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Copyright Pages Decoded: What is a print line?

Have you ever noticed an odd string of numbers on the copyright page of your favorite book? That’s the print line. The print line may seem like a top-secret code, but it’s really a pretty straightforward way to indicate what printing the book is from. As the editor for Square Fish, our paperback line, I think about print lines pretty often, from when I’m working on interior copy for new paperbacks to when we review paperbacks that are reprinting at our weekly reprint meeting.

Here’s the print line for the 6th printing of A Little Something Different:

alsd cr page
When we spotted a conversation on Twitter about print lines, we thought now would be a great time to talk about what they are and why they matter.

Different publishers show the print line in different ways, but here’s what ours looks like:

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

1   3   5   7   9   10   8   6   4   2

Generally (at least for books I handle), we use the first one for copyright pages that are left justified, and the second one for copyright pages that are centered, to make sure the numbers look justified or centered when we start eliminating them. For the first printing, we include the full print line, and then for each additional printing, we eliminate a number.

So the second printing’s print line looks like this:

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2 

3   5   7   9   10   8   6   4   2

And the third printing’s print line looks like this:

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3

3   5   7   9   10   8   6   4

And the fourth printing’s print line looks like this:

10   9   8   7   6   5   4

5   7   9   10   8   6   4

You get the idea. And when we use up all the numbers, we add a new one that lists the numbers 11-20. And after that, we add a new one that lists the number 21-30. And so on.

Why do print lines matter?

The print line helps us keep our printings straight. Sometimes we’ll make text corrections or update the cover when we reprint the book. We often add the covers for authors’ new books, or more recent books in the series, to the back cover of our paperbacks when they reprint. Sometimes, for books that are older, we might update our boilerplate with company information, URLs, etc. Sometimes, we make bigger changes, for example when we do cover repackages.

Here’s an example of a cover repackage: As you may know, we recently repackaged the paperback covers for The Winner’s Trilogy. So the paperback of book one, The Winner’s Curse, was published last year and had the original package. But we wanted to repackage it so all of the paperbacks will match. The 4th printing has the original cover, but we updated the cover for the 5th printing. So if you want to buy the paperback that will match the rest of the new paperback covers, you should buy the 5th printing:

winners curse new cover

winners curse cr page

Also, the print line can tell you what printing you’re buying. Say you’re a super fan of something. You may have the first edition, but do you have the first-ever printing? If you check out the print line, it will tell you. Remember that books may have different editions (for example, a hardcover edition and a paperback edition, or, for some books, maybe a hardcover, a paperback, and a movie tie-in paperback edition.) Each new edition gets a new print line and starts out at the first printing. So even if you have the first printing of a book, you may have the first printing of the second edition. (So using The Winner’s Curse example:  The hardcover of The Winner’s Curse was the first edition, which started with a first printing. Then there’s the paperback edition, which started over again with a first printing.)

Some printings may be rarer than others. That’s because some books reprint often, and some don’t. Some print runs are large, and some are smaller. The size and frequency of reprints depends on a ton of factors: sales, shipments, warehousing space, promotions, where books are printing, holiday/vacation schedules, and more. We have a whole supply chain department to keep an eye on inventory and order reprints when necessary.

To give you an idea of how often we reprint our paperbacks, here’s a shelf with just a few of the printings for our paperbacks:

reprint shelf

Every year or so, we have to clear out the shelf to make room for additional printings. (As you can tell, we’re due for a cleanup—these books are double-shelved.) Having this shelf is important because we’re constantly pulling books to compare different printings and see whether we want or need to make a change to the next printing.

So that’s the print line. Did you know what a print line was before this? Do you think you’ll pay attention to print lines in the future? What other questions do you have about the copyright page or the technical side of publishing? Ask away!

Author spotlight

Christine Barcellona

Editor / I blog and edit for Swoon Reads, plus I'm the editor for our paperback line, Square Fish. Find ...

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