When Does a Book go Out of Print?

And why is it so hard to tell?

Hi friends,

How are you? Hanging in there? Keeping your head above water? Me too. Me too.

Instead of participating in more ~~discourse~~ from Twitter and such, I wanted to write another nuts and bolts post with information you can actually use, if not now, then someday down the line. Today we’re talking about what it means when your book goes “out of print” and why that doesn’t actually mean there are no more books available to buy. Remember: an ebook is forever.

First things first, it used to be pretty easy to tell when a book was out of print, because, uh, there would be no more books in the warehouse to ship to stores to buy, the publisher didn’t think enough people still wanted it to print more. The PRINT copy was OUT. See how that works? Then came ebooks and print on demand technology and some publishers—and authors, too—rejoiced because now a book need never go out of print! It can be available to anyone who wants it with a touch of a button! That’s a good thing, right?

Not always.

When you sign a contract with a traditional publisher, you are giving them the right to print and sell the book for the term of copyright (i.e. until it goes into the public domain) OR until it goes out of print, whichever is sooner. Guess which is sooner?

Your agent will then make sure your contract very clearly defines what it means when a book is “in print” (or available for sale, which is the modern term) because you likely don’t want your publisher to have rights to your book in perpetuity. If your contract defines a book being “in print” if someone somewhere can order an ebook or a POD book, then your book will never go out of print, or at least until one of Elon Musk’s rockets hits the AWS servers and we lose the internet forever. (knock wood) Why is this bad? you ask. Why wouldn’t I want my book to be available forever? Because, well, it’s your book. Why would you give it away to a publisher forever? You want the option to get those rights back if the book is no longer selling in a reasonable way. You don’t HAVE to ask for the rights back, but you want the option to.

Your agent will work to narrowly define what it means for a book to be “in print” in your contract. That usually means that your book has to sell X copies (usually a couple hundred) over X royalty periods (usually about two, which is 12 months), to be considered still in print. Sometimes it’s a dollar amount of revenue earned instead a number of copies, as well as some other variations publisher to publisher, but that’s the gist of it. You’ll want it to explicitly say that the existence of an ebook or POD option alone does not mean your book is “in print.”

You and your agent will keep an eye on your royalty statements, and if things reach the thresholds in your Out of Print clause, then your agent will request a Reversion of Rights. This says “hey, we’ve reached the stuff we said in Clause 86 or whatever, and we want the rights back, thanks.” No one gets mad about this. If sales are low enough that you’ve reached this point, then the publisher isn’t usually upset to get this letter. Also, contracts are not about feelings. Also, it’s stated in the contract, so you’re allowed to do it.

Your contract will also say what happens next. Usually the publish has a chance to get sales up/the book back in print. They get somewhere around six months to hit those thresholds again, and if they do, you don’t get your rights back until sales go down again. Which is ok because your book is selling again! But if they don’t reach those thresholds, you get your rights back. They send you a formal letter and your contract with the publisher is basically done (unless it was a multi-book deal and a few other things your agent will know about that vary from book to book).

You’re only going to be able to check these numbers twice a year, when your royalty statement comes out. Yeah, I know publishing is a freaking dinosaur when it comes to sales data reporting. But that’s what we’ve got and that’s what your contract will say, so you just have to deal with it.

And then I…. do what with the rights? you ask. Well, that’s up to you. You could self-publish if you wanted. You could update and expand the book if you think it needs it. It’s not super duper likely you’ll be able to sell the rights to a traditional publisher unless your circumstances have significantly changed (i.e. your platform got huge or something—and in that case your book would likely still be selling well). A new publisher isn’t necessarily going to be able to remarket your book if it’s already had its day in the sun. But they are your rights, and you get to have them back if you want.

When you get your rights back, though, you only get what you provided—your text and any images you personally contributed. If you licensed those images from someone else, those rights go back to the rights holder and if you want to use them again, you have to go through the permissions process all over again for a new edition. If a publisher provided (i.e. paid for) any illustrations or images, those rights stay with the publisher and if you want to use them again, you’ll have to pay the publisher for them. You also don’t get the rights to use the cover (because you likely didn’t design it—the publisher did) or the interior design/layout, because again, you didn’t make it. You can sometimes buy the the cover or interior design from the publisher, if you really, really need it.

What about remainders? What’s that? you ask. Remaindering is when a publisher sells off excess stock of a book because the book isn’t selling that fast and they have a lot of stock in the warehouse. They are taxed on stock in the warehouse, and they don’t like to keep piles and piles of books. As the author, you get a chance to buy your own book at a deep discount, if you want extra copies, but the rest are offered to bargain book stores and dollar stores at that deep, deep discount. What doesn’t sell is pulped/destroyed/recycled <single tear emoji>. Your book being remaindered doesn’t mean it’s out of stock, but it does mean that sales have slowed down. It’s a sign to me that I should keep an eye on the royalty statements to see if it’s soon time to ask for the rights back, but it’s not a book’s single death knell. And the publisher can’t remainder a book like five minutes after it’s first published, so don’t worry that if you don’t sell tons of copies right out of the gate that you’re doomed. Your contract will say when books can be remaindered, too.

You may never have a book remaindered. You may never ask for your rights back if your book goes out of print. But these are things covered in your contract, and it’s good to know what these things mean, if at least so you don’t freak out when Am*zon runs out of copies to sell and you think the sky is falling. (It’s not. Most of the time they’ll order more soon.)

Wishing you robust sales (and keep wearing your mask),