Never assume retired titles can’t be revived!
- Out-of-print books can have a second, sometimes even a third life. My first book, Maryland Lost and Found: People and Places from Chesapeake to Appalachia, was published in 1986 by Johns Hopkins University Press. It has since had two different paperback editions, from two different publishers. My second book, Chesapeake Country, which first appeared in 1990, is being reissued in an updated “Second Edition” by the same publisher. The official publication date is March 10th, but copies may be pre-ordered online now.
- Check your contract. Many contracts have a reversion-of-rights clause, which means when the book is out of print, the publisher is obliged to give you back all rights so that you can shop it around to another publisher. But even if your contract lacks this clause, it is perfectly proper to write to your publisher requesting the rights back.
- Don’t be discouraged. Even with a reversion-of-rights clause in my contract, it took Hopkins more than a year to act on my request, as it first reconsidered its decision to stop printing the book after two printings. I enlisted the Authors Guild, which is worth every cent of its annual membership fee, to help me pressure Hopkins to do the right thing, which eventually it did.
- Be proactive. So, you’ve got the rights to resell your book. Now what? Hopefully, if you have successfully marketed it, you have made other contacts in the literary world. Mine them. From my reporting days, I knew Bill Thompson, who had covered the Eastern Shore of Maryland for the Baltimore Sun and was now at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, which had a small press. He thought I might be more successful with another regional publisher, Woodholme House, which was affiliated with the Bibelot bookstore chain in Baltimore. I reached out to its director, Gregg Wilhelm, by mail and phone, and we clicked.
- Expect the unexpected. The Woodholme paperback edition appeared in 2000 as Maryland Lost and Found…Again. It had many more illustrations, different acknowledgments, some updates, and an attractive new cover. I made many speaking appearances to promote the book and, in less than two years, it had sold nearly 2,000 copies. Then, shockingly, Bibelot went bankrupt, and with it died Woodholme. Suddenly, I was again without a publisher.
- Be enterprising. The book was technically out of print, but still marketable. I was able to purchase 169 copies of remaining stock at $2.25 each, and I aggressively began to sell it. A professor at Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University, in Baltimore County) who taught a course in Maryland culture, began buying my book — directly from me — for his classes. He paid full price ($15.95) for my $2.25 remaindered copies. I also wasn’t shy about taking the book around to stores in outlying areas that might be interested. In such cases, I usually charged $10 per book, still a very handsome profit of $7.75 each. This was far more than I had received in royalties; it just required more effort (and a Maryland sales and use tax number).
- Look for the silver lining…and yet another publisher. By now, my editor at Woodholme had moved onto Tidewater Publishers, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He put me in touch with the managing editor, Charlotte Kurst, and the book, with more updates and other changes, was republished in paperback in 2003. A year later, Tidewater was bought by Schiffer, a family-owned publisher in Pennsylvania, from whom it can still be purchased. Truth is, I haven’t done much marketing lately, but I still get modest royalty checks twice a year — not bad for a book that is nearly 30 years old.
- Be persistent. My second book, Chesapeake Country, has had even more lives, depending on how you count them. It was first published in the spring of 1990 by Abbeville Press, which specializes in attractively illustrated coffee table books. And that’s what this book essentially is, with photographs by Lucian Niemeyer, who recruited me to write the text. The reviewers did not see it exclusively as a picture book and praised the writing, as well. With Abbeville, it would sell out five printings, more than 32,000 books in all. But sometime in the mid-90s, the printings stopped. I began lobbying Abbeville for more printings or a reversion of rights. Again, I called on the Authors Guild, which wrote to the publisher championing my cause. Though rights were never reverted, my nagging resulted in two more printings and, this spring, a “Second Edition.”
- Be creative and don’t despair. By 2012, it was clear from our royalty statements that Chesapeake Country was inarguably out of print. I thought we should try again, but Lucian was pessimistic. Nonetheless, I contacted Bob Abrams, the publisher. A month passed before I received a response. Rather than return the rights, Abrams wondered if we would be interested in a new edition. A conference call followed, then an amendment to our original contract. The result is Chesapeake Country (Second Edition), with my new introduction, a different format, and updated captions and index. It is, in effect, a 25th-anniversary edition. It is being featured in the spring Abbeville catalog.
- The bottom line. Sure, frustrations are part of the creative process, but there is much satisfaction from actually publishing a book. If the birthing process is painful, seeing the finished product is food for the soul. But let’s be real. Your book is intellectual property. It is a commodity, and it has monetary value now and in the future. Even if, as these things sometimes go, it is currently out of print.
[Editor's note: Eugene L. Meyer will read from Chesapeake Country (Second Edition) at the Takoma (Washington, DC) Busboys and Poets on March 16th at 6:30 p.m. and at the Alexandria, VA, Barnes & Noble on April 18th at 2 p.m.]
Eugene L. Meyer is a member of the board of the Washington Independent Review of Books, a magazine writer and editor, and a former Washington Post reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter at @GeneMeyer.