Republishing Out-of-Print Books: A Case Study

Republishing Out-of-Print Books: A Case Study

Back to the Future: Republishing Out-of-Print Books and the Vancouver 125 Legacy Books Project

The following essay was written for a graduate seminar in the Master of Publishing program (MPub) at Simon Fraser University.
PUB 800 | Spring 2016

When a title goes out of print, or at the end of a fixed-term contract, the rights revert to the author. In the current era, the concept of out of print is further complicated by print on demand technology and digital books. In 2011, as part of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary celebration, The Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia (ABPBC), with local publishing partners, reissued a collection of previously out-of-print books. These ten classic books represented Vancouver’s history as well as the literary acumen of the local publishing industry. Ranging from poetry by award-winning author Dorothy Livesay to a non-fiction narrative on Vancouver’s most notorious cold case, these ten titles were carefully selected and reissued with local publishers. The project brought four novels, four works of non-fiction, and two volumes of poetry “back into circulation, in most cases after a prolonged absence from the marketplace” (Varty, 21 Sept 2011). In republishing an out-of-print title, the publishers would not only need to re-obtain the right to publish the work, but also locate all the necessary manuscript files and images.

Vancouver 125 Legacy Books Project

When considering the attractiveness in reissuing an out-of-print title, it may appear to require less work compared to bringing out a new book, but depending on how old the title is, there may be significant editing required to make it attractive to modern audiences. There are also other sorts of issues production-wise. If the book is old enough, the files will not be digital, the plates may have already been destroyed, the proofs from the printers may not have been retained or filed properly, and more. But if there are still copies in the archives, you can use this to recreate the completed manuscript. Although I do not have access to archival sales data, the publisher can assume there is an interest in this title becoming available again based on how well the original publication did and the existing social narrative around the topic or theme. An out-of-print title with high demand creates scarcity, which is appealing to rare book dealers and collectors, which raises its market potential. But books with a geographic niche have a more limited audience, readers that may not be able to afford rare books. This constrained demand for the title as a rare book—even if the appeal of the content is strong—makes it an attractive candidate for reprinting.

Writing for the Georgia Straight, Alex Varty states that “the 125 Legacy Books project [was] a relatively small part of Vancouver’s 125th-anniversary celebrations; most of its $30,000 budget has gone directly to the six participating publishers—Harbour, New Star, Anvil, Arsenal Pulp, Ronsdale, and Oolichan—to offset the cost of printing” (Varty, 21 Sept 2011). The Legacy Books project was part of Brad Cran’s tenure as Vancouver Poet Laureate and the ABPBC helped determine qualifying books and distribute funds to the selected publishers. In personal correspondence with the Executive Director of the ABPBC, Margaret Reynolds stated that Cran had “some suggestions to publishers of books they might consider reprinting” whereas others came directly from the publishers as submissions. The submitted books were selected by a jury— Brad Cran, historians Jean Barman and Daniel Francis, and authors Anakana Schofield and Michael Turner—and “we tried to cover poetry, fiction and non-fiction”. For example, A Credit to Your Race published in 1973 by Truman Green, was lesser known due to the small print run but significant as it is referred to as the first black BC novel (ABCBookWorld, 2011). These ten books were selected “on relevance to the local history of the city, province and Canada as well as the quality of the original work” (ABPBC, 2011).

The assessment for reissuing books considered not only the viability and relevance, but also the logistics of production. For example, Cran was very interested in reissuing “former Vancouver city archivist J.S. Matthews and Squamish chief August Jack Khahtsahlano’s Conversations With Khatsalano 1932-1954, which contains a wealth of information about Vancouver’s original Coast Salish inhabitants” (Varty, 21 Sept 2011). However, the jury decided that the title, originally published in 1969, would require heavy editing due to redundancies and additional commentary from First Nations sources. Although these were “tasks that were beyond the project’s resources”, they did edit and modify some of the content, such as Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End edited by Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter. Opening Doors was originally an oral history project published in 1979 as a double issue of the journal Sound Heritage, a project from the Aural History Program of the Provincial Archives of BC. The reissue by Harbour Publishing was a monograph as part of their Raincoast series, richly illustrated with vintage photographs. However, Jean Barman states, “it’s a slightly romanticized version—I’ve listened to a lot of the original tapes and they’ve picked out sort of the nice bits from the tapes. It does give a really comfy, comfortable evocation of people living together in the Downtown Eastside” (Varty, 21 Sept 2011). Several of the books also received new introductions or forwards, such as historian Daniel Francis introducing Who Killed Janet Smith? by Edward Starkins and originally published in 1984.

