Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Second Chance, or a Chance to Make the Same Mistake Twice?

Speaking of republishing books from a couple of posts ago, how often does that happen in your business? For example, I searched for a long time for a "no longer published" children's book, The Green Machine by Polly Cameron, and I always found super expensive copies for sale. It seemed that people were always searching it out and willing to pay big bucks. My 3 kids love it (obviously that's hardly enough for a reprint), but at what point does someone figure out to put it back into the rotation? Would the author, if they were still alive, have to put it through the query system again? Or does the publisher own it? This applies to any reprint of a currently out of print book. I'm tempted to check a copy out from our library and "lose it." Only tempted, don't report me.
This does not happen a great deal. There have been some recent reissues, notably from New York Review of Books, but they are almost entirely books that were originally published more than 50 years ago. I see a number of submissions from authors whose books went out of print in the 1980s or 90s, and that's too soon.

Listen, I know that there are some honest-to-goodness great books that are out of print--even books that went out of print within a couple years of publication!--and here's what you have to know: that happens all the time.

It's a fact of publishing. No matter how great the text, the art, the cover, the title, etc, sometimes a book just doesn't speak strongly enough to enough people to survive in the marketplace. If you and I and a couple hundred other people recognize its sterling qualities, that's simply not enough people. (Of course, once books go digital, everything will be able to be in print forever. I'm looking forward to that element of digital books.)

Publishers, reviewers, and booksellers know that however wonderful a book may be, almost all books that go out of print do it for a good reason: they can't sell enough copies.

For this reason, publishers are highly unlikely to republish something that's gone out of print within booksellers' and reviewers' (long) memories. The reissue won't get review attention and won't get bookseller support.

In terms of the rights, the author may have the rights back, if their contract has the standard out-of-print language and they have remembered to request the rights be reverted to them. If the author has not, then the publisher may still have the rights.


Tandy said...

Marshall Cavendish is publishing a line of out-of-print books; and according to the copyright page of one I looked at at Barnes and Noble, they're looking for suggestions of titles to include in the line.

Northwriter said...

Several of my friends' books have gone out of print. I hadn't thought of digital as a way to keep a book in print forever. Interesting.

Cam said...

I have two questions for you:
1) With digital books, which will NEVER go out of print, will publishers own the rights ad nauseum or will they revert back after a set period of time

2) Why is it that the major publishers haven't gone with some type of "print-on-demand" system?

There are some books that are "timeless" that are out of print, and I find myself scouring for good copies every time I'm in a used book shop. I wish I could just go buy a new copy!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

The Authors Guild offers for members:

I've seen this option used by fellow authors, and the final books are nice paperbacks. This may be an option to consider, especially for folks who do a lot of school visits and other events with book sales.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I was always a big fan of Sally Watson (historical fiction writer from 60s and 70s. Lots of Scottish novels, and even some pirates!)

Her original books now sell for a few 100 a pop. Luckily, she is still alive, still has the rights, and worked with a smaller publishing company to make her books available again! So I think now, with the advent of POD and whatnot, you'll probably see more beloved books back in print... as long as the author, or the author's family, is on board. (In Watson's case, IIRC, she was basically shocled that her books were selling for so much used, and wanted to make sure people could afford them if they wanted them...)

Literaticat said...

There are certainly exceptions to this that I can think of where either the book was reillustrated, or in the case of a novel, updated slightly with a jazzy new cover put on.

And there are certainly publishers who often reissue beloved books that have fallen by the wayside. Along with NYRB Children's Collection, Phaidon and Marshall Cavendish come to mind. And Flux has done a couple of important older YA titles. And Firebrand of course has done lots of awesome and important SF/F kids titles. Oh and HarperCollins has recently reissued some of my old faves.

What I am saying is - it happens. Not often, but it happens. Typically somebody somewhere has to think the word "classic" in conjunction with the text.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Agreed about "classic", lit. Most of the authors I've seen approaching publishers about reissues do not have something that could be called classic.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

As the writer of this question indicates, this isn't only a problem for authors of books that go out of print but also for readers with non-mainstream tastes and interests. Books for these readers go out of print quickly, and publishers don't often publish similar books to take their place since the original ones didn't sell. It's not usually a quality issue but one of the market--and why small presses are so important.

Torgo said...

Cam, short-run printing is often too expensive to be economical, although where I work there's a lot of effort being put in to make it feasible. The standard contract states that if and when a book becomes unavailable the author can give 9 months' notice to reprint, reissue or revert the rights, so from our point of view if we can do 100-copy reprints as required there are a lot of things we could hold on to.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Does the same guideline apply to non-fiction? I searched for years for an out-of-print book about nutrition in pregnancy, and recently found it, updated and with a new title.

Is it more standard to reissue non-fiction books, or could this reissue have had more to do with the changes in the text?

TK Roxborogh said...

One of my earlier novels went out of print mainly because the publishing house changed hands a few times. As it was a text used a lot in highschools, and as I am an English teacher as well, I began to get regular requests for copies to 'top up' their class sets. In the end, a did a quick canvass around schools regarding self-publishing and the response was enough I took the risk, got a new ISBN, changed the cover (which I'd always hated) and got 100 copies printed (New Zealand is a small country). I've already sold enough to cover my cost and my favourite educational book seller keeps sending me orders.

I think, also, that if an author hits the big time, interest can be generated in earlier titles. Didn't John Grisham's first book (A Time To Kill) barely make it on the radar but later it was reprinted?

Certainly, the digital situation is excellent. My very first novel has long been out of print but a reader in Australia had read the sequel and wanted to read the first book. I simply sent her the pdf file.

Ms. Yingling said...

From a school librarian's point of view-- if something is out of print, should I replace it? Children's tastes do change. That said, have I bought used copies of books that students have lost because I couldn't imagine my library without the title? Of course.

Anonymous said...

If it was in Hardcover originally, I would think someone might take a chance with it in paperback.

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