By Lindsey Lane
When an author or an illustrator gets the news that their book is going out of print (OP) or out of stock (OS), it is a blow. A tragedy. It feels like a death in the family.
After all, a book is a creation, something that sprang from our imaginations, our hearts and our intellects.
Publishing is a business and a book going OP or OS is part its life cycle.
So what do you do when it happens? Fall into a heap? Self-publish? Write the next book? All of the above?
This four-part series is an assembling of wise voices in the field of children’s literature. Experienced and thoughtful authors, illustrators, agents and editors. They echo one another. They provide good counsel. They give you a perspective on reframing this publishing event so that you can be a good steward of your books and your life as a writer.
Today, we hear from a variety of authors and one author-illustrator.
Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award-winning, and bestselling The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008) as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, 2013), the forthcoming Angel Thieves (Athenteum, 2019) and many picture books.
Out of almost fifty books, at least two-thirds are out of print, some without my knowing. The first time it happened I was surprised. The book was called Cowboy Dreams, illustrated by Barry Root (HarperCollins, 1999), and it felt like it had only barely been published. I think it was less than a year old, but my editor had left, so there was no one there to really champion it even though it was named to a couple of state reading lists.
It didn’t officially go out of print, rather it went OS—out of stock. In most cases, it means the same thing. An author would have to have a huge order or something like that for the publisher to reprint the stock. And the sad part is that I don’t even have a copy. You run out of your author copies, thinking, “oh, I’ll get another soon,” but then the book goes out of stock and that often means exactly what it says—out of stock AKA unavailable, even to the author.
Cowboy Dreams is one of my most often “asked for” books. I can’t tell you how many times someone has contacted me, asking if I have any copies, or if I know of anyone who does. One time, I checked Amazon, and found a used copy for something like $400. Occasionally, a library will cull them and a couple might crop up for sale.
Fortunately, the artist Barry Root kept some of the art and I was able to buy it. So, in that way, it still exists. But if you have a copy of it, hold onto it. It feels like such a rare bird to me. And who knows? I have the rights to it and I think it would make a nice lullaby, so maybe one of my musical children will turn it into a song.
Years ago, I actually toyed with the idea of self-publishing. But becoming a publisher also means taking on all of the roles of publishing—author, art director, editor, accountant, and marketing department. I’m comfortable with most of those, but marketing is hard for me. My happy place is on my sofa, with the cats and my computer or a good book. I do as much social media and touring as I can while still maintaining a semblance of good mental and physical health.
When Cowboy Dreams was sidelined, it caught me off-guard. Since then, of course, lots of my titles have followed it. Losing some titles hurts more than others. But then there are other titles that have been in print for over twenty years, and it makes me happy that they’ve had these long lives. It is the daily ebb and flow of my work.
As it happens, since I’ve been answering these questions, I got an email telling me that my book Merry Christmas, Merry Crow, illustrated by Jon Goodell (Harcourt, 2005) is going out of print. That book has actually had a fairly long stay, so it’s a little bittersweet to say goodbye to it. At least this time around, the publisher offered me several copies of it. That doesn’t always happen.
The better news is that a small press in Kentucky is going to re-publish my book Down Cut Shin Creek, co-authored with Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer (HarperCollins, 2001). The book is nonfiction, about a group of packhorse librarians who delivered books during the Great Depression in the hills and hollows of rural Kentucky. When the publisher contacted us we couldn’t have been more surprised. Once in a while, a book you thought was finished finds new supporters, and a whole new audience.
In fact, this just happened with another book of mine, Alley Cat’s Meow, also illustrated by Jon Goodell (Harcourt, 2002). For the past several years, this book has only been available in Korean, and you’d have to travel to Korea to get a copy of it. But only days ago, a book club out of Austin has asked for the rights to republish it for their subscribers.
One of the interesting things about books for children is that our audience changes, right? This is especially true with picture books. A book that someone loved at the age of five becomes a book that we want to share with our kids twenty years later. And sometimes, it gets a new life.
I am hugely grateful for the lives of my books as they are. All of them. When I look at some of my early titles, I can see that they have run their courses, and, in many ways, saying goodbye to them makes room for something fresh and new.
Or, as in the case of Down Cut Shin Creek, it’s rather like an old friend popping back into my life. Literally. My co-author Jeanne and I haven’t had a conversation in many years, and we’re now enjoying finding each other again.
