What Does “Sell-Through” Mean in Publishing?

Many authors think having a large print run for their book is important, when it fact it is not as important as sell-through. All books ordered by bookstore buyers are distributed on a returnable basis—for a full refund—if they don’t sell once they land on the shelves. Because of this, sell-through, or the percentage of those copies that actually sell and are not returned to the publisher, is the key to profitability.

For example, if a bookseller receives an order for 1,000 copies from the publisher and is able to sell only 600 copies to consumers, the remaining 400 are “returns.” In this case the author’s sell-through would be 60 percent. If 300 copies were returned, the sell-through would be 70 percent. So regardless of how many copies your publisher prints and distributes, the goal is to make sure that people buy the books, plain and simple. Publishers set their print runs based on historical data and careful profit and loss calculations, so don’t read too much into yours (or bother questioning it). Just know that sell-through, also referred to as “percent of sale,” is the key to a successful career as a writer. The higher the sell-through, the more likely any writer will have a bright future as an author, regardless of the size of the initial print run.   

This article appeared in the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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