During a discussion I had on Twitter yesterday regarding the recent uptick in authors being asked by their NY publishers to take a new pen name, often with the intention of masking the author’s previous identity from booksellers, I realized that a lot of people probably don’t understand how print runs are set for books. I know I didn’t really understand the internal workings of this mysterious part of publishing until well after I was published in print myself.
So, here, in broad outlines, is how it works:
When a print publisher offers a contract to an author, they typically want the author to provide a certain number of manuscripts under the same contract. So, for example, an author might be offered a contract for anywhere from 1 to X books (I think 7 is the most I’ve seen announced under a single contract), with the advance for all those manuscripts set under the terms of that contract. In romance, the typical contract seems to be for 2 or 3 books.
When the publisher makes the offer and sets the advance, it does so by ESTIMATING the appeal of these books to booksellers, but it actually has no concrete idea of how many copies of the 1st book will actually be ordered. A publisher NEVER promises in a contract that X number of copies of each book will be printed, and the reason publishers don’t make such promises is that print runs are set based on orders from booksellers. The more the publisher has paid in advance for the book, the more its sales staff will probably do to market the book to booksellers in the hope of increasing the initial number of orders, and certainly the publisher has a target number in mind. Notwithstanding, there’s really no way to know what the print run for an author’s first book will be until the orders are in, which happens about 2 months before publication.
All right, so let’s suppose an author’s first book in a three-book contract has an initial print run of 50,000 books in mass market paperback. That’s a pretty decent print run, so the publisher is probably reasonably happy, provided they didn’t pay six figures per book in the contract.
Let’s suppose a “standard” publication schedule, so the next book in the “series” comes out six months later. When the booksellers go to order the second book, they are no longer looking only at the sales and marketing materials when setting their order numbers. They’re also looking at how many copies of the FIRST book were actually sold. So, if collectively the booksellers only sold 25,000 of the 50,000 copies they ordered of book number 1, the number of orders for book 2 is likely to be…you guessed it, 25,000. This is a practice referred to as “order to net” and you can see how it affects both authors and publishers from this example. If the second book in the series only has a print run of 25,000, it will likely be on fewer shelves and thus have less opportunity to attract readers. In all likelihood, when the third book in the series comes out in another six months, the orders will be even fewer unless the second book literally sells through its entire print run.
Now the publisher is not happy. Especially in mass market paperback, there is a law of diminishing returns, and once the print run drops below 25,000-30,000 copies, it’s tough for the publisher to make back their investment on the book, even if the entire print run sells through.
And this is why, if the publisher likes the author’s books and thinks there’s still a chance for them to sell well, they often ask the author to take a new pen name. Because if the print runs have spiraled downward like this (and they don’t always–some books sell through their entire print runs and even go back to second, third, and even fourth printings, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that order to net will hurt you), the orders for the first book in the next contract will be based on the author’s previous sales. Booksellers run under the assumption that their consumers have “voted” on their willingness to buy a particular author’s books by what they have bought before. By giving the author a different name (and trying to hide the fact that it’s the same author from the bookseller), the publisher hopes to get orders for the first book under the new contract back up to what they were for the first book in the first contract. This, in turn, hopefully gives the author a better chance to succeed the second time around.
Now, there are other ways that publishers try to avoid the problem of “order to net” tanking a new author that they hope will break out big. One is to release the books so close together that booksellers really can’t base orders for the second or third book on the sales of the previous one(s) because the previous ones haven’t been out long enough to establish sufficient data trends. I’m seeing this a lot more lately, and up to a point, it can really help an author to succeed. It can also have its pitfalls, though–if the books fail to take off as the publisher and booksellers expect, there can be a much higher percentage of returns, especially of the later books in the series, which in the end may put the author right back in the position of one who has been tanked by “order to net.”
But if you’ve ever wondered why on earth publishers would want an author to rebrand under a new name, even at the risk of her former fans not finding her books, this is why.