Writers in the Storm

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January 8, 2016

When is a Book “Out of Print”?

Susan Spann

Happy New Year!

SusanSpann_WITSIn 2016, my guest posts here at Writers in the Storm will take a look at some vital clauses and concepts authors need to understand before signing a publishing contract or agreeing to self-publishing terms of use.

One of the author’s only chances to terminate a publishing contract unilaterally (a term which means “acting alone,” whether or not the publisher consents) lies in the contract’s “out of print” clause.

All good publishing contracts and self-publishing terms of use state that the contract either terminates automatically or can be terminated, and all rights in the work revert to the author automatically, when the work goes “out of print.” (Sometimes, contracts give the publisher an additional 6-12 months to return the work to “in print” status before allowing the author to terminate the contract.)

Older contracts allow the publisher to decide when a work is “out of print,” but the current industry standard ties out of print status to sales (or, better still, to “royalty-bearing sales”).

When reviewing an “out of print” termination provision, either in a publishing contract or in self-publishing terms of use, the author should look for three important components:

1. How the contract defines “out of print.” At a minimum, the contract should define “out of print” with reference to stated sales numbers.

For example: “For purposes of this Agreement, the Work will be considered out of print if the Publisher fails to sell at least 250 royalty-bearing copies, in the aggregate of all forms and formats, during any period of twelve consecutive months (or longer) during the term of this agreement.”

Beware of clauses that define out of print in the following ways:

  • “the Work is no longer available for sale” (or “no longer available through publisher’s standard sales channels”)
  • “the publisher determines that the Work is out of print”
  • “no copies of the Work remain in Publisher’s warehouse”

All of these can trap an author, and his or her work, in a contract that never ends.

In the days of print-only contracts, publishers could define “out of print” by reference to availability because sales depended on the production of printed books. Ebooks changed this dynamic, however, by making books perpetually “available” as long as an ebook is offered for sale on Amazon or on the publisher’s website.

2. Automatic termination vs. termination by notice. Some contracts state that the agreement automatically terminates when a work goes out of print, while others contain a notice provision requiring the author to notify the publisher of the author’s desire to terminate the agreement if sales fall far enough for the work to be considered out of print. Contracts requiring notice from the author usually also give the publisher a stated period of time (normally 6-12 months) to increase sales and bring the work back into “in print” status before the author’s request to terminate takes effect.

While many authors think an automatic termination provision is better, there are situations where an author wants a work to remain in print despite slow sales. Keeping a work in print means readers can find it (at least in ebook format) and having backlist titles “in print” may be helpful for the author’s career.

Generally speaking, it’s better for the contract to offer the author the option to terminate rather than containing an automatic termination clause. In the case of self-publishing terms of use, the termination should be even simpler—the author should be able to terminate, and revert all rights, at any time and without any complex procedures.

3. A non-ambiguous statement of rights reversion on termination. It isn’t enough for the contract to give the author termination rights when the work goes out of print. The agreement should also include a non-ambiguous statement similar to:

“All rights granted to the publisher herein revert to the author automatically upon termination of this agreement, regardless of the reason for termination.”

Without a clear statement of rights reversion, rights to the work could remain in limbo—or worse, remain with the publisher—even though the contract has (or should have) ended and the work is out of print. Non-responsive publishers can hold authors hostage simply by refusing to send a written reversion of rights or acknowledgement after contract termination. A statement of automatic reversion helps prevent this unpleasant situation.

Read all contracts and self-publishing terms of use carefully, and make certain you know what they mean before you sign or click “accept.”

If you have any questions, get a professional opinion, even if that means paying for an attorney or finding an agent. After you sign, the agreement controls your legal rights and obligations, and often cannot be changed. Take the time to ensure your contract is unambiguous and compliant with current industry standards before you commit yourself and your work to any form of publishing relationship.

What do you think about tying “out of print” status to royalty bearing sales? Do your contracts contain sales-based out of print clauses?

About Susan

claws-coverSusan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. The fourth Shinobi Mystery will release from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan is the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor).

16 comments on “When is a Book “Out of Print”?”

  1. Susan, you touched on something that has worried me since I signed my contract. I have to go back and look at that contract, but have been afraid to know! Thanks for the nudge....

    1. Don't feel badly--none of us want to go poking in dark contractual corners, because of what we might (or might not) find. Even so, the good news is that you have options, and moving forward, you know what to look for!

  2. This is fantastic, Susan. I had no idea there were SO many ways to define "out of print.' We're so happy to have you looking out for us and our readers!

    1. Thanks Jenny! And yep--I've seen lots of out of print clauses over the years, most of them pretty terrible for the authors. It's one of the biggest areas of trouble I see lately.

  3. Essential information! I can't see a reblog button, but I'm posting the link on my blog at http://www.justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com.
    I had old contracts that required me to give notice and then wait 90 days for the publisher to decide whether or not to re-activate the titles. While I was pretty sure the rights to at least one of the books had already been passed on and then returned to me by another publisher, I went through the steps as laid out in the contracts. The hard part was finding the right place to send my notice. The web site (of a major publisher) was no help. I found a "permissions" link and wrote asking that my request be forwarded to the right person. That eventually happened. and I eventually received written confirmation of the reversion.
    The clauses you provide would have saved me a lot of trouble. I'm not sure they were standard when my books were originally published, but for future publications, I'll be on the lookout! Thanks for some solid advice!

    1. These clauses weren't standard until recently--and the language is actually changing again now, because of some issues we've seen with publishers (especially smaller ones) not responding properly to requests for rights reversion--so don't feel badly if the language isn't in an older contract.

      I'm glad to hear you were able to get through the hoops and get the information you needed!

      (By the way, there might not be a "reblog" button here because a lot of bloggers would rather you linked to the content and sent your readers back to the original source. Reblogging has become popular, but posting your response at your blog and linking back here is actually a fantastic way to expand the conversation, because it's not only drawing attention to this post but adding value on your end as well--your response and your story are good for people to know!)

  4. Excellent blog post Susan. I never miss one of your articles. You'd think a post about contracts would be boring but on the contrary, they are rare and wonderful.

  5. Excellent information here as usually, Susan. I have shared generously. I will be sure to check any book contracts that I may get in the future. Thanks for the info.

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