The Surprising News
When I received the email this past week, it surprised me. I should have seen it coming. With a short note, another one of my books has passed out-of-print. Through the years, several of my books have gone through the process. It’s an area that writer’s rarely think about—until it happens.
When I received my royalty statements from this publisher, I knew the sales had slacked off for this book. That’s why the news shouldn’t have surprised me—but it did.
Publishers are constantly bringing new product into the marketplace. Also they are monitoring their backlist product (older books) to see how they are selling. There is limited warehouse space and limited top zero marketing energy for these older books. When sales fall to a certain minimum (which is different for each house), someone makes the decision to put the book out of print. Contractually they write the author and alert him to this decision then allow him to purchase the remaining copies at a substantial discount. I’ve worked with a number of different publishers and I’ve rarely seen this part of the process handled properly. For one book, the publisher declared the title out of print and sent me the remaining five copies. I received five free books but there was no opportunity to purchase additional books since they were gone. This week the news from the publisher was even worse. The editor’s email said my book was going out of print and I needed to write immediately to purchase the remaining copies. The short note gave no specifics about the number of copies or my purchase price. A few hours later, the same editor wrote and said there were no remaining copies but the small amount of stock had been discarded and destroyed.
For the author, this part of publishing seems unfair. I spent hours in the creative process to put together a book proposal. Some editor championed my book inside the publisher. Then a literary agent negotiated a contract and I was given a set of deadlines for the writing portion. The writing was a pure labor of love for this project and involved weeks of late nights. I came home after a long day of work and (with my wife’s blessing) sat at my computer and wrote more pages on this manuscript. Weekends were nonexistent with those steep deadlines of writing and researching for the book. I made the deadlines and the book rolled off the presses and was sold into the bookstores. Yet this particular book never found it’s audience or niche in the marketplace. It had marketing and sales energy behind it but for whatever reason, it never sold—consistently. The steady part of sales is what keeps a book in print. Some books never make the bestseller list yet through their regular sales, they provide a regular steam of income for the author and the publisher.
It’s like I’ve often written about in these entries on the writing life. Publishing is a business. Yes, it’s a creative endeavor of the heart and mind for the people who are in it. Yet to continue, it remains a black and white business about sales. I know the life for this particular book is over in that area.
Could I sell it to another publisher? Yes, it’s possible. As an editor, I’ve contracted some books from other authors which have gone out of print. It is often harder to sell the book a second time than to sell it in the first place (which was also difficult). When the publication committee considers contracting a book which has passed out of print, they ask a different set of questions. As much as possible, they prod about why the book didn’t reach the intended market and why the editor believes this time will be different. If the passion, vision and difference is present, then the publishing executives decide to bring a book back into the marketplace—hopefully with different results. It’s a risk for everyone (publisher and author) and if the risk doesn’t pay off, then the publisher can’t continue in business. It’s that simple.