Publishing Word of the Day: Out of Print

3 Jul

Out of Print

A book that is no longer available.

(From The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print, and Sell Your Own Book, 15th Edition.)

. . . . . . . . . .

As much fun—or, at the very least, satisfying—as it was a few weeks ago to let our authors and related folks know how much money they had made from sales of their books this past year, recently I had an equally unenviable task: to declare one of our books out of print.

Once a book is published, one of two things happens: it continues to generate money even as it moves to the backlist (either in its first or subsequent editions) or declining sales force a publisher to declare it out of print. Once a book is declared out of print, all rights typically revert to the author. (Recently, however, Simon & Schuster has tried to work around this provision utilizing print-on-demand technology as discussed by Kristin Nelson, a literary agent, in this May 17, 2007 post at her Pub Rants blog.) In trade publishing this can work to the author’s advantage. That is, many times writers publish two to three or more books before they hit it big. At that point, their earlier books, if they’ve gone out of print, can be republished at (relatively) great profit to the writers and their new publishers. On the other hand, with textbooks, especially technical textbooks, by the time they go out of print, the relative value of the “Work” (as it is referred to in a book contract) is essentially nil.

That’s exactly what happened with a textbook we published a couple of years ago. It was a good book, well designed, with solid, useful information in it. Unfortunately, due to some factors out of our control but, to be honest, equally many in our control, we were never able to generate the sales for it that it deserved. And, finally, given how the technical subject that was its focus has since evolved, there is no real market for it at all under any circumstances.

As I said, much of the blame for this falls on us. Or, rather, given that the publishing office consisted of me, a work study, and some graphics interns when this book was published, the blame falls squarely on me. In retrospect, I made a fundamental error when publishing this book. Namely, I was so caught up in the production details—making sure it went to print on time with a high quality both editorially and graphics-wise—that I didn’t give nearly enough thought and time to how it was actually going to be marketed and sold.

Then again, part of this was intentional on my part: if we hadn’t the book out on time—it was actually the very first book we sent to print and published—I didn’t want to have a big public spectacle of failure. But part of it was also just sheer ignorance: like many budding publishers (and entrepreneurs in general) I honestly thought that producing a quality product at a fair price would somehow automatically—that is, magically—engender sales. Needless to say, it didn’t happen.

Like I said, this was actually the first book we published and the author was someone who took a great leap of faith to work with us to be paid on the back end via royalties that never materialized. In the end, the book worked much better for the publishing office in general—it was a good-looking book that we frequently displayed as an example of our work—than it ever did for the author. Even under the best of circumstances I’m not much of a letter writer, but the one I had to write to the author officially dissolving our contract was one of the most painful that I’ve written in a long time.

It seems to be a fact of life that our failures haunt us longer than our successes seem bright and shining, and that’s certainly the case here. It has really driven home to me that as a publisher I must have a real handle on everything from acquisitions to development to layout and design to production to marketing and sales . . . not just bits and pieces of the process. This has been a real learning experience—one that I hope to make the most out of—so that, at the very least, I don’t let any more of our authors down like this again.

Mark

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One Response to “Publishing Word of the Day: Out of Print”

  1. Clive July 3, 2007 at 5:05 pm #

    Interesting note. I didn’t make the same mistake; I chose my own most minor work as a first book to publish, so that the inevitable mistakes didn’t bother me that much.

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