More About Out of Print Books
Last week, I wrote about the mysterious process of out of print books. A reader raised a clarification question about this process and I thought I’d answer it for today’s entry about the writing life.
Often a few people within the publishing house make the decision about when a book goes out of print. The decision is tied to sales over a particular period of time. The time period varies from publisher to publisher. The process of making this decision varies from publisher to publisher.
In most book contracts, the author is given the right to purchase books at a substantial discount before the title is declared out of print and removed from the publisher’s inventory of books. A typical book contract includes the right for the author to purchase the books. The actual discount for those purchases is negotiated with the publisher at the time of the contract. It varies from contract to contract.
When a book is about to go out of print, the book isn’t selling and the author is the key person with interest in the remaining books. The publisher has made the decision to declare the book out of print so they will contact the author and offer a “deal” to purchase the remaining books. As an example, when your book is in print, you can purchase the books at a 50% discount plus shipping costs. Yet when your book goes out of print, the publisher wants you to purchase the remaining stock and remove the books from their warehouse. They offer you the ability to purchase the remaining books at their cost plus 10% and shipping costs. (It’s just an example and varies from offer to offer.). The discount is substantial because it is like the last gasp for the publisher to have this particular book.
Contractually you are supposed to have this right to purchase the remaining books before it goes out of print. For the publisher part of this situation, they are supposed to monitor their inventory and give you this right. In practice, I’ve had problems with this situation several times—and not just with one publisher.
I’ve received a letter of apology from the publisher saying, “Our computer program was broken and we only have five copies of the book remaining. Here’s the copies to you without cost.” It’s a disappointing and extremely unsatisfactory solution to the author. Imagine my surprise when I received the next mailing from Discount Christian Books. I spotted a listing for my out-of-print book with a discounted price.
What happened? Some times the communication within the publishing house fails. Sales moved these books to the discount sales channel—all of the books—instead of informing the author. It violates the details of the author contract and the little guy—the author—is stuck without books.
In a completely different case, I had a series of four books. Two of the books sold through their printing. When the decision came to reprint, the publisher decided to take these books out of print (all four titles). They only offered me the two titles that didn’t sell for discount purchase. And the other two titles? They were long gone. Again, as the author, I was stuck without recourse.
This situation isn’t true with every publisher. Several of my publishers have solved this situation with honor and grace. One of my publishers took a book out of print. They had already sold the remaining stock to a discount house. They called and asked how many copies I would like to purchase (typically several cases of the books). They went to the discount house and recalled these boxes so I could have the books.
What can you do as an author about this situation? Not much from my view. You need to be aware of the potential problems and negotiate wisely when you sign your book contract in the first place. Also keep a steady stock of your books. In addition, you can regularly work to market your books which are in print. Remember it’s sales (or lack of sales) that will drive a publisher to make the out of print decision.