One of the most exciting days in the life of a children’s book author (or illustrator) is when you learn that your book has been accepted for publication. But, receiving, years later, the often inevitable “We regret to say…” publisher’s letter announcing that your book is going OP (out-of-print) is rarely welcome.
This isn’t always bad news though…particularly these days, when there are so many options available for authors. But first, you have to make sure, when you sign the original contract, that you can ask for the rights back when the book goes out-of-print (OP). All mainstream publisher’s book contracts contain a clause referring to this. Not “out of stock,” but “out of print.” You need to clarify what OP means… I just signed a contract and had them add language that specifies that if the only edition available is an electronic one, there must be a minimum number of sales/income (usually spread over two royalty periods or one year) for the book to be considered in print. Whatever the number/amount is, it should be sensible in terms of the kind of book and likely sales, for print or ebooks. So make sure that a POD (print on demand) or electronic version does not constitute being “in print,” unless you also specify an amount (sales or income) for those options. (Because most publishers aren’t yet doing apps, in my latest contract, I retained the app rights only, among the electronic options.)
You don’t need a lawyer; just send a letter asking for the rights to be reverted to you. They usually have six months to respond to your request; if they don’t, the rights automatically revert to the author anyway. Some publishers send back the copyright papers; some don’t. Also, and this is important, ask for the electronic files/printer’s files (or printer’s film, if it is an old book). You may have to pay a fee for this, but it is worth it if you ever want to reprint or sell the rights. (In my case, a lot of original illustrations have been sold and are unavailable; it would be impossible to rescan them.)
The publisher usually allows you to buy a quantity of your books at a deep discount, when they notify you that your book is going OP. Always do this! The first few years I didn’t quite understand that OP meant (that, unless another publisher or opportunity comes along, that is IT for your book!), so I didn’t buy enough copies, and now only have a few left of some of my titles, which sell occasionally for a lot on Ebay!
So, now your book is OP, and you have had the rights reverted to you, and have acquired the electronic files. There are many opportunities available now to recycle, reprint, and reuse your content.
You may want to make (and will need to market) your own print book, ebook, or app. You may be able to find a publisher to reissue the whole book again (with perhaps an update, or a reworked cover). For this you get a new contract and new advance. The contract is similar to any original book contract, but the advance is usually less. (I’ve sold the rights for three of my OP books, which have been reprinted, with four more OP books in negotiation right now to be reissued, and have sold one book’s rights to make an app.)
And licensing is a great option… anywhere from a picture or paragraph, to whole chapter excerpts. If the book was still in print, you would usually get 50% of the fee (the publisher does the negotiation and gets the other 50%), but if you own all the rights, you get it all! There are various algorithms that will help you calculate what to charge (and, for a model, check the past rights deals done by your publisher; they usually send the details to you). Fees are mostly determined by the size of image or excerpt and quantity of print and e-rights requested (not necessarily the duration of the license). Usually they come to you, so marketing rights like this on your own is not easy. The way it works: the request is sent to your publisher the first time, and they forward it to you (because the rights have reverted). If you have already licensed to the company, from now on they will come directly to you, often to relicense the materials after the agreed upon time period for the first license has expired. They supply the forms and language in their letter/request; you just agree to it, give a price, a credit line, and sign. I’ve sold rights to excerpts from my books (most written with my husband, Bo Zaunders) for thousands of dollars to the IOWA State Reading Tests (used throughout the USA), as well as other school tests. With CCSS (Common Core) coming along (whether we like it or not), testing will continue to be a big part of education. You may also get reprint requests for visual images or covers, for various publications.
Besides reissuing or reprinting all or part of the book in a traditional print format, as mentioned, you can remake it, or parts of it, into a POD (print-on-demand) book, an ebook, an app, or other transmedia forms (website, blog series, etc).
Consider all of your hard work – creativity and ideas, research, crafting the book, your intellectual property – a tangible asset. Its value does not end when the print run is finished. Think of it as unique content, available to be “exploited” (by you!) in more and different ways. This is a wonderful time in publishing – great variety, a multitude of formats – and for authors, more control than ever over our work.