Cover images for Who Killed Janet Smith? by Ed Starkins

As a previously published title, a book is an asset value of the company, and with that comes intellectual property rights. In the contract between the author and publisher, the term of the contract is stated explicitly. Frequently, this is expressed as “the life of the contract”, and defined “as long as the book is in print”. Newer contracts define “in print”—such as n copies sold per month, x copies per year, or in stock at the warehouse (Palmer, 5 Apr 2015). Thus, if the title is not selling enough copies, or if there isn’t a high sell-through, they deem the book to be out of print. Copyright law grants and protects the rights of authors work—original, expressed products of the mind—and is automatic once expressed. The holder of the copyright can assign it to others permanently, or license or transfer it, a temporary procedure under certain terms. However, in accordance with the Berne Convention, the term of copyright expires after the authors death. In Canada, copyright term is defined as the author’s lifetime plus 50 years, whereas many other countries are life plus 70 years. For all ten books in the Legacy Project, while they may have been out of print, they were still in copyright as none of the authors had been deceased for 50 years.

The term out of print becomes muddled when you consider print on demand technology and electronic publishing. The increase in digital technologies has also spurred a number of digitization projects for books in the public domain. But the potential of these technologies is limited by the existing resources and infrastructure. Print on demand (POD) technology requires additional production and database management, despite it’s comparatively lower cost. To print a title on demand, you need either a short-run printer or a machine like the Espresso Book Machine, both of which result in a higher per-unit cost. Although some major publishers have started to do this, many POD sales opportunities are currently lost by not having a comprehensive catalogue of backlist titles available via the machines (Trachtenberg, 23 Sept 2011). With the rise of electronic technologies, most publisher contracts since 1990 have had some consideration for “electronic rights” (Rhomberg, 19 Mar 2014). In 2007, Simon & Schuster and the Authors Guild of America disputed the terms in the publisher’s contracts of what constituted a book going out of print. “Simon & Schuster, which until now has required that a book sell a minimum number of copies through print-on-demand technology to be deemed in print, has removed that lower limit in its new contract” (Rich, 18 May 2007). The problem with this, states the Authors Guild, is that the publisher is not actively promoting the book, but taking advantage of the long tail. With the rise of ebooks, many authors felt they could harness the rising enthusiasm for ebooks by self-publishing their backlist (Strauss, 27 April 2012). But what many authors may not understand is that the act of making a book available online for digital download does not mean it will garner attention or sales. For that, these republished titles need a new marketing campaign, fresh new cover designs, and (depending on the nature of the original content) editing.

Although all ten books were out of print, the copyright was still retained by the author or the author’s estate. “In all cases, if the publisher did not retain the copyright, it had to be secured by a letter of agreement, I believe, in order to make the book eligible for consideration” (Reynolds, personal communication, 3 Apr 2016). Both A Hard Man to Beat: The Story of Bill White: Labour Leader, Historian, Shipyard Worker, Raconteur by Howard White (Harbour Publishing, 1983) and Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront by Rolf Knight (New Star Books, 1980) were reissued by the original publishers. Presumably they just had to secure a new letter of agreement—a seemingly straightforward task as Howard White is the publisher of Harbour as well as the original author, and Rolf Knight is still alive. However, Day and Night by Dorothy Livesay, published by Ryerson in 1944, and Who Killed Janet Smith? from Gage Distribution Co. in 1984, were both reissued by new publishers, Oolichan and Anvil Press respectively. In the case of Day and Night, Dorothy Livesay passed away in 1996, which means the copyright still belongs to Livesay’s estate. Without a worthwhile project, the effort to (re)secure a publishing contract may not be valuable, and the executor may not deem it to be an advantageous proposition. “We obtained the copyright and permission from Livesay’s literary executor” confirms Oolichan Books’ publisher Randall McNair, noting that “it was a fairly simple process in our case as the literary executor is [his] step-mother and [he is] Dorothy’s grandson” (McNair, personal communication, 5 Apr 2016).

