If you’re an author of books that have gone out of print, you could be sitting on a goldmine.
Savvy writers – especially those with an online following — are reveling in unexpected profits by self-publishing their defunct backlist titles as new e-books.
If you think you don’t have the money, some self-publishers don’t have any start-up fees and just take a slightly higher cut of the profits. Many writers are looking into motley fool stock advisor reviews and investing so they are able to afford the marketing costs of publishing their books, just to profit from both the investment and the books. There are lots of options.
“Today, my backlist has value to me”
“In six weeks, I’ve made three times the advance I was paid initially,” says Carolyn Jewel, an author of historical and paranormal romances who has reissued the first of her backlist titles originally published by Hachette and Penguin-Putnam. I spoke with Carolyn recently about her surprise bonanza.
“I’ve also made more than I did in royalties while the book was in print. My out-of-print titles weren’t earning anyone any money — except used books stores I suppose. Today, my backlist has value to me.”
Scroll down for DIY instructions to reissue your own backlist books
Bestselling author reissuing archive of 40 books
“I’m more excited than I’ve ever been,” says New York Times bestselling author Bob Mayer, who blogged recently about plunging into self-publishing and reissuing his defunct titles as e-books. The former Green Beret wrote the first of 40 military thrillers and historical novels in 1991, which he says have sold more than 4 million copies over the years. In addition to self-publishing his entire backlist, Mayer has opted to reject his longtime publisher St. Martin’s and their six-figure advances. Instead he’s publishing his new epic novel Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point and the Civil War, himself.
“One trait those of us coming from traditional publishing have had, is knowing it’s the long haul that counts. In digital, it’s not the spike for the bestseller list, but the long tail of sales that is the key.”
An important added benefit for an established author like Mayer is recycling the blurbs and reviews that were printed with the original edition. Those quotes lend instant credibility to readers browsing sites like Amazon.
“Isn’t this just awesome?!“
That was Nyree Belleville’s reaction to her sales figures for the first three months of 2011: books sold: 56,008, income: $116,264.
Pretty awesome indeed for a writer whose publisher unceremoniously dumped her for lack of sales only last October. Things looked very bleak, but then something important happened: the publisher handed back the rights to the first two of her 12 romance novels. The Sonoma, California-based author, who writes under the pseudonym Bella Andre, decided to reissue the two titles herself as e-books on Kindle. The results startled her: nearly $500 in a matter of months. Things started getting giddy and soon Belleville was self-publishing new titles, picking up more of her out-of-print rights and it all kept snow-balling.
“Publishers created this monster”
“I’m making a phenomenal amount of money self-publishing, more every day, more than I ever made being published by Hachette or Simon & Schuster,” Belleville told me by phone recently. “Publishers created this monster themselves by insisting and pulling on authors to sell their own books. So we’ve learned a whole new skill set that proves you don’t necessarily need a publisher.”
You can read more about Belleville in this recent Washington Post article, which featured her success as an e-book self-publisher. It’s a great story, but it didn’t happen by chance. Belleville’s a hard-working, disciplined writer with a degree in economics from Stanford, and says she writes around 4,500 words every single day.
Putting your own backlist to work
The self-publishing revolution has made it possible for authors to bring their moribund out-of-print titles back to life by repackaging and in some cases revising the contents for major sales to old fans and new readers. And as literary agent Jessica Faust told me, “Republishing backlist titles not only increases revenue, it’s a highly-effective brand-builder for authors.”
Interested? Here’s how to get started moving your own out-of-print books onto Kindle and other e-book readers:
DIY Steps for Authors
Reissuing Backlist Titles as New E-Books
1. Get back your rights
This is the crucial first step. You need a signed letter of reversion of rights from your publisher. Without it, you can’t go any further. Dig up your original contract, and if you have an agent, go over it together. For more detail, look here for a good rundown of the process and strategies if you run into problems.
I can tell you as a publishing veteran, the original publisher may be reluctant to let go, citing boiler-plate language that permits them to retain the rights as long as there are any copies left in the warehouse, or any subsidiary editions are still around, like book-club, translation or other editions. E-rights are especially contentious these days, but hold your ground. The ultimate decision will be based on the language in your contract.
