Why it's Hard to Nail Down Print Run Numbers

Unless dealing with a title from small, independent publisher (say... Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule) I usually take the published first print run as an exaggerated suggestion.  For instance, if a press release announces that a debut novel will have a first print run of 150,000 - I usually take that to mean 50,000 or less. (Very rarely will a publisher take that big of a gamble on a debut novel - now, if the debut sells like gangbusters - like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games - then the next in the series will certainly garner the bigger print run, but again, the number may be inflated).

Back in 2009, Publishers Weekly posted that the first print run for Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones was 150,000 (assuming they got their info from the publisher, Harper Collins). For that same time period, Nielsen Book Scan showed only 17,000 sales - which gave Harper Collins a bit of a black eye - only 17,000 of 150,000 sold? Not a very good ratio. That is, until Harper Collins revealed that they actually only printed 47,000 copies.  And you can bet, in this era of e-readers & e-books, the number of printed books can only be going down. HOWEVER, since we're so used to the system, publishers can't just reveal that they're only printing a third of what they used to - they'd certainly lose face, but more importantly, they'd lose sales.

It's a game. The publishers inflate the print run numbers in order to boost sales. If the book seems more popular or gives the impression that EVERYONE will want a copy, then (Snooki's book aside) it usually garners higher sales. Higher sales are good for everyone, the author, the bookstore, the printer, the book reviewer... everyone, not just the publisher.

Sometimes the number announced and the number printed are actually within the ballpark of one another - I'm sure over 2 million copies of The Deathly Hallows were indeed printed. In general though, most publishers don't like to pin down the actual number of the print run, either because they genuinely don't know or because it might bite them in the ass. I can't say as I blame them either way, BUT as someone who likes to have the facts it would be really nice to have access to solid, accurate numbers.

Some collectors assume, and probably rightly so, that if a publisher doesn't announce the first print run numbers, than it's generally going to be a smaller print run (50,000 or less). In general, I assume that a first print run of 100,000 or less has the potential of increasing the book's collectibility.  That isn't to say that every book with a first printing of 100,000 or under is deemed a collectible. Other, sometimes more important, factors are at play - like did the book win any awards? is it garnering good reviews? Is it a debut novel? a break out novel? a limited edition? autographed? etc.

That said, here are some first print run numbers that I was able to track down, either through Publishers Weekly, Bob over at Book-collecting.com, Publishers' press releases, or ARC jacket covers:
If you have any you'd like to add, let me know or leave a comment.

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