Day and Night by Dorothy Livesay (Ryerson, 1944)

Even without the Legacy Books project, simply reprinting a title or uploading a file to an ebook store is not enough to garner attention and sales. Researchers with Carnegie Mellon University, Smith, Telang, & Zhang (2012), estimate nearly 2,700,000 out-of-print titles in the United States are unavailable as ebooks. Based on their analysis, they approximate that by “making the remaining 2.7 million out-of-print books available as eBooks [sic] could create $740 million in revenue and $860 million in consumer surplus in the first year after their debut. We also estimate that $460 million of this revenue would accrue directly to publishers and authors as profit” (Smith, Telang, & Zhang, 2012). What the researchers fail to realize is that publishing a title also requires a concerted effort in marketing and promoting the new title.

Standing alone, these six publishers would each need to coordinate their own marketing campaign, reaching out to media, fielding requests, and arranging public appearances. And, as simply a single reissued book, the worth of the product is only in its scarcity and desirability. For titles like Day and Night, a Governor General Award-winning book, or Opening Doors, a seminal work in local aural history, one may be able to make the case that a standalone reissue would be in demand. For something like The Inverted Pyramid by Bertrand W. Sinclair (1881–1972), although a successful novel when published in 1924 by Little, Brown, and Co., its appeal for independent reissue is less clear. However, as part of a legacy collection, the fictional narrative of a trio of brothers working in the logging industry has a strong historical interest. With the right marketing, publishers can effectively target the niche audience for these individual books, while bringing exposure to the ten titles collectively.

Bringing an out-of-print title back into publication can be an arduous process, and the financial return in doing so can be hit or miss. In addition to navigating issues of copyright ownership, the publisher must secure manuscript files and address any necessary edits. Furthermore, without updating the packaging—cover design and interior layout—the publisher runs the risk of not positioning the title properly. Then, like any new release, a comprehensive marketing plan should be executed with a mix of traditional and new media outreach. Despite all these hurdles, the ABPBC and six local publishers were able to were able to leverage an anniversary, Vancouver’s 125th birthday, and reissue ten out-of-print titles as the Legacy Books Project.