Books have some power, don’t they? And sometimes that power is to step aside and make room. Other times, it’s to remind you that the wonder of a book never really goes away no matter what its status might be at any given time.
I guess, at the end of the day, every book has a life force of its own, and no matter whether it’s in print, out of print, or sitting on the New York Times Bestseller list, that book has meaning to every single person who has read it, or will read it in the future. Nothing can change that, not for a minute.
Marion Dane Bauer is a critically acclaimed author who has received countless awards for her ability to step inside the viewpoint of a child – any child or young adult, in a wide variety of circumstances. She is the author of best-selling novel On My Honor (Clarion, 1986), a Newbery Honor Book.
The number of books I have published has pushed past 100 in the last year, so I have seen many books go out of print. Even if a book goes out of print and I get the rights back, those rights have rarely been meaningful.
For example, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind (Clarion 1976), went out of print and I was able to get those rights returned to me.
Sometime later, Marshall Cavendish came to me saying they wanted to republish Shelter from the Wind with an entirely new cover in a series called Marshall Cavendish Classics. What could be better? And yet I wondered how many copies would actually sell, especially while I continue to produce new books. My wondering has been answered . . . very few.
I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’d guess that would be the fate of most books brought back to life after being out of print. Self publishing takes a lot of time and effort and, while it’s not as expensive as it once was, it still requires some money. I wouldn’t expect to sell enough to justify either.
One of the problems in our industry, is that too many books are being published these days. Shelter from the Wind came out in 1976, and in 2016, there were six and a half times more children’s books being published than were being published in 1976. And I’m not including young adult books since that genre didn’t exist forty years ago. Nor does it include self-published books or the enormous backlists publishers are carrying. It gets harder and harder for very fine books to be noticed.
While my older titles have gone out of print and the rights have returned to me, my newer books never go out of print. As long as the publisher can produce a print-on-demand copy–without doing anything to support the book, of course–they consider it “in print.” The publisher still owns the rights. That, in my mind, is a bigger problem than the one of seeing books I love go out of print.
As sad as it is for us writers, most books are going to die anyway. Out of print just makes that death final. What I do with that sadness, though, is to go on to write a new book.
I accept the fate of books going out of print the way I accept a lot of things in life I don’t like.
On a practical level, though, as I reach my 80th birthday I’ve had to wonder how many, if any, of my books will still be alive and earning after I’m not, and I had to make sure my will covers my literary estate for any books that remain viable.
Varian Johnson is the author of nine novels, including The Parker Inheritance (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018), recently named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, and which received four starred reviews and was named a 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book, a Junior Library Guild selection and a Spring 2018 Kids’ Indie Next List pick among other accolades. In addition, Varian has written for the Spirit Animals: Fall of the Beasts middle-grade fantasy series (Scholastic, 2016) as well as novels and short stories for YA audiences.
I was bummed for sure. And I was frustrated that my books weren’t finding a long-term audience. But I try to remind myself that this is the business, and that very few books stay in print forever.
After hearing the news, I decided that I would be better off focusing on new works instead of spinning my wheels on figuring out how to self-publish my old novels. Plus, my new work is leans more toward middle grade than young adult so it doesn’t make sense to republish books in an entirely different market.
I tell other authors all the time that books going out of print happens to the best of us. All we can do is keep moving forward.
For over twenty years, Uma Krishnaswami has written picture books, chapter books, early readers, and novels for young readers. She has spoken to audiences in the U.S., Canada, India, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Uma’s books have been translated into eleven languages.
Like rejections, I have come to consider the event of a book going out of print as a developmental milestone. If you write a lot and you’re lucky enough to get a reasonable percentage of your writing published, then, if you are any good, some of it will stick around and some will, inevitably, go under. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace it all.
That understanding was actually an important part of my growth as a writer. I was very lucky to have a wonderful editor in Diantha Thorpe of Linnet Books/The Shoe String Press. They published my first three books. When she decided to retire, she thought long and hard about what she’d do with the press. Should she sell it? There were offers on the horizon. Should she close it? How could she try to keep the books alive?