Most recent book contracts, for example, have a minimum units or dollar figure to hit before rights revert to the author. Publishers may try for as few as 100 units, which makes it nearly impossible for the rights to ever revert.
Good literary agents negotiate hard on this point. “I usually try to get it changed to something like 400 units, though publishers aren’t excited to grant this,” said literary agent Rachelle Gardner on her prolific blog. “It’s helpful to have an agent who can watch your sales in each royalty period, and make that reversion request at the right time and in the proper manner.” Read more of Gardner’s take on the subject of rights reversion here.
2. Get a digital file
Here are two of the many services out there that charge a reasonable flat rate to convert a print book to Kindle-friendly digital format:
52novels (highly recommended by self-publishing guru JA Konrath)
DigitalMediaInitiatives (recommended by Amazon)
3. Get a new jacket
Author rights don’t include the original jacket design, which was paid for by the publisher. That leaves the author with at least two options: Try to repurchase the original art, or commission a new design.
“I had to buy the rights from the photographer’s estate for the original front cover photo on Looking Back, since that book came out in 1973 and the fellow who took the shot had passed away,” author Joyce Maynard told me recently. “For my other out-of-print reissued title, To Die For, I had my web designer create a new cover and I like it much better than the original.”
For a good discussion on effective jacket design, check out this post at the Self-Publishing Review on the 10 Secrets of Professional Book Cover Designers. Their cautionary note: “Nothing says ‘amateur’ faster and more effectively than a poorly designed book cover.”
4. Consider updates and revisions
Some writers wonder if it’s OK to revise a work of fiction when republishing an out-of-print book. My opinion is yes, absolutely.
Many writers I’ve worked with as a developmental editor have taken my suggestions for rewriting passages in a reprint edition, holding themselves to a high standard, seeing stylistic or structural changes that could improve the book. Why not? It’s the quality that counts. Tolstoy rewrote War and Peace several times over the decades, and so did Scott Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby.
5. Network, network, network
Author outreach and social networking to readers online is the most effective way to sell any book. Let your readers know these once dormant books are available again!
What about you?
Are you sitting on a gold mine? Do you have out-of-print books that could add to your inventory of available works?
I’d like to give the last word to JA Konrath, the tireless self-publishing evangelist. I endorse his message: “I urge all writers to look at their backlist, and figure out how they can turn those dead tree books into ebooks. This should become a required skill for writers, like understanding narrative structure, or how to write a query letter.”
Your thoughts about all this?
Carmen Anthony Fiore says
Our back list work can be revived and turned into the proverbial “sky’s the limit” fantasy success stuff, or just a refreshing rerun through our creative lives for new groups of people to read and hopefully enjoy what we’ve done in our earlier writing days. I’m all for it. I’ve added my published books and some of my unpublished manuscripts(novels, novellas, how-to/self-help)to Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader store. But we still should also think about our front list that traditional publishers are closing their doors to unless represented by a literary agent, who are just as picky to even consider reading as well. They have to be in love with the work or they can’t, or won’t, represent it with the requisite enthusiasm. I say, REALLY? They (the agents) have been in love with every manuscript they’ve ever represented? REALLY? So what’s a writer to do with his languishing manuscripts? I say go the e-book route with it and give yourself a fighting chance with your front list the same way we are now doing with our back lists. We have only our “chains” of doubt to throw off and to “go for it,” as Rocky Balboa would say. Just don’t forget to promote and publicize your “darlings.” Otherwise, it will languish in literary limbo the same way print books did and do, if not promoted diligently by the author and publisher.
Ernie Zelinski says
Your article may be the inspiration I need to publish some of my books as e-books. Although my books have been published in 28 countries in 21 languages, and sold over 675,000 copies worldwide, I still don’t have any of my books published as an e-book. Although I have had a handfull of books published my publishers, my greatest successes have come from self-publishing.
Time to get to work, I guess.
