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Sell-Throughs and Other
At my writing group meeting, an author mentioned a
sell-through on her book. It sounded important, but I've
never heard the term. What is a sell-through?
The short answer: sell-through is the percentage ratio of
the number of units (copies of a book) produced/sold and
the number of units (copies of a book) returned to the
publisher for credit. Simply put, the ratio of supply and
Let's take the scenic route and walk through the process
so that you have insight on how this works.
A publisher contracts with an author to publish that
author's book. After the editorial and preparation for
publication process, the publisher decides on how many
copies of this book to print. That's called a "print
run." This print run is often based on the
About four months before the book's scheduled publication
date, the publisher's sales reps take orders from
booksellers, wholesale and distributor buyers. The number
of orders placed for this book have a strong determining
factor on the print run of a book.
Now let's say the order in is 90,000 copies. The
publisher likely will set the print run at about 100,000
copies. (This way, they have some warehouse stock to draw
from if needed quickly. If they anticipate a huge
word-of-mouth impact to significantly increase sales,
then the publisher could elevate that print run number.)
Okay, so the book is published and shipped to the
booksellers. 90,000 copies. But the publisher doesn't
expect to sell each and every copy.
Tons of things influence sales--when the book comes out,
what other authors have books coming out at the same
time, the bookseller (or chain store's) budget; a lot of
things totally outside the author's control.
The book is on the shelf in the bookstore. But few books
have a long shelf life. Most average about six weeks,
unless the book has been selling well. If it has, then
it's "modeled" at that store.
Modeled means that it remains available in that store,
typically on the shelf (though some use the term
interchangeably with "in line," which means
that the chain of store's warehouse keeps them available
for quick shipping to individual stores).
So let's say that the bookstore orders 12 copies of the
book. This book isn't modeled in this particular store,
so at the end of the book's "shelf life," which
the bookseller determines, that seller finds that 6
copies are still in stock and remain unsold. S/he chooses
to return those unsold copies to the publisher for
So s/he strips off the front covers (some publishers
require the entire book be returned, but since publishers
pay shipping costs this isn't typically done for
paperbacks, particularly mass market) and sends the
covers to the publisher. The publisher then credits that
bookseller's account for the costs of these copies. (Like
when you buy and then return something from a store, only
in this case, the store is the customer and the publisher
is the store.) This is referred to as "returns"
by the publisher.
Now, on this book in this store, 12 copies were ordered,
6 sold and 6 returned. So in this store on this book,
this author's "sell-through" is 50%.
Fifty-percent of all copies bought by this store sold.
(To finish the process:)
The publisher accepts returns for a specific length of
time from the booksellers. When that time elapses, then
the publisher compiles all data from all parties on the
book to see how it performed in the market.
It compares the print run, the number of copies shipped
to booksellers (ordered), the reported (by booksellers to
the publisher) sales, the number of copies returned. Then
does the same kind of comparative analysis as we did
above for the bookseller. From this, the publisher (and
author) can determine the ratio of the number of copies
produced to the number of copies sold.
Most publishers don't care to discuss "numbers"
(what all this information is typically called as a
whole), though in the past several years many, many of
them have become extremely good and forthcoming with the
Now before you condemn them for this, remember that they
are also competitors and when they release information
such as this it becomes available to their competition.
That makes for challenges in strategic planning. Yet the
author certainly has a right to know this information,
which is why most contracts have a clause which provides
the author the means to obtain that information, should
it be necessary or desired.
That means is called a "Reconciliation to
Print." Typically the author can once a year request
a Reconciliation to Print on a specific book (or books).
This report accounts for each and every copy of the book
printed and tracks its status (sold, returned, on hand
(in the warehouse), advance reading copies sent to
reviewers, copies used in
I realize I've gone into more detail here than you
probably wanted, but it's important for all of us to know
how this works--before we need to know it because what
has happened to us stuns us. Hope you agree, and...
Copyright 2001 by Vicki Hinze.
Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning,
best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at
national writers' conferences, online, and through her
writing guides. Her latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT
WRITING TO SELL, from Spilled Candy Books for Writers.
This 589-page ebook covers everything you need to know
about the craft of writing, the publishing business, and
the secrets to getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO
SELL is available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or
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