Whether we are choosing movies for our Netflix queue, deliberating between a hybrid Prius and a gas-guzzling Hummer, or calculating how many meals we need to forgo so that some day our children will be able to attend college, we are using algebra. No matter the question and its components, algebra provides the framework for comparing a complex list of plusses and minuses to arrive at a clear-cut answer, thus clearly trumping the outdated decision-making model known as "thinking about it."

Algebra applies to the publishing world, as well. Whether your risk profile tends toward Alan Greenspan or Evel Knievel, publishing has traditionally been a gamble, and nowhere is this more apparent than in choosing the size of your new title's first print run. Too many copies and you might as well sell them in bulk to people in the northern Midwest looking to combat the high price of heating oil; too few and the momentum of your book's meteoric rise can be smashed flat by supply problems.

As you know, the customary opening salvo at most publishing houses—after burning a lock of the author's hair to almighty Jah—is to consult sales projections, cash-on-hand, promotional copies needed, etc., all of which create a working model that is roughly equivalent to the handicapper's race form at Churchill Downs. Of course, like betting on the ponies, you will sometimes come across a sure thing ("I'll take Half-Blood Prince in the sixth for 10.8 million copies"), but more frequently, you end up staking your mortgage on insider tips: Cold Mountain is a mudder; Life of Pi has heart; Night is coming out of retirement with a new trainer. Or you revert to the casting of goat entrails.

Until now.

Yes, that's right. The following formula accurately predicts the optimum first printing of your new title. And don't worry if the equation looks a bit complex—once you replace the letters with numbers, this algebra (which is scary) quickly becomes arithmetic (which is much less so). Hint: do each set of parentheses first and multiply them together as a last step.

Or if you, like many who spend too much time playing with words, find the numbers side of your brain has morphed completely into lime Jell-O, consider tacking this equation to the bulletin board outside accounting, marketing, or anywhere else geeks tend to congregate—they just love this stuff!

B= The best-case sales scenario—how many copies would you expect to sell if your book became the basis for a movie starring Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman?W= The worst-case sales scenario—how many copies would you sell if the premise of your nonfiction book was proved false by new research (excluding The World Is Flat)?S= Your sales forecast (consult race form).C= In percent, what is your intuitive level of confidence in this book?D= How dire are the consequences to your publishing house should you end up remaindering? (On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being "resulting financial woes will require your publishing house to reinstate woodblock printing.")R= How far removed are you from the final decision? (On a scale from zero to 10, with zero being "my head on the chopping block" and 10 being "can plausibly blame the Chinese food delivery guy").P= How many times have you worked with this printer without them screwing you when you scheduled another run?

Fpr is the optimum number of copies in your title's first print run. And as you dust off your slide rule, remember to retain a mask of humility around your poor co-workers, who may still be living in the dark ages of abstract thought, rather than embracing the algebra revolution.

Author Information
Garth Sundem is the author of Geek Logik, which Workman will publish in September.