Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

What Constitutes “Good Sales”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about book sales data in the print market and what, from a publisher’s perspective, constitutes “good sales.” It seems obvious on some level that a book that sells through its initial print run and/or goes to a second print run must be selling well while one that only has a 60% sell-through and never sees a second print run is doing poorly.

But I’ve recently taken another look at that assumption and realized how differently publishers might see this equation. When authors think about sales of their books, they tend to think about how many copies actually made it to readers. But publishers think more in terms of how many copies made it to booksellers–and didn’t come back. And that means it’s probably entirely possible for a book that sells through a second print run to be seen by the publisher as a “poor performer.”

Here’s why:

  1. It’s not just about sell-through vs. returns, but also about print run size.

    Print publishing works on economies of scale. The more copies of a book produced in a single print run, the less each individual copy of the book costs to print. This means that a book with a larger initial print run (which is based on orders of the books from booksellers) is poised to provide the publisher a better profit than one with a smaller run.

    This is particularly true in mass market paperback, where the publisher is offsetting the relatively low cover price by producing many copies of the book. Although I haven’t been able to find any data telling me what the “average” initial print run for a mass market paperback is in the US, I would guess that anything under about 25,000 initial orders would be seen as “disappointing” sales by the publisher. And if the publisher paid a fairly large advance and had very high hopes for the book, 25,000 orders might well be seen as truly dismal.

    In other words, it’s possible to have “poor sales” even if none of your books are ever returned to the publisher (in other words, you have 100% sell-through and 0% returns) because the initial print run number indicated there wasn’t as much demand for your book as the publisher anticipated/wanted.

    Look at it another way. Two authors, two books. One had initial print run order for 80,000 copies, the other for 20,000 copies. The book with an initial print run of 80,000 wound up with 40% of the copies being stripped and returned (meaning 48,000 copies are counted as “sold,” even though some might still be on bookstore shelves and not in readers’ hands). This is about average (around a 40% return rate) in romance, from what I understand.

    But even if the book with 20,000 copies sells out its print run and goes to a second run of 10,000 copies, which also sell through, the first author’s book sold “better” and may very well have earned the publisher a better profit (because a single print run of 80,000 books costs the publisher less per copy than two separate runs of 20,000 and 10,000).

  2. Why was the second print run necessary?

    A second print run isn’t necessarily a good thing from the publisher’s perspective.

    It could mean that your book is flying off bookstore shelves and booksellers are frantically seeking more copies to keep it in stock. That’s a terrific thing and it’s what most of us hope happens with our books.

    But there can be other, less wonderful reasons for a second print run. For example, your book may not have sold like hotcakes when it was first released and the booksellers, needing to free up shelf space for new releases, decide to return the remaining copies they have on hand for credit. (The average shelf life of a mass market paperback is 4-6 months. Copies hanging around after that amount of time usually get returned, unless they’re perennial sellers that are constantly selling and being restocked.)

    A few months later, however, something sparks interest in your book. Maybe it gets nominated for an award. Maybe something in it inspires a controversy that gets people talking about it. Whatever the reason, there is suddenly new demand for your book. The booksellers order more copies because it’s being requested and they can no longer sell the copies they stripped and sent back three months ago.

    The publisher, having absorbed the cost of those returns on the first print run, must now pay for a second print run, effectively printing at least some number of books twice to sell them once. That’s really not a good thing from their perspective, especially since second print runs are typically smaller than the initial print run, so the per copy cost is correspondingly higher.

    All of this means that, even if your second print run sells through, your publisher can still not see your sales as “good,” especially if the initial print run was small and/or the percentage of returns of that print run was very high.

This is all sort of depressing stuff from an author’s perspective, because there isn’t a whole lot we can do to affect/prevent either one of these from hitting us. But it does, I think, help to see the process from the publisher’s point of view. What seems fabulous sales data to us might not look that way to the publisher because of the factors I’ve just mentioned and probably others I haven’t thought of.

And that’s all I got for today!


  • Margaret Mallory July 30, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Jackie, this is a fabulous–if depressing–blog! Thank you for the useful & intriguing information.


    Knight of Desire-Available Now
    Knight of Pleasure-Dec 2009
    Knight of Passion-June 2010

  • Eliza Knight July 30, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    That was very interesting and good to know! Thank you!

  • Anthea Lawson July 30, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Jackie, you are absolutely right on with this post. A number of authors I know are not being renewed by their publishing houses because of the very fact their first print runs were too low. Despite some of the book having sold out the initial print run, and others being RITA nominees, the original publishers are declining to pick up the authors’ next books.

    The really hard thing about this is that your book is made or broken based on bookseller pre-orders (which largely determines print run). So unless you are really going like wildfire, your career as an author can be in trouble months before your first book even hits the shelves.

    This is why there is so much focus these days on ‘high concept’ and ‘selling blurbs.’ The marketing department HAS to have something to say in one or two sentences that will convince the book buyers that YOUR book is one they must order.

    It’s a complicated system, and one that aspiring authors need to understand. Getting that first contract for a book is only the beginning of what can be a wild, challenging journey.

    Thanks for helping shed some light!

  • Julia Hunter July 31, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Thank you for the insights. This is the first clear explanation I’ve read on this subject!

  • Samantha Hunter July 31, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    I think this is fascinating — and it makes sense.

    You mention having little control over print run– is is possible for agents, if you talk about it at the get-go, to exert some influence over print-run before you sign a contract?

    Obviously this is not something we deal with in category, but as I make my ever-continuing effort to move out into ST, I wonder about these things. Would it make sense to walk away from a pub who wouldn’t agree to a larger print-run? And how do we know what constitues “large” enough?


  • admin July 31, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Hi Samantha (and everyone else),

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Regarding your question about whether an agent could negotiate a minimum print run, I kind of doubt it. Publishers want to print the number of copies for which there’s an established demand, and until they get the orders from booksellers, they don’t know what that demand would be. I think it would be very dangerous for them to promise a minimum number of copies in the initial print run and then discover their orders fell far short of that.

    As to what constitutes a large enough print run, I think there are a combination of factors. My “bet” is that 25,000 is about the lowest you’d want to see printed in an initial run of a mmpb, but closer to 30k-40k is probably what publishers would really like to see as the low end.

    It’s also dependent on the size of the advance the author got in the first place, though. The higher the advance, the more incentive there is on the part of publisher to get as many copies as possible ordered in the first print run. Of course, this also means the publisher is more likely to have its sales force promoting the book to retailers really heavily, so the chances of getting that higher print run number go way up.


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