Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Print on Demand

I got a really interesting author question about print on demand, and I've been looking forward to having the time to address it. Here's the reader's note:

Dear Moonie,

I illustrated a picture book that went out of print a year ago. My agent contacted the publisher to ask that rights revert to the author and myself. She was told that the book was being reissued as a paperback. Good news, I thought, until I discovered that the picture book was reissued as print-on-demand. Very Bad News. Now the book is priced at $11.95 and takes 4-6 weeks to deliver. No bookstore will carry this book.

I asked my agent about the situation and she dug up the clause in the contract:

"The existence of an individual print-on-demand edition shall not consitute the book being in print unless there are reported sales of 100 copies per year or more."

This is a stalling tactic on the part of the publisher. It appears that I have to wait a year to see if 100 copies sell as p-o-d and then another year before rights can evert.

My agent tells me that this reflects the 'new' thinking. Is that true? I recognize that publishing is a risky business and that the publisher is trying to hedge their bets but why not put some muscle and money behind the book instead of this wishy washy holding on.

What is your experience with this type of situation. Is there anything I can do to protect myself from this on my next contract?


Thanks for sending me this question, because POD is something I think most authors don't really stop to think about until their book is at the far end of the publication road--if your book isn't out of print already, you're rarely trying to revert rights.

For people who aren't familiar, print on demand is when a publishing company fails to get significant orders for a particular title to afford an actual reprint (the lowest affordable reprinit in most situations is 1,500 copies, but for tax and storage issues you can't do a 1,500-copy reprint if you can't believe that you'll be able to sell through that many copies in two years). POD is basically a glorified Kinkos situation, where a per-copy price (usually relatively high, making the book high priced and unprofitable) is arranged (only with a real book printer, not from Kinkos). However, it allows the publisher and author to continue to claim that a book is in print--it is.

Most contracts have a print on demand clause--I've stumbled across a couple that for some reason don't, but my guess is most people will have to deal with this issue at some point. All contracts will have reversion clauses. Reversion is when rights to publish a book are formally returned to the author, making the contract effectively void. Understandably, publishers don't like to revert rights, and print on demand is an executable way for us to keep rights and keep a book in print without having to commit to a full-scale reprint.

This querying reader couldn't have put it better--claiming right to print on demand a stalling tactic on the part of the publisher. If you ask for rights reversion, you should be aware that you're going to stir up the pot over at your publishing house. The knee-jerk reaction is "no! Ours!!" The secondary reaction is "what's the recent rate of sale? If it's really selling all that poorly, should we maybe just revert rights?"

But the third reaction is "wait a minute--why does the author/agent want rights back, anyway? Just to sit at home with their little 'Your rights have been formally reverted' letter? That seems unlikely. So they must have some kind of plans for the book--are they going to try to resell? They can't possibly resell to another company on the rate of sale that we've had of late; no one would buy rights! Unless they know something we don't! Is there a movie coming out? Has the author survived some kind of hostage situation and is suddenly all over the news? What don't we know about this whole story?" So that's the complicated thought process that happens in our little minds whenever you ask for a reversion.

Print on demand is not always a bad thing--in some cases (say, where there is a steady market of about 200 copies of the book a year, through maybe universities or author events) it's a convenient way for the book to go on being available to readers who want and need it, the author makes incidental royalties, the publisher makes some small change. Everyone's happy. Of course, this works better for authors who appeal to certain markets. In the querying reader's situation, POD is, I'll admit, not ideal. She wants rights to her artwork back, but because of the nature of children's book distribution and sales there is little chance her book will be adequately represented in most stores.

I will admit that POD is frustrating for us, too. Yes, we like to have your rights, but we also like to make money from them instead of just spending time arguing about who has them now. We make almost no money off of this POD stuff.

You know what we REALLY like, though? New stuff. Instead of a reprint or a reversion, try discussing a reissue--that means the book is re-catalogued, re-sold in, and re-packaged. The only trick is that in order to get the chains to carry a reissued book we need to be able to offer them never-before-available material.

Here's a plan to make your editor happy AND get your rights back:

You as a backlist author come back to your editor and say, you know, I noticed my masterpiece on the history of kittens has fallen into POD status. I know it's a little dated now, and you're unlikely to reprint as it is. But I was thinking, I would really like to take another stab at Chapter 4 and Chapter 9--I think with some updating the book will be really sharp and current.

Your publisher, who will naturally want to nurture author relations, will almost certainly be willing to discuss revision opportunities with you (unless your book sold just abysmally, in which case it probably won't be in POD, since there will be stock from the first printing left over).

For fiction authors, it's a little trickier, but there are other things you can bring to the table. Is there an upcoming anniversary of some kind that can be a publicity window because it corresponds to your subject matter? Have you recently become best friends with Donna Tartt and has she told you she'd be willing to write you a forward? Was an episode of HOUSE loosely based on your premise? Did you make a Hollywood friend who mentioned being interested in optioning it? All these things SEEM unlikely strung together like this, but you'd be surprised how people can make these things happen.

As for protecting yourself in future contracts, I would venture to say the POD clause is not going to be negotiable. However, you WILL be able to negotiate the number of copies that constitute "in print" on your particular contract. For example, in this reader's contract, the annual number is 100 copies. You can probably drive this number up at least a little, although it will vary from publisher to publisher. But at least that way there has to be considerable POD interest to sustain the book in print.

I hope this helped. Please let me know if I can clear anything up.

Also, thanks to the reader who queried, who really went above and beyond by enclosing these two links, if you're interested in reading more about this:

Last year's Simon & Schuster scandal re: POD status in contracts (PW)

More on S&S "rights grab"


BreBre711 said...

Hey thanks for commenting on my blog! It's nice to know that there is someone OUTSIDE of my friend/family circle reading my blog...even if by accident ;)

As for Rachel Dewoskin, I didn't get to read "Babes in Beijing" :( I've been so busy with teaching that I had to take the book back to the library and haven't been back since :( I want to read it though! Although, I do recommend Chang Ta-Chun's(I hope I typed his name right...?) "Wild Kids"

Thanks again!!

Bre :)

P.S. Ayu Jelly Green Tea is the best!!

Anonymous said...

Dear MR,

Another balanced, well considered and educational response. I am so glad I asked. Everything you wrote made sense. Will you be my editor???

Warm wishes,

Lisa said...

This is all so interesting and something I knew absolutely nothing about. Thanks for another well written post.

Charles Gramlich said...

This makes me sigh.

Shameless said...

Wow, Moonrat! You are a star! Your generosity here with your tips and advice is astounding. I love reading through all the thing you touch on. :-)

Froog said...

What - no posts at all this Thursday?

I hope everything's OK in Ratville?

moonrat said...

there was a plague in Ratville, alas, and moonrat was abed. she has now, however, eaten some cumin garlic soup and a turkey and feels much better. thanks for asking.