Book contracts, textbooks, and going out-of-print

Closed Captioning Handbook

When I wrote The Closed Captioning Handbook, I had no agent, so I negotiated the contract myself. It looked pretty straightforward, and it looked like I was covered in the event of the book going out of print; rights would simply revert to me. I was wrong.

The Closed Captioning Handbook was not intended to be a college textbook, but it became one. When several schools were using it as a required text in closed captioning courses, my publisher (Focal Press, then an imprint of Elsevier and now owned by Routledge) raised the price of the 400-page book to $71.95. It seemed like a high price to me, but with a kid in college, I’ve seen much worse textbook prices.

Then, last November, I got an email from a college asking if they could buy books directly from me. I contacted the publisher, and was told the same thing the school had been told: The Closed Captioning Handbook is out of print.

I immediately began planning. I would do some updates (the book was written in 2004), reformat the book for print-on-demand (POD), and release it for a lower price. At the same time, I’d put out ebook versions that were even more affordable for poor college students without affecting my royalty income. Alas, this was not to be.

The college had been told: “Our inventory department has been unable to locate stock. It’s an ‘out of stock’ book that we no longer carry.” (I have a copy of this email). When I talked to Focal Press, however, I was told that the book would probably be reissued as POD. This bypasses the rights reversion and leaves control in the hands of the publisher. In the meantime, a semester came and went and students had no textbooks.

Let me emphasize that last point:

According to my contract with the publisher, if they reissue my book using POD, it bypasses the rights reversion. Instead of letting it go out of print, in which case rights revert to me, they keep the rights whether they market the book or not!

I told the college several times that I thought I’d have rights back imminently, but was unable to come through for them. In the past, I’ve said I didn’t need an agent. I’ve written 23 books without using one (20 of those through traditional publishers), and the contract problems are beginning to appear. Would it have been worth giving up 15% of my income on this book to have an agent? Seven years ago, I said no. Today, I think my answer would be different.

[Update 12 July 2011: It appears that the book is back in print, and I’ll be doing a book signing later this month.]

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