PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2015
by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter
While some publishers chase hot new titles and breakout authors, others are enjoying substantial success by acquiring and relaunching books that have gone out of print with other companies. Willing and able to take chances, these independent publishers take the long view, growing bestsellers over time from titles that others have abandoned.
Marty Shepard, co-publisher and senior editor at The Permanent Press, credits revived titles for the company’s strong launch. A chance encounter at a party with television producers sparked the idea. “‘Publishers are so nutty,’” Shepard recalls one man saying. “This guy had a major new book, but his publisher wouldn’t re-release his previous title.”
Convinced of the potential for robust sales from rereleased titles, Shepard and his partners launched their imprint Second Chance Books, focusing on books at least 20 years old but still in copyright. “If you tried to put out a book that was less than 20 years old, no one would review it again,” Shepard notes. It was through these acquisitions that he and his colleagues acquired “our first list of serious writers.”
Skyhorse Publishing is another company that has successfully republished out-of-print titles. Of the 6,000 books it has released in the past nine years, Skyhorse vice-president Bill Wolfsthal estimates that 500 to 1,000 were either previously published with other houses or self-published. “We publish them for many of the same reasons we would publish a new book,” Wolfsthal explains. “Terrific content, a strong category, or they fit with our program.” And, he adds, a track record in the form of sales history and reviews helps the company assess the potential for a revived title’s success.
Christopher Klim, editor at Hopewell Publications, estimates that reprints make up half his company’s list. “We identify highly sought out-of-print books,” Klim says. “We analyze them for current relevancy, and then we try to clear the rights, which sometimes involves an actual trip to the Library of Congress. My LOC researcher’s card is always active.”
Titles by Eric Hoffer provide notable evidence of Hopewell’s success with revived books. The author of several bestsellers including The True Believer, Hoffer had been published by HarperPerennial. When that publishing giant discontinued publication of Hoffer’s work, Hopewell stepped in and acquired several of his titles, including bestsellers, that had been in print for nearly 50 years.
“Eric Hoffer is the second-most important American philosopher behind Benjamin Franklin,” Klim says. “As nations rise economically, his books are sought for translation. Hoffer had enthralled the United States in a series of CBS primetime interviews. He’d won the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly before his death in 1983. It seemed a shame that he’d fallen out of recognition in the United States. So the key here is a book that has proven itself and may also have future translation rights.”
According to publisher Leigh Cohn, 20 percent of the titles at Gürze Books were previously in print via other publishers. Acquired by chance, one of these, Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston, is now the company’s top backlist title.
“I was selling books from several publishers at a conference where the author was speaking, and we quickly sold out of her hardcover book,” Cohn remembers. “She told me that it was going out of print because the publisher was going bankrupt and asked me if we would pick up the rights and publish a trade paperback.
“Given the onsite sales and the author’s reputation in the eating disorders field (our genre), we told her we’d do it if she could get the reversion of rights, which she did, by fax, within hours of the company closing its doors and selling off its assets.”
Since the acquisition by Gürze in 2000, Johnston’s book has sold 53,000 copies in trade paperback and 6,000 in e-book formats. A bonus, Cohn adds, is that “its notoriety within the eating disorders field helped boost our image within the genre.”
From nine years of experience, Skyhorse has ample proof of success with rereleasing titles. Topping the list: Abigail Gehring’s Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills. Since bringing it back into print, Skyhorse has sold more than 290,000 copies. Other strong-selling Skyhorse reprints include We Dare You: Hundreds of Fun Science Bets (52,000); Green Smoothie Joy: Recipes for Living, Loving, and Juicing Green (53,000); and even the 1897 Sears & Roebuck Catalogue (13,000).
Sometimes It’s Timing
“Some books deserve more than one life,” says Karla Olson, director of Patagonia Books. “Just because they have been published—and published well—doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to make them relevant again. It may take some editing, augmenting, and certainly a redesign, but a great story, or great information, deserves to live forever.”
