April 20, 2018
Macmillan learns its lesson, publicly announces an initial print run of 850,000 for James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty
by Simon Reichley
If you want to sell books, you have to print books. You just gotta do it! You gotta print books to sell books! That’s business.
From this it follows that, if you want to sell a fuckload of books, you need to print a fuckload of books. That’s logic.
But logic is hard, and so is publishing, which in part explains how Henry Holt (an imprint of Macmillan) managed to seriously flub the rollout of their fastest selling book of all time, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. After leading with a print run of 150,000 (a pretty big number to those of us not working at Macmillan’s scale), the publisher was forced to immediately order a second run of almost a million copies. The intense demand for the book, combined with its pretty much universal unavailability, led to hundreds, possibly thousands, of copies being pirated.
This debacle is suddenly relevant again this week, as Macmillan flaunts some truly boing pre-order numbers for James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, and an appropriately ambitious first print run. Last Friday, in anticipation of Comey’s interview with George Stephanopolous, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported that Macmillan was printing 850,000 copies, and the Huffington Post’s Yashar Ali reported that the book had already pre-sold close to 200,000 copies before it was even released, citing an unnamed source “familiar with the sales numbers.” Don Weisberg, president of Macmillan, told CNN, “This is the largest first printing we’ve done so far this year.” The piece pointedly contrasts this with the puny print run of Fire and Fury, which Macmillan claims has now sold more than two million copies in print and electronic editions.
It’s tough to parse what exactly these numbers mean. Fire and Fury basically came out of nowhere, put its publishers on their heels, and has managed (allegedly) to sell more than a million copies in an intensely competitive market for Trump-lit. By comparison, the world’s been talking about Comey’s book from nearly the moment he was fired, and many have long assumed it’d be a lock for a number-one bestseller.
What’s interesting in both instances is how Macmillan has spun otherwise boring supply-and-demand calculations into buzz-building publicity. For Wolff’s book, the story became “This book that we thought was going to be great (150,000 is still a boat load of books), is actually amazing! Wow, so popular! We can’t keep up!” For Comey’s, they’ve framed an aggressive initial print run as somehow emblematic of the book’s cultural impact. Which it may well be. It may also be that Macmillan has overcorrected based on evidence from Fire and Fury. It may also also be that all of these numbers are lies, as initial print runs are routinely exaggerated, indicating a publisher’s ambition for a book, rather than the number of books in the warehouse.
What’s clear, though, is that Comey’s book is officially a Big Deal, and that it’ll be interesting to see how the sales numbers shake out.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.