Print runs are the publisher’s way of announcing their hopes for a book. A large print run suggests best seller (or at least good seller) expectations. In order for a book to land on the best seller list, for instance, there has to be a minimum copies of books shipped to bookstores. When a publisher pays for a book with a huge advance, and backs it up with a lot of books printed, it signals to the book community that they should be paying attention to the book.
But large print runs can be a double edged sword. Jonathan Burnham, publisher of HarperCollins, ordered a print run of about 300,000 copies of James Frey’s book BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, which sold only about 80,000 copies in hardcover (Frey got a 1.5 million advance, and you can read about it here). 40% of books printed get pulped, so in this case the publisher probably expected to sell at least 160,000 copies. This means that, in selling about half the books printed, the book under-delivered, and the publisher got stuck with a lot of returns from the bookstores. (Tess Gerritsen has a good post on the nuts and bolts of that here.) In a nutshell, when an author doesn’t sell through at least 60% of his print run, the publisher will consider it a failure, and that number will count against the author in trying to sell his next book.
In the end, anything over 7,000 is a strong seller; over 30,000 is a hit; over 100,000 is a big best seller; most literary novels don’t sell over 2,000 copies. Another tidbit: Authors like to tout the number of books they have “in print” as opposed to “sold” because the number in print is always higher, and so more impressive.
There’s a perception that the book industry is whimsical and not guided by hard numbers, but that is not really true. Just as a film distributor carefully decides how many theaters to book a film on its opening weekend (3,000 as opposed to 300), publishers have a sense of how many copies of a particular title they can expect to sell. (But then why do so many titles seem to either wildly overperform or underperform? Well, those are the titles everyone hears about, because they’re unusual, and therefore news, and therefore written about in the media.) How do publishers decide on print runs? It is partly early orders from booksellers, in-house enthusiasm, and comparable titles. And also, I suspect, the publisher’s hunch.