Republishing Out of Print Books – It’s Not as Easy as You Think
When I began posting reviews of Dinah Dean’s long out of print Russian Series set during the early years of the nineteenth century, it was with the knowledge that Ms. Dean was deceased and that I had seen no signs of her books being digitally released. But then – a miracle! Cover & Page Publishers began reissuing them. Millie Page then offered to write a brief article for us describing the steps behind what it takes to rescue these OOP books. –Jayne
Why Great Books don’t get Reissued: A Guest Post for Dear Author
There are many wonderful books out of print. For fans of these books it can be frustrating and baffling that they’re not being republished. For instance, Dinah Dean’s books caused some confusion here at Dear Author as why they weren’t being reissued. The bleak reality is that publishing old books isn’t sufficiently lucrative for most publishers to think it worthwhile.
We think it is important to retain the history of the romance genre for the enjoyment and interest of readers now and in the future. However, there are a number of tricky hurdles before books get the continued availability they deserve.
The first question is whether there is a live author and a digital version of the manuscript. If both of those are the case (books written mid-nineties onwards), the book is probably already available as ebook. But it gets interesting where one or both of those things isn’t true, because the cost and inconvenience of reissuing a book with no digital version of the manuscript makes it both a specialist job, and almost more hassle than acquiring a new book. Moreover, there are several other things that make reissuing old books less attractive to a major publisher – the author cannot write new ‘frontlist’ books, cannot approve major edits, and can’t do all the extra marketing that is expected of authors these days. So even if an old book is as commercial and perfect as one written now, it is still less attractive. At which point, all the big publishers put their time into new, more commercially viable, books.
The most common reason that older books are now available is that the author’s family have already self-published. Authors often beget authors, and a son or daughter will often take on the publication of their parent’s books. If a book has been out of print for some years, we can generally assume the family are not interested in publishing it themselves. In that case these books (and their readers) rely on small companies like Cover & Page to keep the stories of these older books alive.
Let’s look first at the very basics of how a book goes from out of print to ebook. If at any stage the process fails, we’re (usually but not always) dumped into waiting 95 years after the book was published for the copyright (in the USA) to expire on anonymously published works.
The process ideally goes like this:
1 establish who the author is
2 establish who owns the copyright to the books, find contact details for them, and check they have sufficient documentary evidence to prove ownership
3 establish who should profit from the royalties of the books
4 agree on a contract with the copyright holders
5 acquire paper copies of the books
6 digitize the books, agree on any changes to the books to account for modern sensibilities, new cover, new blurb, proofread, and publish
That all sounds quite straightforward, yes?
Let’s have a look at how it can be impossible at each stage.
Question one – Who is the author?
Many authors write under pen names and many of these have never been revealed. This is the case for a large number of Harlequin and Mills and Boon authors. If the author’s legal name is unknown, there is nothing to be done but wait.
Question two – Who owns the copyright?
Essentially, copyright is either sold in its entirety by the author (rare, although more common in the past), or gifted when the author passes away.
Quite often the author has divided their books between multiple charities and family members. Negotiating with ten different parties is a non-starter, so those books remain unpublished.
Even if we can establish who now owns the copyright, it’s often a non-trivial issue to find that person. Not everyone has a large digital footprint, especially older people. And if a person’s name is ‘John Smith’, the search is much too wide to be feasible.
In addition, many people won’t even be aware they own these books, and don’t want the hassle. They might also be embarrassed by their relative having written romance. There is still a stigma.
Question three – Who benefits from the royalties?
Royalties are payment for use of copyright, so they ought to be kept together. If you have the copyright, you get the royalties. But this isn’t always the case. Well-meaning authors sometimes have allocated the royalties (but not the copyrights) of all or some books to particular parties. Romance writers on average are a generous bunch, and many gift their royalties to charities, who then struggle to utilize them fully.
This situation creates a non-trivial problem. Why would the copyright holder permit republication (with all the hassle for them) if they don’t stand to benefit financially from royalties? Particularly where there are multiple parties holding shares of the copyright and the right to royalties, this makes it impossible.
Questions 4 and 5 – Contracts and finding the print books.
Actually pretty straightforward, compared to the following and previous steps. The acquisition of copies of the books in question needs patience and perseverance. Many romances were treated almost like magazines – like they had no value at all, and were thrown away after reading, and printed on very cheap paper. And because of the perceived (lack of) value of romance books, they’re often not catalogued in the way that other genres are.
Question 6 – Publishing the book for a new audience.
Then comes all the usual things that are required for publication, including a manuscript. Converting a paper book into a digital book can be done in several different ways, but all are laborious to achieve the high-quality product both readers and the author’s legacy deserve. Like with a newly written book, multiple rounds of editing are required to catch every mistake, (including the ones printed in the original book, of which there will be more than one) with the added difficulty that the author cannot make any “calls” about style, and the digitisation process adds many errors.
There is an extra and serious consideration for older books. Edits are required to make a book that was written sometime in the past acceptable for readers now. This isn’t always straightforward. Particular words and characterisations that were common in the past are not acceptable now. Sometimes books fall at this late stage, if the negative stereotypes are so deeply embedded that it isn’t possible to remove or excuse them.
Once a digital copy has been created, it is then necessary to recreate all the other aspects of the book. The back cover copy and cover are copyrighted separately to the text itself, and usually cannot be used in the reissue.
The cover and book description are especially important. They need to inform readers of what they’re getting and manage their expectations, as older books are written in a different style. It’s a bit like if you order food at a restaurant and something similar but different arrives. If you ordered chicken and are given turkey you’ll be upset, even if it’s delicious turkey. But if the menu is clear that it’s turkey, you’ll be well pleased. This involves a delicate balancing act of giving the book a beautiful cover that appeals to modern audiences, but also showing that it is a bit different.
From a Readers’ Perspective
What should you do if you want to see a book reissued? Review it and talk about it in a public forum that’s easily searchable. Goodreads is an obvious choice. Then, if someone is looking at whether there is interest in a book, they can find evidence in a logical single place. That’s probably the single biggest thing, but not very likely to do much, sadly.
You can also put in a request with Cover and Page and we’ll see if we can find out anything.
Now it’s over to you. I’d love to hear your memories of books you read years ago. Everyone has old favourites that are difficult to find now.