March 2nd, 2009


A matter of scale.

Yesterday, as I wandered through Wondercon, I found myself at the booth of a very charming lady in the Artist's Alley. I've sadly forgotten her name, but not her most excellent eye makeup, which was the sort of elegant Bettie Page-esque look that I only wish I could achieve. (Seriously. My makeup skills are...well, they're better than they could be, which is to say I rarely stick the mascara brush in my eye anymore, but they're nothing to write home about.) I asked her how her convention was going, and she responded happily that she'd sold completely out of the first printing of one of her comics. I acknowledged the awesomeness of this. She then informed me, still happily, that the first printing had consisted of one hundred copies.

Sliding backwards a few months, at the start of January, the entire run of my latest CD hit my front porch and filled my front hallway with boxes upon boxes of musical goodness. Ecstatic that we'd actually finished printing in time for Conflikt, I chattered about the CD to anyone who'd listen. Someone asked me where the CDs were being stored. I responded with 'in my bedroom,' and the fact that we had printed a thousand copies. The person I was talking to promptly asked whether my lack of faith was in my work, or in my fans, since printing 'only' a thousand seemed like a statement of insecurity.

According to various sources, the average print run on mass market genre paperbacks is between 5,000 and 150,000.

Welcome to the wonderful world of scale.

Each of these ranges makes sense. An independent comic artist, self-producing their own material, would be silly to print more than a few hundred copies at a time -- until they manage to become properly established, they'll have a hard time selling more than that, and there's only so much room in the average house, apartment, or double-wide trailer. (I'm not knocking people who live in double-wides. I've lived in a double-wide, and it was awesome. Way bigger than the apartment I'd been living in prior to that.) As a filker, I have a fairly limited pre-existing audience, but it's large enough to justify ordering a thousand CDs at a time. Additionally, because I can't self-print my own CDs very easily, I need to meet certain minimums before I can go to press.

The potential audience for a professionally printed book is much larger. If every bookstore in the country orders two copies, well, that's substantially more than either the independent comic artist or the filker is going to need, right out the gate. Sell-through on mass market paperbacks is variable, but even assuming you get 50% of those books back as returns (which is a big, complicated thing that I'm still trying to understand), you still need to have printed them before you could send them out. It's all a matter of scale. When looking at how much of a thing is needed, it's always a good idea to pause and ask yourself a question:

How big is that pond?