February 1, 2013
Let's Not Say "Out of Print"
Speaking of old books that are still in print, what about old books that aren't? Isn't that sad? In a word: yes. But there's good news.
This is a subject on which I think everyone agrees. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to determine which group is most disappointed when a book goes out of print:
All three are passionate about keeping things in print. Since writers, publishers and readers are bound together by the lifecycle of a book, this is a place where our interests all align.
But I can't help thinking that out of print is an unfortunate, even illogical, expression. It's not as if one day all existing copies of an old book go "poof" and disappear! Published words, once printed on paper (or digitized), virtually always stay "in print" in a broader sense. The still-enduring used-book seller is testament, and although that institution has obviously seen plenty of changes in the last fifteen years, it's easier than ever to buy a copy of an old book, regardless of whether it's technically "in print."
But of course, I'm playing with the words here. In print is indeed a technical term that simply indicates its active status with its publisher, its availability for first-time purchase from its producer. But in that case, how about thinking of it as "in stock"? Just as no bookstore, even the mighty Amazon, can keep everything in stock always and forever, no publisher can either.
What It Takes
But generally speaking, publishers practice centuries-old disciplines to keep books available in stock for longer and deeper into our backlist than retailers (online or off-) can. (Even so, however, you might be shocked to hear the industry standard is 18 months to keep a book in print!)
At InterVarsity Press, we do way better than that. I've been impressed how hard we work at this. It's a major priority — largely because as a mission-driven publisher we recognize that staying in print as long as possible is good for everyone. We don't cut and run.
Let me tell you, though, keeping things in stock isn't easy! To illustrate, here's a snapshot from our warehouse this morning, which you can click to enlarge. (No, that's not the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Volume and inventory challenges are real. This photo shows only one of dozens of aisles in our 32,000-square-foot warehouse. Did I say "square feet"? "Cubic feet" would be the more relevant measure, with the shelves towering to the roof, but I don't have a solid number for you there.
As of this morning, we've got close to 1,800 separate titles on hand, totalling something like a million units. And the numbers change every day. You should have seen the look on the faces of my colleagues Anne and Doug when I asked, "How many have we got?" They figured I was either joking or insane. But the blessing of this warehouse is one reason IVP can "go deep" to keep titles in print so long.
Just One More?
As a reader myself, I have to confess I used to be irritated with publishers when one of my favorite titles went out of print. Even with IVP specifically: I remember grousing when I discovered that Colin Brown's History, Criticism & Faith was out of print, sometime in the late 1980s. I think I figured, "How hard would it be to keep just one book in stock?" And when you see our warehouse, you might figure there must be room for just one more!
This is a little bit like figuring it couldn't be too hard for the Sears Tower to be just one story taller. I once heard an architect explain that, while it might not seem too hard to add just one more story to the top of a skyscraper, the better way to look at it is how hard it would be to lift up the whole building so you could insert that "just one more" to the bottom! In these terms, it might seem easy to squeeze in "just one more book" into that gigantic warehouse — but really, the challenge is more like finding somewhere to move all the others to make room.
The Good News
Nevertheless, we do our best, with demonstrable results — and there's lots of good news these days, thanks to innovations we at the Press are pursuing. Here are just a few:
In the last couple months, we've literally quadrupled our ebook sales at ivpress.com (and want to keep that growth up). And the success of ebooks can definitely help keep books "in print" longer. For the first time, in January we were able to keep a title in print by releasing it as an ebook-only publication: A Renewed Spirituality by Lynn Baab. Is it somehow fitting that "Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife" is the subtitle? Now this book will be able to live on into a happy old age instead of facing forced retirement.
Ebooks are good for lots of things, but helping keep valuable books in print longer (maybe even forever!) could be one of their most important contributions for readers, authors and publishers alike.
We wish we could keep everything in print forever. Sadly, that's just not the world we live in. (Yet.) But even in challenging economic conditions, we can celebrate these improvements in the right direction.
What books do you wish were still in print (ours or any publisher's)? I'm curious to hear.
(By the way, you still have a couple days to enter my giveaway of some of our most venerable titles, dating back to the 1940s. Read my previous post, Top Ten Still Going Strong, for details.)