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 of 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 editors.
Kathy Landwehr is the Vice President and Associate Publisher of Peachtree Publishers. She has been with Peachtree since 1990.
Peachtree has a strong commitment to backlist and finding new opportunities to sell it, so selecting books to go out of print rarely happens here, and just about never when a book is still in stock. (We still sell the first book that Peachtree published, which came out when I was in seventh grade!)
For any title with low stock, we review the sales history and anticipated demand at our monthly meetings. The goal is to have a sense of the demand, costs, timeline, and priority for all low-stock titles, so that a decision can be made. On certain rare occasions, we sell through the stock and the sales record and printing costs —page count, format, color, etc.—don’t justify a reprint.
The decision-making process can also involve a bit of trying to predict the future. A book can be dormant for a period and then suddenly meet a new need or be discovered by a new group of customers. It’s not an easy decision; truth be told, we tend to drag it out, looking for different printing options that might be more cost-effective.
Can I single-handedly keep a book in print? Oh my, no. I can make a case for it, but I have to justify devoting our resources to that book and not to others which might be in greater demand. Every decision has to be made in context, not isolation, even for the books I love.
The author can play a role in keeping demand high, but that’s not always possible, even with savvy, hard-working authors. There are occasional cases in which an author is aware of a particular need—curriculum, for instance—that might provide a new sales opportunity. But I can’t think of a situation in which a book was entirely dormant and then we discovered a whole new opportunity that led to enough demand to justify reprinting.
Telling authors about books going out of print can vary. Some are actively aware of the status, either due to royalty statements or unmet demand; in that case, it’s an ongoing conversation. If we revert the rights to a book, the author gets an official document notifying them of the decision. I try to make sure that they find out from me first, rather than from a form letter.
Sometimes author contracts include language which spells out a process and timeline that require the publisher to make a decision either to reprint or to revert the rights.
In the end, I like to think that we can take pride in having produced a good, distinctive book that pleased its readers and creators. That is, after all, the goal for all of us. There are no guarantees that anything will last forever, so I hope that we can feel good about the time we have and the work we did. That’s all that’s really in our control.
Joy Peskin is the editorial Director at Farrar Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, an imprint at the Macmillan Children’s Group. Joy worked at Penguin Random House and Scholastic prior to joining Macmillan in 2012.
One of my first tasks as an editorial assistant was writing letters to inform authors their books were going out of print. My boss was a very no-nonsense person and she told me to write a very bare-bones notification message letting authors know their book was going out of print and they could order the remaining copies at a very reduced price for a limited period of time. Then I was to give them ordering information. Period. The end.
I couldn’t do like that. It felt too sad. How would they feel receiving this information? It would be like hearing about a death in the family, right? I remember taking it upon myself to write a much more emotional version of the letter. I think it started something like, “It’s a sad time for both author and publisher when decreased marketplace demand means we are no longer able to make your book available.”
Alas, it’s been over twenty years in this profession for me, and I still think the saddest part of my job–a job with so much joy and happiness–is informing authors and agents that a book is going out of print.
But I also know that when sales have been slow, or nonexistent, month after month–sometimes year after year–putting a book out of print is an inevitable part of the publishing process.
Publishing is an art, but it’s also a business, and the fact remains that it costs money to allocate warehouse space to each book we publish, and if we kept all the books we have ever published in print forever, we would need a warehouse too big to afford.
There is no hard and fast rule to why one book goes out of print a year or two into its life and other books remain in print for longer. It does have do to with marketplace demand, but each book’s journey is slightly different, and I encourage authors and agents who may wonder why their book is going out of print to discuss the specifics with their editor.
Each book has a natural lifespan. Some lives are long, some are short, but all have meaning. Each person means something to those who loved them; each book means something those who loved it. And still, a natural part of life is death.
We can’t live forever, much as we may want to, because we have to make space on the planet for the people who come next. So is it with books–at least most of them. Each bookstore can shelve only so many books. When one goes out of print, there is more room on the shelf for the book being written by the next author who wants to share their story.
Thank goodness we have libraries, where books of today, yesterday, and tomorrow can all be together–ideally, for eternity.
Neal Porter is the founder, vice-president and publisher of Neal Porter Books, which is an imprint of Holiday House. Prior to founding his own imprint, Neal worked in marketing, editorial, and executive positions as Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Atheneum, Orchard, DK, Walk Books UK, among others.
The good news about the children’s book industry is that our titles tend to stay in print much longer than adult titles. We are primarily a backlist business and rely on being able to supply libraries with replacement copies when their books wear out. I can’t say that there is an average length of time a book stays in print but at the very least, three or four years.
Occasionally, when a much-loved book goes out of print, it may be picked up by another house, though this happens pretty rarely. Or if there is an opportunity to reinvent the book (e.g. the book was published many years ago and feels dated but could be re-illustrated) a publisher may go this route. In 2020, I’ll be publishing a text by Charlotte Zolotow, In My Garden, that was originally published in 1960 with illustrations by Roger Duvoisin. For this new edition, Philip Stead has re-invented the story and is creating entirely new illustrations.
The process of books going out of print varies from house to house, but generally there is a regular reprint meeting in which books with low or no stock come up for discussion. We look at a range of factors–whether the book is available in another form, awards won, prestige, importance to the list. We also have a backlist editor who is constantly looking at possibilities for repackaging, freshening, revitalizing books that have gone out of stock.
Usually a book goes out of stock when the rate of sale has slowed to the point that reprinting the book is not cost-effective. When there is an overabundance of stock, it is necessary to sell off stock at a remainder price. There are intermediate steps before a book is declared out of print.
When there are outstanding licenses (foreign editions, audio versions, etc) a book is often declared OSI, or out of stock indefinitely. Many people confuse this designation with out of print. A book officially goes out of print only when rights are reverted to author and agent, and upon request. But publishers make an effort to notify authors, artists, and agents when books are going out of stock and are unlikely to reprint.
While I was writing this post, the Author’s Guild published a report on author incomes.
Based on extensive surveys with all types of authors, it showed a significant decline in incomes for authors of literary fiction. Despite the increased numbers of books published, authors are making less and less money from those books. Even with a nice advance, an author’s books have shorter life spans and less chance to earn out.
Unless a book receives every star in the publishing constellation, it’s hard to imagine a “classic” emerging from an annual publication of 27,000 books whose average life span is four years.
Yes, our books going OS/OP is now a sad but inevitable part of our business, but the good news is quite simple. Our skills as writers grow with each play, each article, each book we write. It is our job to keep writing, keep honing that craft so that each sentence, each chapter, each book will be better. And when the next book is out in the world, we will do our best to welcome it and promote it and be its best ambassador.
At the end of the day, however, we had better be writing the next work. That’s what the world wants us to do: create our best works.
This is the final installment of Lindsey Lane’s guest series on Reframing the Reality of Books Going Out of Print. Don’t miss Part 1: The Facts, Part 2: Author/Illustrator Perspective, and Part 3: Agent Perspective. Huge thanks to Lindsey for creating such an insightful series!
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.