Initial Print Runs: What Are They, and Do They Matter?

May 30, 2016
Initial Print Runs: What Are They, and Do They Matter?

By Shannan Starnes Rosa, MSLS, Collection Development Librarian for Adult Materials

An initial print run is the number of copies a publisher produces for a title’s first release. In the traditional publishing model, the publisher takes several months to prepare a book for sale in advance of its release date. Part of the planning process includes making a decision about the number of copies to ask a printing company to produce, and this number is a reflection of the number of copies the publisher forecasts will sell.

Coming up with a number for an initial print run is a balance: the publisher wants to have enough copies available to meet demand, while not having a lot of unsold stock left over. It’s an important decision that can have significant financial consequences, so they really want to get it right.

Publishers announce information about forthcoming titles to build buzz and assist booksellers and library selectors in pre-ordering titles their readers will want, and they sometimes include their initial print run estimate along with synopses, marketing copy, publicity schedules, author bios, and the like. Prepublication information is available on ipage, Edelweiss, publishers’ websites, and many other sources.

As a collection development librarian, I feel that an initial print run shouldn’t be the sole criterion for deciding whether to buy a book, but it can be useful in deciding how many copies to order. An initial print run of 30,000 copies tells me something different from a 250,000-copy initial print run. However, any number should not be taken as gospel because often it’s just the publisher’s estimate at the time the title is announced, and that number can go up or down dramatically as the publication date approaches. The majority of titles are announced without any initial print run numbers included at all.

In the print-on-demand (POD) publishing model, an initial print run does not exist. Instead, a publisher works with a facility such as Ingram’s Lightning Source to set up an electronic file that is used to produce a physical copy of a book when a customer orders it.

Traditional publishers still find that it works best for them to use the traditional model when they can plan in advance to release hundreds of copies of a book on a particular date. For any other scenario, though, many publishers have found that POD is a very effective model. It’s great for small publishers that cannot afford the initial outlay of cash, and accompanying risk, that is necessary for a traditional print run. It’s also great for titles from any publisher, whether independent or corporate, that have a long “tail,” or low demand over a very long period of time; it’s costly to store a book that may never sell, and it’s nice for a reader to receive a freshly printed copy instead of one that has lain in a warehouse. Sometimes there’s a big spike in demand for a specific title, when many copies are needed immediately, and POD saves the day so that readers can have their books and the publisher can capture sales as quickly as possible.

Initial print run is just one of many factors affecting a selection librarian’s purchasing decisions. As the publishing industry changes, and technology advances, rest assured that Ingram will be here to deliver the books you choose as quickly as possible. Our team of collection development librarians is happy to help you with any needs you may have for ongoing selection or special projects. Please contact us with any requests.

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Initial Print Runs: What Are They, and Do They Matter?

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