domain Out-of-Print

by Matthew Pakula

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

Publishers have two priorities: making a profit and facilitating the art of the business. For many publishers, these two goals go hand-in-hand, but, for some, one priority overshadows the other. A disproportional focus on making a profit can result in a publishing house with large profit margins but little social value. Focusing on the enrichment of art to the exclusion of profit can result in a house of high social value but with such feeble income that it will flounder financially.

By their very nature, publishers are speculators. They search for the diamonds in the rough – that’s the art of the business. They also like to have a few perennial star authors that they can count on to bring in a steady flow of dollars and remain in the black for the year.

Once published, a book can be allowed to flourish or languish as the case may be. The most important part of keeping a book in print involves finding a publisher and an editor who believe in the book.

As the only person personally invested in a book besides the author, the editor is the essential advocate for keeping a book in print. Regardless of a book’s sales, if the editor has a certain stature and the confidence of his fellow associates at the publishing house, he or she can keep a book “alive” for a considerable period of time.

Of course, no matter the opinion of the editor, the publisher primarily considers marketing statistics and sales figures, weighing those numbers against the book’s artistic or social value. Issues regarding the rights the imprint holds can also come into play. Many titles go out of print when the publisher’s rights to the book end. A work by a mid-list author will most likely lose some value when it becomes available for anyone to publish without fear of copyright infringement.

There are additional issues to take into consideration. Does the author have a history with the house? Is the house trying to build a history with the author? In other words, is the publisher nurturing the author and hoping that sometime in the future the author’s talent will win out, creating a demand for his or her works, past and present? Such ground-swellings of support for an author can lead to backlist sales and more books in print.

With all of this factored, there are still the perspectives of other executives, most notably the business manager and president. Certainly, when the financial person rings in on the pure numbers of a book, the resultant equation is obvious: “Sales are high or steady” equals keeping it in print; “sales are slumping or nonexistent” equals calling the bindery and ending the life of another author’s masterpiece.

The president of the imprint that publishes the book has a fourth perspective. One of the most important aspects to him or her will be the reputation of the house for keeping the work in print. He or she must consider how heavy the backlist remains without that title. Will it be replaced by another upcoming work that will prove more prestigious or have better sales and marketing opportunities? Or is the social value so overwhelming that minor sales are nothing compared to the loss of the house’s reputation for ending the availability of the book?

All this said, don’t get discouraged. If you haven’t written a bestseller, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed. While, in most respects, the preceding paragraphs could have been written five years ago, these same paragraphs won’t be applicable five years from now. Technology is changing the way the publishing industry defines “in print.”

The once reasonably constant fiscal relation of “cost of books produced” versus “profit on books sold” has forever been altered by such technological advancements as on-demand printing. With so much information now being stored digitally, books have become easier to transfer. Now, the content of a book can be sent via ISDN line to a bookseller or wholesaler with a print-on-demand machine. These machines can print a single copy of a book in a relatively economical fashion. A publisher can keep the book in print forever, allowing literature buffs to visit their local independent bookstore or Barnes & Noble and have a sought-after title created on the spot. (Of course, this method of publishing only creates a paperback copy, but it allows books to remain profitable and take up only “virtual” warehouse space.) As this technology penetrates the market, it lessens the financial need for publishers to cease printing a book. It also allows them to create powerful collections of backlist titles – available in print form at a moment’s notice.

The e-book is another feature of the rapidly evolving digital landscape that will contribute to the decline of out-of-print titles. Many “new economy” companies, such as Versaware, Lightning Source, and NetLibrary, are helping publishers digitize their backlist titles. Titles will be available electronically in formats ranging from PDF, HTML, Microsoft Reader, Rocket ebook, Softbook and Glassbook. Forthcoming titles will be digitized as well, though it will be at the time of production.

Contrary to what some believe, such developments do not mark the end of paper and ink publishing; e-books and e-publishing will serve to enhance the distribution and reach of an author’s words, keeping books available for years after they would have been pulped and discontinued. Despite our speed-obsessed society, e-books will not begin to make serious in-roads until the children of Generation Y begin to go to school, as those children will use electronic textbooks, thereby becoming connected to the technology at a young age. When a whole generation becomes familiar with the technology on a daily basis, then e-books will cease being a novelty of the 21st century.

Ultimately, going out of print will be relegated to a footnote in the history of information dissemination. And I look forward to the day when my children have the opportunity to find those books, which may have never made it to 2025, but are available because of the publishing industry’s ability to adjust to the changing face of book publishing.

Publishing will always be a business of the arts. And regardless of how the format changes – hardcover, paperback, e-book – as long as there is a glimmer of profit to be made from the intellectual property of a bestseller or a budding Michael Crichton, publishers will keep a work available.

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Matthew Pakula has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. He has been with Random House, Inc. and Alfred A. Knopf Publishers for just over three years, as Corporate Affairs Associate and New Media Publicist, respectively.