In the end, she decided to close the press and focus on finding homes for selected titles, mainly because she felt that would best preserve the integrity of the work to which she had committed her life. Here was someone who had devoted her career to this business, taken risks, published gems of books, and been decent and honest in her dealings with writers. She might have made more money selling the business, but she chose to think first about the books and the reputation of the press. Diantha suggested to me that I should think about which one of my books I’d want most to keep in print, and she’d help me find a home for it.
That was easy. Of the three titles, The Broken Tusk, illustrated by Maniam Selven (Linnet, 1996), was the one I knew I’d want to keep alive. Diantha agreed. I didn’t have an agent at the time, so she negotiated with August House. We came to an agreement, and they published the book in 2006.
Twenty-two years later it remains in print—readers still write to tell me of the copies they have bought for their children.
I did get the rights back to two other titles, but I haven’t chosen to bring them back into print or self publish them because, at the time, I was writing the next book and the next. Besides, the book which was closest to my heart was still in print so I didn’t grieve for the others that much. Also, I’ve been lucky.
When Children’s Book Press was acquired by Lee & Low, they kept all my books in print, and they were the perfect house to take those titles on. So I think the loss of four titles over more than two decades in the field—that’s not too bad.
Every once in a while I think about bringing Naming Maya (FSG, 2004) or Monsoon (FSG, 2003) back into print, but I have finite energy and I am very clear that I need to save it for writing new work. Every book does its bit to grow me as a writer.
Those out-of-print titles were useful in helping me grow as I needed to grow, ten or twenty years ago. The writer I am today, however, can only grow by looking forward.
The only reason to look back, to evaluate my body of work in the way I learned to do from Diantha, is to take that work to a new level, with each new book.
So I will look back, as I need to. But each time, I’ll try to make a careful decision, one that isn’t grounded in personal pride but in a thoughtful assessment of what each title means to me and why it should matter in the world.
Mitali Perkins pops in with this tweet:
Mitali has written twelve novels for young readers, including: You Bring the Distant Near (FSG, 2017), nominated for the National Book Award and a Walter Award honor book; Rickshaw Girl (Charlesbridge, 2007), chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the top 100 books for children in the past 100 years; Bamboo People (Charlesbridge, 2010), among the American Library Association’s Top Ten Novels for Young Adults; and Tiger Boy (Charlesbridge, 2015), winner of the Charlotte Huck Honor Award and the South Asia Book Award.
Don Tate is an award-winning author and the illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children. He is also one of the founding hosts of The Brown Bookshelf – a blog designed to raise awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers, with book reviews, author and illustrator interviews.
I’ve worked mostly with smaller publisher who hold on to their titles forever. Four books did go out of print, however, and I was pretty much kept out of the loop.
- Legend Of The Valentine, written by Katherine Grace Bond (ZonderKidz, 2002) went out of print after being on a Christian bestseller list.
- Sure As Sunrise, written by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004) went out of print quite quickly, which didn’t make sense. It was on the Bluebonnet list and earned out its advance almost immediately.
- I had no idea I Am My Grandpa’s Enkelin, written by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Paraclete Press, 2007) had gone out of print until a few months ago when the publisher reached out and asked me if I wanted my art returned.
- With Say Hey! A Song Of Willie Mays, written by Peter Mandel (Hyperion, 2000), the rights have reverted back to me and the author, so technically I suppose we could look for a different publisher. But why? If the royalties weren’t exactly rolling in before, I wouldn’t want to put more energy there. I love that book. I have a handful of priceless copies left.
Some people choose to get their rights back and shop for a new publisher or self publish. I respect that and cheer that author on. But for me personally, I’d rather put my energy into creating my next project.
I work my butt off when I create a book. I spend hours of writing and/or illustrating, and research to create the best experience for readers. It’s always exciting when a new book finally publishes, and just as exciting (okay, maybe more) when an advance is paid off and royalties are generated.
That said, when I sign on to create a new book, I just accept the possibility that it could go out of print, at some point—same as I accept the possibility that a manuscript might get rejected, or that a book might receive a bad review. Sad, but it comes with the territory.
Next up: Agents weigh in on books going out of print. In case you missed it, Part 1 of this series presented publishing facts and statistics.
Being a good steward of these books prompted her to question the lifecycle of books in the publishing world. She earned her BA in Theater Arts from Hampshire College and her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She regularly teaches private classes, through the Writers’ League of Texas, and she is an assistant professor at Austin Community College.
Featured image of Lindsey by Sam Bond Photography.