For decades, the "first printing" has been a number publishers have slapped on the covers of their advance reading copies, put in bold on the pages of their catalogues, and touted to reporters. The number, though known to be inflated, offered a palatable way for publishers to announce their expectations for a book. Now, in an era when first printings are down because e-books can account for as much as 50% of sales on frontlist titles, the term "first printing" sounds more and more out of place. The question is, do publishers have a replacement term for positioning different books on their lists?

"The first printing is far less important than it ever was," said Adam Rothberg, head of corporate communications at Simon & Schuster. Noting that the term "copies in print" is also an "anachronistic" one for 21st-century publishing, Rothberg acknowledged that publishers "need to come up with new ways, in an online world to signal to consumers and the trade that they have a big book."

A sales executive at one of the major houses, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, in his thinking, nothing has really changed. Noting that publishers have always interpreted the first printing differently—and that at Random House a 100,000-copy first printing might mean something different from the same number at, say, Hachette—the executive said the figure has traditionally been a "statement of intentions" and now it's simply adjusted to account for projected e-book sales. The insider explained that a 300,000-copy first printing today, in all likelihood, is broken down to 200,000 print books and 100,000 e-books. When asked if the term "printing" is inappropriate to attach to a figure that has estimates not only on a different format (digital) but also includes sales projections, he said he doesn't think the word "printing" will go away even though, in publishing parlance, "it certainly has evolved."

There are others, though, who think the terminology should be updated. Certainly it looks odd that an industry claiming to be embracing digital would cling to wording it admits isrooted in an earlier era. Alison Lazarus, president of sales at Macmillan, said the outdated nature of the term "first printing" is something she and her colleagues have been discussing internally for some time, and she thinks the industry does need a new standard. First printings, Lazarus noted, have traditionally been used to position a book's relative importance on a publisher's list, and that remains important. To that end, Macmillan, on its tip sheets, has started noting e-book sales of the author's last title along with a first printing number, and Lazarus suggested the first printing term could be changed to "first units."

A sales rep with a large distribution company, who admitted that first printings have always been "fictitious" numbers in many ways, said that they remain valuable to field reps. "Depending on what channel you're selling to, we do still use [that number] to let buyers know something is an important title."

Echoing what many publishers said, Dick Heffernan, president of hardcover sales at Penguin, said his company has adopted a policy of combining an author's print sales history with the e-book sales history instead of offering first printing numbers, saying, "Both the print and electronic formats are factored in together."

While publishers may be coming up with different ways to tweak the math they use to reach their first printings, many are becoming more uncomfortable sharing the information. First printings are disappearing from galley covers and catalogues, and publishers are becoming increasingly resistant to share the figures with reporters.

Paul Bogaards, at Knopf, acknowledged that something does need to replace the first printing as a way of indicating a publisher has a potentially big book. "Advances would certainly be a leading indicator, but we never discuss those. Marketing budgets as well, but we also never discuss those. Adjectives often work, such as ‘it's a major publication,' but I'm guessing they would not be especially fulfilling for a reporter." Bogaards said there is "no consensus on this issue" and, even though the term may no longer fit, it continues to be used. "We are still assigning first printings to our books," he said, adding that it's done even though it's "not in sync with the market."