One of Patagonia’s successes has been with Training for the New Alpinism, by Steve House and Scott Johnston, which another publisher dropped before it went into production. “We had previously published a book by Steve (Beyond the Mountain, 2009), but it was a memoir,” Olson explains. “When he proposed doing a training book, we turned it down because we had not done a very hands-on book like that before and we weren’t sure it would fit our program, which was developing.”
By the time Steve contacted Patagonia again, Olson reports, its program had developed in a way that “let us clearly see that we could reach the audience for the book Steve and Scott had written. We signed them up immediately and dove into development.”
As a result of preorders, the first printing of Training for the New Alpinism sold out before it hit the warehouse. It’s now the fastest-selling Patagonia book, with more than 20,000 copies in print. “I believe it will become a classic,” Olson says.
Keys to Second-Lives Success
Because Training for the New Alpinism was acquired before it went into production, Patagonia was able to market it as a new title, with an emphasis on connecting with the community of readers the company has developed. For books acquired after full runs with other companies, publishers craft marketing strategies that focus on special sales rather than reviews and awards. At Skyhorse, Wolfsthal notes, one of the keys to success with rereleased titles is marketing with an emphasis on “selling books through nontraditional outlets as well as in the book trade.”
Repackaging is another important aspect of marketing a rereleased book. In the case of Eating in the Light of the Moon, Cohn opted to use the original interior text pages but added new front and back matter. “Other than designing a new cover, there were no additional preproduction costs such as editing, proofing, or author advance,” Cohn notes.
Olson attributes much of the success of Training for the New Alpinism to an independent publisher’s ability to specialize. Guessing that the original publisher let the book go when it became more technical and detailed, so that the audience narrowed, she notes that “it narrowed to our exact audience, so their loss was our success.”
For Hopewell Publications, it’s the capacity to work outside traditional models that has led to success with out-of-print titles. “We are a streamlined virtual office and launch many titles on a POD platform with full worldwide distribution,” Klim says. By eliminating the cost of warehousing, Hopewell is able to offer a larger number of titles than if they were working under a more traditional model.
At The Permanent Press, Shepard and his colleagues demonstrated the flexibility typical of independent publishing when they shut down their Second Chance imprint to focus primarily on new work. While The Permanent Press still features a few revived titles, Shepard estimates that 90 to 95 percent of the catalog is now new books. But he’s quick to point out that this shift in focus doesn’t mean that the company’s Second Chance imprint was a failure—far from it. As the company began publishing, the focus on rereleased titles attracted major authors. Then, once submissions reached 5,000 a year, Shepard says, “you couldn’t just keep picking old books.”
Before acquiring a title for rerelease, Olson recommends taking a close look at the content. Dated research, for instance, might be a reason to pass on a reprint opportunity. On the other hand, she cautions publishers to look beyond initial sales figures when assessing a project’s potential.
“We have one title that was initially packaged wrong, with illustrations that didn’t really match the story, even though it was illustrated by a very famous artist with a strong following,” she explains. “Therefore, sales were disappointing. It was, however, very well reviewed because it is a great book. We decided to completely repackage for the paperback edition. I have very high hopes for it and feel it will finally appeal to its audience.”
Shepard applies the same acquisition criteria to both new and rereleased titles. “Pick books that reflect your own tastes, with writing you admire,” he recommends. “Better to have fewer sales and a stronger list.”
“Major publishers are dropping formerly good-selling titles every day because their sales fall below 1,000 or even 2,000 annually,” Klim declares. “But those are great annuities for the author and publisher. If you can find 10 evergreen reprints like the Hoffer titles, you can keep your operation afloat even during hard times.”
Deb Vanasse, who co-founded 49 Writers and founded the author coop Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; along with Cold Spell, a novel set in Alaska, and a forthcoming biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. To learn more: debvanasse.com.