Back to the Frontlist: What to Do When You’re Out of Print by Nora Maynard
You worked on your manuscript for years, revising it, sending it out, enduring countless rejections. Finally, your dream comes true: You land an agent, a contract with a major publishing house, you hit the bestseller list. And then…your book goes out of print. What next?
This is a conundrum my family and I recently faced. The writer? My grandfather, the late Leonard Wibberley. The book? The Mouse That Roared. A runaway 1955 bestseller that was translated into multiple languages, was made into a classic film starring Peter Sellers in 1959, and saw more than two dozen printings and four successful sequels in the decades that followed, was out of print. Wibberley’s longtime agent had herself passed away, and the family had all but given up.
Years went by. And publishing changed. In 2015 Wibberley’s granddaughter (my cousin) Emily, a recent college grad had a manuscript of her own—and several sequels in development. True to her generation, she saw great opportunities in eBooks, self-publishing her successful YA series, The Last Oracle, using Amazon KPD (Kindle Direct Publishing).
Impressed by the potential for reaching new audiences digitally, her parents, screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, began to consider the possibility of self-publishing Cormac’s late father’s work.
“We wondered why Leonard’s books weren’t available as eBooks,” Marianne recalls. “Had no publisher ever approached the family about it? Not sure we even know the answer to that. But we quickly learned that if we did this ourselves, there would be no agent commissions and that Amazon pays an incredible 70% royalty on each eBook priced $2.99 and above, so we gave it a try.”
But what happens when a writer becomes a publisher? Is it really as easy as all that?
“We won’t lie,” Marianne admits. “There’s definitely a huge learning curve to e-publishing.” As she and Cormac moved through The Mouse That Roared’s four sequels, and on to some of his other titles, however, they hit their stride. “You do it once, it gets easier and you even get addicted—addicted to the control of the work. If you hate the cover, you can fix it. If a reader finds a typo, you can fix it. If you think the publisher priced it to high or too low, you can adjust it. If Amazon pigeon-holes you in a category you don’t like, you can email them and they’ll change it. You can also control advertising. We applied for a Bookbub ad, were accepted, and sold thousands of books in one day this past December.”
And that is how a former hardcover and paperback bestseller from the 1950s and 1960s, which went out of print in the early 2000s, became, along with its four sequels, an unexpected Kindle bestseller in 2015. All to the great joy of myself and the rest of my family.
But our publishing story doesn’t end there. My grandfather, the Dublin-born, longtime California resident, Leonard Wibberley, was the author of over 100 (no, that’s not a typo) other books, most of which were also out of print as of 2015. In an ambitious (or, perhaps you might think, foolhardy) project, my family is now working to bring the rest of his work into the digital age.
When it comes to publishing some of his other titles, however, we’re facing a different sort of challenge. Many are written in diverse genres (adult fiction, memoir, travelogue, middle-grade, YA, sci fi, historical fiction, biography, mystery, poetry, plays) and under different pen names (Leonard Holton, Patrick O’Connor, Christopher Webb). And although all bear Leonard Wibberley’s signature style and wit, most are not as well-known today as his “Mouse” series.
So what to do about this problem of bringing older books to new readers? We decided to take a creative approach.
I joined The Duchy of Grand Fenwick family publishing team, as we now call ourselves after the tiny, feisty, fictional nation in The Mouse That Roared, this winter for the e-publication of a childhood favorite, McGillicuddy McGotham. The book, originally published in 1956, and later reissued in 1966, is a witty tale about a leprechaun diplomat who visits New York City and Washington, D.C. in order to settle an international dispute with the U.S. president. Rather than simply republish it as-is, we decided to add value, giving the book a special boost for 2016.
Here’s a short summary of the strategies and techniques we used, some of which I hope will be of use to other out-of-print writers
Find a Timely Angle
Sometimes the, ahem, advanced age of a book can work to one’s advantage. With the very current popularity of Mad Men, Carol, and Brooklyn, the book’s colorful setting—1950s-era New York—is very much in the public’s imagination. Rather than try to downplay McGillicuddy McGotham’s age and remarket it as contemporary title, we decided to celebrate it. We noticed 2016 marked McGillicuddy McGotham’s 60th anniversary. Why not commemorate it with a special edition? We also saw St. Patrick’s Day as the perfect time to offer this Irish-American tale to a new generation of readers, so chose a March publication date.
Celebrate the Old, but Keep Things Fresh
We obtained permission from the family of the original artist, Aldren A. Watson, to use his artwork on a freshened-up, slightly modernized new cover. We tracked down reviews from the 1956 and 1966 editions and added them to the Amazon listing, alongside current reader reviews.
We invited journalist and author Quentin Fottrell to write a new Introduction to the eBook. As a native Dubliner and recent New York transplant, he was a fantastic fit. His Introduction covers the book’s publication history and gives it a bit of historical context, all while teasing out a few choice bits of the story. We believe 2016 readers will find Quentin’s Introduction as much as a pleasure to read as the novel itself.
The family also, while sifting through files, rediscovered correspondence between Leonard Wibberley and actress Rosalind Russell of Auntie Mame fame regarding their collaboration on a musical adaptation of McGillicuddy McGotham. Although this adaptation (alas) never saw production, it made for some truly charming letter-writing. We obtained permission from Rosalind Russell’s estate to include the letters, and also added some previously unpublished photos of the author, as well as some 1950s newspaper clippings about the collaboration. These are all things you definitely can’t find in an old print edition of the book.
Build an Online Presence
My grandfather died in 1983 and isn’t around now to write his weekly newspaper columns, or to give public lectures and readings, or all the other things that kept him in the public eye during his day.
Fortunately, the Internet is a great remedy to this obstacle (not to mention a great boon to shy or travel-challenged writers promoting their work now). Leonard Wibberley wrote his manuscripts on a typewriter and scrawled out his personal correspondence in longhand with a fountain pen, but I’m pleased to say he now has a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account and an author website, all of which help connect 2016 audiences to his work.
Like the eBooks, none of these things cost much, if any, money to produce, although all do require a fair measure of personal commitment and time—a current reality for both traditionally and self-published authors alike.
The Internet has also given Leonard’s weekly newspaper columns new life, as the family is gradually posting them to his author site. As his son Cormac wryly observes: “He’s a blogger now. In fact, he was a blogger his whole life but just never knew it. He would’ve loved the Internet, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten much writing done.”
(c) Nora Maynard
About McGillicuddy McGotham
From the bestselling author of The Mouse That Roared comes a witty tale of a leprechaun in New York. Timothy Patrick Fergus Kevin Sean Desmond McGillicuddy (for short) is a leprechaun diplomat on a mission to convince the President of the United States to halt the construction of a new U.S.-owned airport on a tract of Little People land in Ireland. With the belief “mischief is me nature” and the help of a 10-year-old American boy, he proves wee folk a big force to be reckoned with.
This special 60th Anniversary edition features a new Introduction by journalist and author Quentin Fottrell, memorabilia with Rosalind Russell, original cover art by Aldren A. Watson, and previously unpublished photos of the author. A timeless classic, McGillicuddy McGotham will charm adults and young readers alike.