Cover images for A Hard Man to Beat

Annotated List of Vancouver 125 Legacy Books

  1. Class Warfare by D. M. Fraser
    • Fiction, Arsenal Pulp Press (2011)
    • published in 1974 (with a second edition published in 1976)
    • M. Fraser (d.d. 1985)
    • new edition includes an introduction by Stephen Osborne, Fraser’s literary executor.
  2. Anhaga by Jon Furberg
    • Poetry, Smoking Lung/Arsenal Pulp Press (2011)
    • First published in 1983, Arsenal Editions
    • New edition features a foreword by Stephen Osborne, and introduction by Brad Cran
    • Jon Furberg (1944–1992), co-founder of Pulp Press
    • Smoking Lung: chapbook imprint of Arsenal, founded in 1996 to support under-published poets
  3. A Credit to Your Race by Truman Green
    • Fiction, Anvil Press (2011)
    • Originally published in 1973, Simple Thoughts Press
    • Truman Green (retired)
  4. Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront by Rolf Knight
    • Non-Fiction, New Star Books (2011)
    • Originally published in 1980, New Star Books.
    • Rolf Knight (1936–)
  5. Crossings by Betty Lambert
    • Fiction, Arsenal Pulp Press (2011)
    • Originally published in 1979, by Douglas & McIntyre
    • Nominated for the Books in Canada First Novel Award
    • New edition includes an introduction by novelist Claudia Casper
    • Betty Lambert (1933–1983)
  6. Day and Night by Dorothy Livesay
    • Poetry, Oolichan Books (2011)
    • Originally published 1944, Ryerson
    • Governor General’s Award winning title (1944)
    • Dorothy Kathleen May Livesay (1909–1996)
  7. Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End edited by Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter
    • Non-Fiction, Harbour Publishing (2011)
    • Originally an oral history project, 1978 the Provincial Archives of British Columbia
    • First printed in 1979 as a double issue of the journal Sound Heritage (Aural History Program, Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1974-1979)
    • Republished as a Raincoast Monograph, edited and illustrated with vintage photographs
    • Daphne Marlatt (1942–), Carole Itter (1939–)
  8. The Inverted Pyramid by Bertrand W. Sinclair
    • Fiction, Ronsdale Press (2011)
    • Best-seller when it was first published in 1924, Little Brown & Co
    • Bertrand William Sinclair (1881–1972)
  9. Who Killed Janet Smith? by Edward Starkins
    • Non-Fiction, Anvil Press (2011)
    • Originally published in 1984, Gage Distribution Co.
    • New edition features a foreword by Daniel Francis
  10. A Hard Man to Beat, The Story of Bill White: Labour Leader, Historian, Shipyard Worker, Raconteur by Howard White
    • Non-Fiction, Harbour Publishing (2011)
    • Originally published in 1983, Harbour Publishing

Works Consulted

ABCBookWorld. (2011). GREEN, Truman. Retrieved from

Anvil Press. (2011). A Credit To Your Race. Retrieved from

Anvil Press. (2011). Who Killed Janet Smith?. Retrieved from

Arsenal Pulp Press. (2011). Anhaga. Retrieved from

Arsenal Pulp Press. (2011). Class Warfare. Retrieved from

Arsenal Pulp Press. (2011). Crossings. Retrieved from

Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia (ABPBC). (n.d.). (2011) Vancouver 125 Legacy Books. Retrieved from

Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia (ABPBC). (n.d.). Vancouver 125 Legacy Books Collection Announced. Retrieved from

City of Vancouver. (October 2011). Vancouver 125 Legacy Books Project. Vancouver 125. Retrieved from

Harbour Publishing. (1983). A Hard Man to Beat. Retrieved from

Harbour Publishing. (2011). Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End. Retrieved from

Harbour Publishing. (2011). A Hard Man to Beat. Retrieved from

Inverted Pyramid, The (novel). (25 January 2016). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Kronbauer, Bob. (8 June 2011). Vancouver 125 Legacy Book – Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona. Retrieved from

Lederman, Marsha. (27 Jan 2011). Vancouver’s “lost gems” to be republished for city’s 125th anniversary. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Lynch, Brian. (27 Jan 2011). Vancouver 125 Legacy Books Collection restores local literary milestones. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved from

Lynch, Brian. (30 March 2011). Book review: Opening Doors revives Strathcona’s rich past. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved from

New Star Books (2011) Along the No. 20 Line. Retrieved from

Oolichan Books (2011) Day and Night. Retrieved from

Palmer, A. (2015, April 5). DIY: Reversion of Rights. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from

Rhomberg, Andrew. (19 Mar 2014). Why don’t publishers sell out-of-print books as e-books? [Answer]. Quora. Message posted to

Rich, Motoko. (2007, May 18). Publisher and Authors Parse a Term: Out of Print. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Ronsdale Press (2011). The Inverted Pyramid. Retrieved from

Smith, M., Telang, R., & Zhang, Y.. (2012). Analysis of the Potential Market for Out-of-Print eBooks. Heinz College Research Showcase at Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from

Strauss, Victoria. (27 April 2012). The Importance of Reversion Clauses in Book Contracts. Writer Beware®: The Blog. Retrieved from

Trachtenberg, J. A. (2011, September 23). Out of Stock, Still in Luck: Print-on-Demand Expands. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Varty, Alexander. (21 Sept 2011). City of Vancouver’s 125 Legacy Books Project unearths forgotten literary riches. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved from