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 three agents.
Andrea Cascardi is an agent with Transatlantic Agency. Before joining Transatlantic, Andrea held senior editorial positions at Random House and Disney Publishing. As an agent, she represented many bestselling and award-winning titles including Clare Vanderpool’s Newbery winner Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) and Printz Honor winner Navigating Early (Delecorte, 2013), and e.E. Charlton-Truillo’s Stonewall winner Fat Angie (Candlewick, 2013).
The one thing I make sure to tell my clients is that a decision to put a book out of print is a business decision Not a personal one. It’s numbers. Publishers have to respond to the demand for a title or lack of demand, and that means warehouse space. There are so many factors out of our control. There could be a national tragedy like September 11th that can affect a book.
I pay close attention to the original contract. The author should always try to get their rights back. The rights belong to the author. But the truth is, publishers are hanging on to rights longer and labeling books OSI-Out of Stock Indefinitely. They want to hang onto the rights because they are aware that something can come back in style. Or they may find a way to repurpose a book into a new format. Film rights could be sold.
We usually go back and forth about electronic rights. We strategize.
Agents need to make sure that the contract limits the publisher’s right to hang on to rights. Authors need to recognize the difference between out of print versus reversion of rights. A book can be out of print, but the rights may not automatically revert to the author. It’s important to understand what your options are when a book goes out of print and why you might want to get trade rights back versus, say, mass-market rights.
It’s difficult to dispute the OP decision once it’s been made. Sometimes we have conversations with editors if, say, the author is doing an upcoming series of school visits and we want to make sure the book is available. If the inventory is low, they might be willing to reprint.
If the editor of the book is gone, though, it’s tough. But if the book has received awards and has popped to the top of Amazon, then I ask, “What are you doing for their back list?”
Author’s active promotion is key. You Texas authors could write a book about promotion and cheering each other on. Amazing. I always tell authors to get out and promote in whatever way is most comfortable. Do Skype visits. Build a community with other authors. Debut groups are great. Be an author that the publisher is willing to invest in. There is no magic formula for a book staying in print. Every book and every author is unique.
The self-publishing route is tricky. I look at it from a trade perspective. If you have enough new content (you need a certain percentage), you can get a new ISBN number and that book will be eligible for new reviews, etc. But simply repackaging a book will not necessarily breathe new life into it. But it may be worth it to you personally, if you have the mechanism, perhaps through a local distributor or at school visits. Many methods are out there for republishing, so if you want to take it on, great, but trade houses do not usually pick up OP books from other trade houses without a significant reason.
A publisher deciding which books go out of print is a business decision. Authors are the creative side. So I say: Invest in yourselves. Write the next book. Do what you have to do to remember that you’re the one with the ideas and creativity and perseverance to write it and get it published. You’re the one that’s in charge of the creative side of this business.
Erin Murphy represents writers and writer-illustrators of picture books, novels for middle graders and young adults, and strong nonfiction through her business, Erin Murphy Literary Agency. EMLA was founded in 1999 and has established a excellent reputation in the children’s publishing industry.
Generally, I am not the one who tells my clients that their book is going out of print. Sometimes it is an official notice from the publisher. Sometimes the editor tells the author. But these things don’t come out of the blue. We get royalty statements every six months, and when the numbers on there are stagnant, we know it’s likely coming at some point.
Even though a book going out of print is not welcome news, sometimes we feel like it had a good run. Sometimes we feel like it never found its footing. We talk about it in those ways.
I’m always aware that it feels very different for the client than it does to me (or to the editor). We work on dozens of books at a time, and some succeed and some do not. We know they’re not all going to be in print forever. We take the successes where they come, and we’re thrilled for them, and we do our best to accept the truth about the ones that don’t have the same outcome, even after we’ve given it our very best shot.
I think it’s best when authors are always working on the next project, facing forward, regardless of whether their other books are doing really well or not.
Sometimes, if we feel like the publisher made the decision to put a book out of print and they didn’t take the greater picture into account, we’ll make a case for reversing the decision. For most houses, though, the decision is entirely about numbers, and there’s little actual decision-making to it; it’s a formula. Publishing is, after all, a business. A labor of love, but still a business.
I wish we had a one-size-fits-all answer for making a book successful, but alas, we don’t.
The key is always energy. When there is energy behind a book, it does better. That energy can come in many forms: great reviews; awards at the state level; continued sales due to active school visits; a publisher successfully placing it with big accounts that keeps playing out well; a couple of indie booksellers championing it. There are so many ways a book can succeed. Certainly, a writer continuing to publish new books helps keep momentum going for previous books as well.
If a client feels they have a good outlet for continuing to sell it—an active school visit schedule and a setup for selling their own books—then self-publishing can work. But self-publishing to keep a book alive? It doesn’t feel alive when you’ve got boxes and boxes of it in your garage and nothing to do with them.
I think it’s important to remember that just because a book goes out of print doesn’t mean it never existed. It continues to live on library shelves and used bookstores and home libraries where they can get passed reader to reader. When you publish a book, you get a piece of immortality, even if it’s small.
For 40 years, Rubin Pfeffer worked in a variety of positions for major publishing houses, such as Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Pearson, and Simon & Schuster. Rubin transitioned to becoming an independent agent in 2009, before founding his own literary agency, Rubin Pfeffer Content, in 2014.
When my clients sign a contract, it anticipates the eventuality of the book going out of print. It is bound to happen. We just hope the book will live a long and productive life before euthanasia.
So, with the euphoria of a new deal, contract, advance, royalties, rights splits, and press announcements are the downside possibilities that are often overlooked. It happens. It’s part of the life cycle of a book. It’s a business decision. And the contract states under what terms the publisher can proceed to declare a title O.P.
When it happens, I take most of the emotion out of the explanation. It’s a business decision. The book has not been performing well and is not meeting the agreed upon metrics outlined in the contract.
Usually an editor is not very involved in the OP decree. I’d only be talking to the editor if there is a case to be made about why or how the decision should be reconsidered. Examples of this might be a forthcoming book by this writer that might stir renewed interest in the particular backlist title going OP, a forthcoming anniversary or new hook that might promise better sales or reasons for improved performance, a movie deal in the works, and/or some other changes of energy that are likely to impact the book’s future performance.
A book staying in print is a matter of sales. Period. If the publisher has tried the book in all formats–paperback, mass market, e-book, bind ups — before making the OP decision then they’ve done their job. Starred reviews are only stars if the book isn’t selling and school visits would have been a factor in the sales calculations previously.
If an author is going to self-publish, what is the intent? Are they printing and binding books and storing them? What’s the reason to reissue the book at your own expense? Can this be justified and realistically offer a return on your own investment? If so, self-publish.
If it’s just to have the books available, you’ll likely deal with the same fate the publisher has had over the past few royalty periods. If you want the book available for school visits, do the math. If the equations work, go for it!
As I said earlier, books going out of print are a natural part of a book’s life cycle. But as a result of that book, a writer’s current and future writing have improved and the next books are stronger than the title now marked “OP.” The book going OP served the writer well and helped establish them.
Another spin is we are all thrilled with the many new titles each season. New talents, ideas, thoughts, formats, voices. There is a finite amount of space in warehouses and bookstore shelves. It’s necessary to let go of the now slow performers to make way for your new better than ever titles just released, in production, on your laptop, in your notebook.
Let’s make publishing better and better. Tough decisions are part of growth. And for you writers, if a title is Out of Print, check your contract to see if there is any restriction from requesting Reversion of Rights. Get those rights back so that you can leverage them now or in the future.
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.