As long as I've been at the Penn State Press I've been trying to get John Cech's book on the poetics of Maurice Sendak back into print. It was published in 1996, before I came to the Press, and it was pretty well received, but it then quickly went out of print. The roadblock to bringing it back into print came when we approached HarperCollins, Sendak's usual publisher, about using the illustrations for a second printing. It isn’t unusual for rights holders to waive fees when permission is granted for use in scholarship, but it also isn’t unusual for those same rights holders to charge for permissions when publishers re-permission for subsequent printings. When asked about it, typically the rights holders will note that while the initial use might be free in recognition of the importance of scholarship, the economics of second and third printings are very different because so much of the vetting, editorial, layout, and design costs were covered by selling through the first edition. They will then typically conclude that any revenues made from those second or third printings are just a big, hot, steaming bowl of delicious gravy. And in the case of commercial publishers they’re probably right. But in the case of a university press, that so-called “profit” wouldn’t go to shareholders, instead it would be used to subsidize subsequent publications, often of scholarship significantly less popular than an exploration of the work of a loved and popular children’s book author.
So based on that assumption, that everything after the first printing is profit, rights holders will ask for either fees when the original permission fee was gratis, or a higher fee for fewer impressions in subsequent printings. In the case of our book about Sendak, the fees they asked for really made the economics of a reprint, let alone a new edition which would have new layout and design costs on top of that, pretty much unfeasible as the cost of the books would be so high as to greatly impact their sale. And I should point out; I absolutely understand HarperCollins’ reasoning here, though I wish trade publishers and other rights holders differentiated between not-for-profits and for-profit publishers when calculating permission fees.
Anyway, back in the late aughts, our Humanities acquisitions editor at the time was talking to one of our art history authors at a dinner party, and he was telling her about the marvelous weekend he had just spent at the shore with his great friend Maurice Sendak. The editor quickly asked the author if he knew about the book we published about Sendak's work, and he said yes, both he and Maurice loved the book. She then mentioned that we were trying to bring it back into print, but the cost of repermissioning the HarperCollins’ illustrations was preventing that. The author listened and promised to bring it up with Maurice.
About a week later, our Director at that time got a call from the rights department at HarperCollins informing him that Mr. Sendak had asked that we be allowed to use any of his illustrations from HarperCollins books free of charge, and that was what they were calling to let us know. Because of this, a new edition of the book will be published, for the first time in paperback, in the coming months.
So as a case study I suppose there are a number of things we can learn. There are a shameful number of illustrated books that have gone out of print, and the sole reason those books are out of print is the supposition that subsequent printings yield mostly profits for the publishers. That is not the case for not-for-profit publishers. We have zero profits and instead, typically we have deficits. But for authors the lessons take a different tack. Those might instead include: If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying, networks can be a powerful ally in securing permissions, and even serendipity can have a role to play.
Speaking of serendipity, a few months ago I found myself going through the
old marketing file for the Sendak book, and it was there I came across this
letter. It was written by one of my predecessors and in the letter she's asking
Mr. Sendak about just what we can do with some of the illustrations. Again we
find ample evidence of Mr. Sendak's generosity and kindness. But the best part
is at the end, where Kate Capps, the marketing manager here at the time, tells
Mr. Sendak what his work has meant to her, and there in his own hand, Maurice
replies with a "Thank you", and then politely asks to order one of
our books on photography. To see his writing in one of my silly little files caused
me to pause.
If the letter were written to me, I can't guarantee that the original letter would still be in the marketing file. Thanks Kate Capps, wherever you are. You just made my day.
To see the letters in their original size click here for page 1 and page 2.