How Many Books Will Be in My Print Run?


It is Tuesday. Time to tall turkey. Monday's madness is over, and Wednesday will take us over the hump, so Tuesday it is for some serious discussion with authors. Tuesday talks mean to address authors in waiting and self-published authors who would like to go a more traditional route or who would at least like to take their steps with a publisher by their side.

Today's topic addresses a widespread misconception by new authors: print runs. Frequently, a new author will ask how many books will be in a print run. Clearly, they have read somewhere or heard somewhere about print runs for offset books. Offset printing is becoming less common though at one time it was the only way to print books; print-on-demand is becoming more common though at one point it was looked down upon as not being the professional way to do things. Let's examine both of these to help understand the concept of "print run."

Offset printing: books are printed from physical plates, an older form of printing that has been used for decades, not just for books but also for media like magazines and newspapers

    - Advantages

  • There is absolute consistent from one book to the next.
  • Especially with color there are not quality differences among books
  • Bookstores, for the most part, still want to buy books that have been offset printed.

    - Disadvantages 

  • Offset printing is very costly because of the need to cast the plates. That cost does not change whether you print one book or 2000 books. Thus, a print run of 1000-2000 books will significantly reduce the cost of each book as the cost is distributed across all books. The more books that are printed, the lower the cost of the books.
  • At some point, the cost of offset printing will be lower than the cost of digital printing, but that is the case only with large quantities.
  • Large quantities of books must be stored; they take up space; generally, that space costs money,
  • While books are sitting on shelves, they are not bringing in income. 
  • It is always a swagger as to how many books will sell; a publisher can get into trouble by investing a large sum of money into a print run that does not sell out; every book that does not sell is a loss.
  • One must manage inventory; sometimes, it requires hiring an additional staffer (or more) to do this with large, slow-moving print runs.

    - Considerations: Generally, print runs are determined by a combination of factors, beginning with how many books a publisher believes it can sell in a reasonable amount of time; for academic books, 1500 is a typical print run. For other genres, the print run will vary. Another factor is how much shelf space the publisher has and who the consumers are (bookstores, companies, individual readers) and what their expectations are for print run versus print on demand. Large publishers will generally have the storage space and the ability to invest more money upfront (hence, more books can be printed and held, pending sales). Smaller publishers cannot advance huge sums of money for offset printing for books that end up being stored for long periods of time or do not sell out the print run. 

Print on demand: books are printed from digital files; this is a newer form of book printing that appeared around the turn of the century, along with the concept of just-in-time manufacturing and minimal warehousing; it is gaining in prestige and in popularity even with larger publishers who see a better profit and loss ratio (or at least, turnaround time) with POD

    - Advantages

  • The cost of POD is the same for each book (although some printers might give a discount for large quantities). Thus, there is no need to offset costs through a large print run.
  • Printers do not have to invest money for storage; they can dropship from the printer for their individual and even large book sales.
  • There is no lag time between printing a book and selling a book; it is the sale that prompts the printing. Hence, there are limited storage costs and a very short time, if any, that a publisher has to advance money for printing ahead of a sale.
  • There is no need to guess at the number of books needed; the number sold is the number needed. So, the potential for big losses from overestimations on print runs does not exist.
  • There is no need to manage inventory (cost-avoidance)!

    - Disadvantages 

  • Quality can be inconsistent; while all books purchased at the same time will be consistent in appearance, ones purchased later can have slight variations in color.
  • There are still some bookstores that will not purchase from a POD publisher. (Note: this is not the only problem in selling to bookstores; return policies required by a bookstore can empty the pockets of publishers quite quickly.) 
  • At some point, the cost-effectiveness is greater with offset printing. In general, even with printing just 1-2 books, the POD cost is relatively high. (But not as high as printing hundreds of books to bring the cost down if all those hundreds don't sell.)

    - Considerations: Smaller publishers cannot advance huge sums of money for offset printing for books that end up being stored for long periods of time or do not sell out the print run. POD is a viable alternative for them. For self-publishing authors, POD may be the only affordable way to get their book into print.

The bottom line is going to be the bottom line. Unless you are a large publisher or independently wealthy, POD may be the only realistic choice. It can also be a choice even if you can afford to pay for a sizable print run. Often it is better to use resources for marketing and promotion, not for warehousing and printing in advance. Here is a similar point of view with some differing details. 

Lesson for today's Tuesday talk: There are choices in printing. Consider what is most important to you -- and what you can afford.

 Read more posts about publishing HERE.

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 (Publishing for Smarties: How to Find a Publisher available from MSI Press LLC; discount of 25% with coupon code FF25; currently on sale for $5, but that offer will not last forever).


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