Books In and Out of Print

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Back in the Dark Ages, we used to look books up in these big, heavy volumes. They had very small print!

I can’t count how many times I’ve had to tell a disappointed customer that a book is “out of print”.

“But that can’t be!” the customer will exclaim. “It’s a wonderful book. And it just came out a couple of years ago.”

A couple of years is a long time in the fast-paced world of book publishing, where the focus is always on the next bestseller. Most books die a quiet death after their one and only printing. Bookstores return unsold volumes to publishers, and I’m sorry to tell you that eventually publishers may destroy those books.

Once, an elderly woman asked me to order a book that she said was a special favorite. I couldn’t find any listing for this book or its author (or for any variation of their names), so I finally asked her if it was an older book. “Not really,” she said. “It came out after the war.” “The war” was World War II, and I tried, without success, to convince her that it really was an old book and unavailable for us to order. I offered to do an out-of-print search, but she wanted only a brand new copy. I’m sure she thought I was a hopeless incompetent and went off to torture some other bookstore.

Unknown-1Recently, I had coffee with local author Mary Driver-Thiel, who had just published her second novel, Twelve Thousand Mornings. Our conversation meandered from Mary’s writing career to favorite new books to the literary legacy left by Mary’s mother and grandparents. Mary set up her own publishing company, Pine Lake Press, and has published both her books independently. Through self-publishing, Mary is able to maintain complete editorial control over her books — and she will decide how long they stay in print.

Mary is a third-generation author. I think she and her mother are probably the only mother and daughter who have both held readings at Lake Forest Book Store. Mary’s mother, Ginny Winter (called “Mrs. Munroe Winter” in the invitation the bookstore sent IMG_0432in 1962), wrote a series of children’s books on ballet, riding, swimming, skating, and more. Mary’s grandmother, Mary Adams Kraus, published several books of poetry. All their books are out of print, with just a few available on eBay. Mary’s grandfather, Milo Winter, was a well-known children’s book illustrator, and several of his books remain in print today.

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Mary Driver-Thiel signing books at Lake Forest Book Store.

Twelve Thousand Mornings, the engaging story of a middle-aged woman who is forced to reinvent her life (“What did a 56-year-old woman who had never had a proper job in her life do when she was left destitute?”), is off to a great start. The book, a sequel to Mary’s well-received earlier novel, The World Undone, has been popular at Lake Forest Book Store. Now Mary must transform herself from a writer into a marketer: “It’s a funny thing–when I spend months and months in solitary pursuit of a finished novel, I daydream about the launch and promo. I really do enjoy talking to people about my work.”

The literary community is divided on the question of whether the explosive growth of self-publishing is a positive development. Author Thomas Christopher Greene (who most recently published The Headmaster’s Wife with Macmillan), says has “mixed feelings” about self-publishing:

I have friends who choose to self-publish. I do think publishing, when done well, is a team sport though. I certainly don’t want to have to worry about designing covers or choosing fonts or distribution or copyediting. There is also a crucial curation role that publishers play.

Clearly, many writers are frustrated with the “curation” function that publishers, who are traditionally gatekeepers, serve. No one seems to know exactly how many books are independently published each year, but estimates range from 300,000 to 500,00 or more. How many of these are family memoirs and cookbooks or other efforts intended only for a small audience? And how many are serious literary endeavors? Again, no solid information is available.

Mary emphasizes on her website that self-publishing doesn’t mean DIY; many authors who publish independently understand, as she does, that creating a book is a “team sport”:

Yes, anyone can self-publish a book for under fifty bucks, and if it’s just for friends and family, that’s fine. But for someone who is planning to venture into the bigger world of serious writing, multiple edits for content and copy are essential. Essential, too, is hiring a high-caliber formatter to keep the widows, orphans, and dingbats under control and a professional graphic designer because a book is, indeed, judged by its cover.  There is also a world of difference between do-it-yourself publishing and independent publishing with a quality team. To quote my wise and wonderful agent, April Eberhardt, “We can and must educate authors, and the publishing world at large, that ‘indie’ and ‘self-published’ mean many different things.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing self-published authors is getting the book noticed — by booksellers, readers, and reviewers. To say the market is oversaturated is an understatement. Bookstores can stock and display only a tiny fraction of the books that are published each year. As an article in Forbes magazine harshly points out to would-be authors: “No one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe . . .on average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Yours won’t stand out.”

still-alice-9781501107733_lgEvery now and then, through a serendipitous collection of factors, a self-published book becomes wildly successful. The most recent example is Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, which she decided to publish herself after she couldn’t find an agent or publisher. In her website, Genova says:

It’s important to know that a self-published book was not my goal. I self-published because I couldn’t make any headway on the conventional road to a book deal. My self-publishing goal was to demonstrate that Still Alice had an enthusiastic and sizeable audience. I wanted to give my book a chance to wave its arms in the air and yell at the top of its lungs, to create a buzz loud enough for the literary agents and publishing houses to hear. And at the end of my self-published day, I still wanted a book deal from a traditional publishing house.

Eight years later, Still Alice is still in print, along with Genova’s three subsequent novels. (And of course, Still Alice was made into an excellent movie, with Julianne Moore winning the Oscar for Best Actress.) That’s a Cinderella story that doesn’t happen very often . . . but it’s one that I’m sure every self-published novelist knows.

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9 thoughts on “Books In and Out of Print

  1. I always love your insight into how the book business works…I’m coming at this blogging thing purely as a reader, so this is all new and interesting info for me! And – I didn’t know Still Alice was originally self-published -wow!

  2. Very informative and interesting post! I didn’t know Still Alice was self published at first. I know many people who will not read a self published book. Just goes to show they can be amazing!

    • They absolutely can be amazing — but more often than not, they are not. We’re all told not to judge a book by its cover, but if a self-published author has gone to the trouble to have a book professionally designed, that tells you something.

  3. I really wonder how publishing can evolve to the benefit of everyone. There is so much wonderful energy and initiative out there; how can those voices get heard? And on the other hand, there is a lot of blather and nonsense. It’s an exciting but challenging time for people who love words.

    • You sum up the problem really well: everyone wants to be heard, but does that mean what they have to say is worth our time? Personally, I think there are too many writers and not enough readers! >

      • Print-on-demand is a really interesting development because you don’t have to make a huge initial investment in printing. I could imagine sort of “gatekeeper” organizations that would be ensuring quality and name recognition but with printing and sales done on demand. Or curated cooperatives of authors — some of these exist already. I do think authors deserve more autonomy and respect, but only the good ones!

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