Ernie J. Zelinski
Innovator, Best-Selling Author, and Unconventional Career Coach
Author of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
(Over 140,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
and “The Joy of Not Working”
(Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)
Sheila Cull says
Alan, your response, “uniquely vague,” yada, yada, to Passive Guy, I understood – am understanding. And I’m climbing to be in that enviable position of having a backlist and/or be able to consider options.
See, I fully thought a lit agent knows EVERYTHING about contracts. Oy, so much to learn, thank you, thank you, thank you.
My re read of this, is a miracle and I’ll re read this again.
And Passive Guy, you almost sound as brilliant as Alan Rinzler! PG, fantastic post.
In the meantime, all I do is work my day job and write articles for magazine’s etc. Plus, I want an agent for my collection of essays (Alan, you’d be so proud of my improvements/editing) although now, there are more questions to ask and important things to discover about publishing.
Regarding my Comment on May 18, that does sound stupid! Because I did not read the whole thing; this time I did.
I tell you, it’s great to believe in miracles and second chances.
Brilliant information, writing and comments. Yes.
Velda Brotherton says
Thoroughly enjoyed your post. Fortunately, or due to a darn good agent, I was able to get my rights back on six western historical romances published in the mid 90s and now out of print. With the help of a writer friend, I’m in my 70s, I’ve learned a lot about this ebook business and am now working on republishing these books to Kindle. I’m very excited about what’s going on in the industry today. Just hope that the glut of books which haven’t been properly edited doesn’t cause a big problem down the road. But cream always comes to the top and bad books sink heavily to the bottom.
Thanks for all the information.
Alan Rinzler says
Glad to hear your new contract has a use it or lose it clause. As for the first six books, seven years without any e-editions is ridiculous and bad publishing. Either you or your agent, if you do have one now, should send a letter requesting reversion of rights if they don’t publish e-book versions of all those titles within 60 days.
Good luck, and please write back and let us know what happens.
Angie Mohr says
Unfortunately, my first six books were published without an agent and, although I think I did a great job on some of the clauses (including an escalator clause), I was sloppy with e-rights because the industry really wasn’t there yet. They took all electronic rights with no right of reversion except for bankruptcy (when all rights revert). It is now seven years since my first book and they have not yet published an e-version of any of my books. My new book contract has a clause about how long the publisher has to produce an e-version (use it or lose it clause).
Alan Rinzler says
To follow up, doing the math may reveal situations that are even worse than you describe. For example, what is the net? In many boiler plate contracts, the net is defined as profits after expenses, including overhead. This kind of definition became so punitive in the film and music business that somehow there never was any net after they deducted huge studio production fees, global marketing costs, salaries for talent, etc.
So any authors offered a 50% of net deal should avoid signing boiler-plate language regarding net and hire an attorney with serious publishing credentials who can negotiate the specifics to their greater advantage.
Sheila Cull says
Too confusing for me Alan. I’m just waiting for a lit agent to pick up my collection of essays and say, “Aha!”
Alan, money doesn’t buy happiness because I feel sheer joy, at my desk, writing. I work part time from home too – because of a low vision related disability, diplopia. And/but this doesn’t keep me away from the keyboard and doesn’t stop me from making heavier my pig shaped penny bank. Someday soon.
Alan Rinzler says
Your comments are spot on. You’re so right about the evolution of book contracts as uniquely vague, subjectively interpretable, crony-style documents that publishers have been using for decades and are currently loathe to revise or accommodate to the reality of digital publishing.
A veneer of book publishing gentility, moreover, has always covered up what is basically an adversarial situation, like all boss-worker conflicts, and I can tell you after decades of being on the publisher’s side of the desk, my job was always to pay as little as possible and hang on to the most I could for the big guys upstairs.
The rationale was that, hey, we put up all the money, took the capital risk, went out on a financial limb for you, so we deserve to get as much of it back as possible. Hence I wonder how many publishers you’ve persuaded to pay a minimum wage despite two-digit royalty reports and with no apparent mention of earning out the advance.
Thanks for the two links, which connect to some very important and useful information. Most contracts today, including those I negotiated as Executive Editor, did use a dollar figure to determine when a book went out of front, but we seldom if ever went above $400, far lower than the better figures you suggest, which I’m guessing would be tough to get.
Thanks for your expertise.
Livia Blackburne says
One thing would be simply to do the math. There are E distributors/E Publishers popping up offering to take care of the entire process (cover art, editing, book formatting, uploading) for a percentage of their earnings. The industry hasn’t standardized yet, but 50% of net is a common number. I can’t make a blanket statement about whether it’s worth it or not for everybody, but it’s important to think about what you’ll be getting and how much you’ll actually be paying. For example, one of your authors interviewed sold over $100,000 in a year. If she had signed with an edistributer, she would’ve ended up paying 50 grand to the estributer for that year, and every year for the rest of the contract. Unless that distributor is a marketing miracle worker, that’s way too much. A wiser choice would be to hire people at a flat fee. Of course, the calculation will be different depending on what the vendor offers, author’s projected sales, and the length of contract.
Passive Guy says
Alan – Saw your post on Forbes and followed it back here.
I’m an attorney and, although I do not practice any more, I’ve negotiated dozens of large and not-so-large business contracts. I understand publishing contracts are generally considered a specialized and arcane sub-division of business contracts.
After looking at some publishing contracts with a business attorney’s eye, I believe some of the common provisions are nonsensical and may be counterproductive for both publisher and author.
My current impression is that the “specialized” nature of publishing contracts and the publishing contracts bar is more a function of a small and provincial (yes, even in Manhattan) group of attorneys who have evolved publishing contracts in a manner that makes sense only if you have been writing publishing contracts forever and working for clients who deal with agents who, by and large, are unprepared for serious legal contract negotiations by either training or experience.
Part of serious legal contract negotiations is negotiating changes in the wording of any and every clause if necessary and developing new and innovative solutions to contract issues, including, where necessary, structuring and writing entirely new clauses. Most definitely this does not involve asking the other party’s attorney to write new clauses for you.
I’ve posted a series of articles entitled “How to Read a Book Contract” on my blog.
In one essay that has generated a great many links, comments, etc., I discuss reversion of rights. I describe a provision that I have successfully negotiated into a publishing agreement (not Big Six), which I colloquially describe as “Minimum Wage for Authors.”
Several long-time authors who are hands-on in managing their business affairs have responded with something like, “I wish I had thought of that years ago.”
The Minimum Wage for Authors was, to me, obvious when I considered the trigger problem with reversion of rights. Your article talks about “units” and some out-of-print clauses talk about how many books are in a warehouse.
The simplest way of dealing with this is in dollars. Once an advance is earned out (or 150% earned out, the number can vary), if any royalty statement pays less that a specific dollar amount for a book – $1,000, $3,000, $5,000 – the author has the option to have his/her rights returned.
In a sample clause I included in a subsequent essay, I included a warning provision – If a royalty statement pays less than $X.XX, the author can give notice and the publisher can pay the difference between the trigger amount and the royalties paid and keep the rights. If an underage occurs a second time, the publisher doesn’t have the right to cure.
Everybody understands dollars. If a publisher sees a low royalty is going to be reported to an author, the publisher can make a business decision about whether it’s worth $2,000 to keep the rights going and simply increase the royalty paid by $2,000. Any author or agent can, of course, look at a royalty statement and see if reversion is an option or not.
Isn’t that easier for both sides than figuring out what units might mean in ten years or counting books in warehouses?
I’m not trying to spam your comments, but I’ll try to insert links to the two essays that discuss the Minimum Wage for Authors concept below:
Alan Rinzler says
I totally agree. Not only older writers but everyone who is self-publishing needs to weigh options and costs carefully. If you have some specific pitfalls to watch out for or good vendors to suggest, please post them here.
Livia Blackburne says
It really is a gold mine. Makes me wish I’d started writing earlier :-) I think the main challenge for older writers with huge backlists is relearning the industry — how to epublish, the best ways to do it, which charges are reasonable and which aren’t. There are some pitfalls out there, and if you don’t do your research, you might end up paying way too much.