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Bringing Out-of-Print Books Back to Life

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Now that new production methods offer the option of tiny print runs, it’s relatively easy for publishers to resurrect out-of-print books by using print-on-demand (POD), digital short-run printing, or even traditional offset. Of course, the fact that something is technologically possible doesn’t mean that it’s financially profitable, but when the books have enduring appeal for readers–even if the numbers are modest–and when the publishers create and implement intelligent marketing plans, the trend toward using short print runs to give books new lives is a healthy one.

To Change or Not to Change

Some republished books strive to faithfully preserve the original. Some include updates or other revisions designed for modern sensibilities. Both strategies can be effective, depending on the publisher’s target audience and editorial objectives.

Patria Press (in Indianapolis) is systematically rereleasing the venerable Bobbs-Merrill Childhood of Famous Americans series, from Amelia Earhart, Young Air Pioneer to William Henry Harrison, Young Tippecanoe, with updated text and book designs suitable for today’s schools and libraries. Meanwhile, Black Classic Press (in Baltimore) has republished dozens of titles, such as 100 Years of Lynching (originally issued by Lancer Publishing in 1963), and has preserved their look and feel. (Patria Press, by the way, uses traditional offset printing, whereas Black Classic Press uses both offset and POD.)

Some publishers combine the best of both worlds. For instance, Ocean Tree Books of Santa Fe republished Flea Market America (originally from John Muir Publications) with a new cover design to grab the eyes of modern readers but preserved the vintage interior almost untouched to capitalize on nostalgia appeal for readers who remember Muir’s distinctive line from the ’70s and ’80s. My company, Unlimited Publishing LLC (Bloomington, Indiana), used a similar strategy to republish Let the Tail Go with the Hide as a POD paperback.

Where the Costs Are Cut

Most publishers acquire rights to republish older books from their authors or from the authors’ estates rather than from the original publishers. While some pay modest advances for republication rights, many find that the writers are delighted simply to see their work back in print and generating royalties.

But low acquisition costs are only one attraction for publishers as they consider bringing back out-of-print books. Another incentive is inherited value, in the form of editorial and design work done by the original publisher. In combination, these savings let a republisher produce a quality book at a fraction of the original publisher’s cost.

The republication costs for smaller publishers surveyed in this report were lowest ($1,000) for an unchanged book produced with POD printing only and relatively high ($12,000) for a book that was updated before republication and had an initial offset printing of 2,500 copies. Both figures include acquisition, editorial, production, and marketing expenses.

The costs of marketing and promoting republished books are also lower than comparable costs for new titles, for several reasons:

Many republished books enjoy residual demand from readers long after they fall out of print. Paul Coates of Black Classic Press reports that before his firm rereleased 100 Years of Lynching, bootleg copies of the original were circulating on inner-city streets. After readers could get the republished edition in bookstores, the bootlegging faded away. Similarly, Teresa Williams Irvin, the author of Let the Tail Go with the Hide, continued to receive requests for the book, year after year, from researchers, librarians, and history buffs. Because this story of the American Southwest was originally issued bound in leather with a real gold peso on the cover, the few copies still to be found were very expensive. Now available again as a POD paperback with a $14.99 cover price, it can remain accessible and affordable to readers for years to come, in quantities small or large.

Readers are easier to find. Most books that achieved even moderate readership in their original incarnations are discussed on the Web. A simple Google search can often identify scores of readers who are delighted to hear about new editions. Patria Press regularly receives notes of thanks from parents who enjoyed the Childhood of Famous Americans books as children and order new copies for their own kids.

Libraries sometimes have copies of earlier editions in their collections that need replacement because of physical deterioration or obsolete content. (N.B.: Even if libraries aren’t interested in replacing older copies, they are often receptive to requests from patrons for the new edition.)

Republications inherit previous critical reviews and blurbs that can be helpful in current marketing. For example, Ocean Tree Books used, “This book cheerfully explains how to be a savvy buyer or seller at everything from your own sidewalk sale to a giant flea market” from a 1983 review in the San Francisco Chronicle, while Unlimited Publishing recycled Ronald Reagan’s comment–”I’ve already started reading it, and am enjoying it immensely”–about the original edition of Let the Tail Go with the Hide to promote the republished version.

Bottom-Line Benefits

Together, all these advantages can help publishers recover the cost of republication with less risk and expense than unproven new material. At Black Classics Press, virtually all the republished titles have covered their advances and continue to generate new revenues, whether they sell a handful of copies or thousands of copies each year. At Patria Press, more than half of the nine Young Patriots titles republished so far have already achieved profitability. And when Back Bay Books rediscovered two novels by Thomas Savage (originally from Little Brown circa 1960—70), both went back to press in more traditional form. The Power of the Dog, unchanged from the original, had an initial printing of 10,000 copies. The Sheep Queen, retitled from I Heard My Sister Speak My Name, had an initial run of 7,000 copies. After the first printings sold out, Back Bay ordered 2,500 more copies of each.

In short, because the costs of republications are often significantly lower than the costs of publishing new titles from scratch, many wonderful older books are coming back to the reading public, generating slow but steady profits for the publishers who revive them.

Danny O. Snow, formerly a contributing editor for BookTech: the Magazine for Publishers, is now a full-time publisher at Unlimited Publishing LLC. With Dan Poynter, he is co-author of a POD paperback titled U-Publish.com: How ‘U’ Can Effectively Compete with the Giants of Publishing. A collection of his articles and letters titled Steal this e-Book! was released in print and electronic form in 2002.

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