Doug Leko published his book with Martingale, which closed earlier this year. He now sells the patterns as PDFs individually.
Craft books are a unique sector of publishing; they have a niche audience and ravenous fans. Writing a craft book can be a great way to establish your credibility as an artist and maker, to share your particular methods with a wider audience, and to create a new revenue stream. But eventually, most craft books go out of print—and when they do, what can you, as an author, do?
When to consider your options
Though it may not be fun to think about, your book is likely to go out of print at some point. It’s best to decide what you want to happen when you are signing your contract with a publisher.
“If keeping your book in print for a long time is important to you, ask a potential publisher about their commitment to backlist before signing a contract,” says Deborah Balmuth, vice president and publisher at Storey, an imprint where books never go out of print.
Storey includes a clause in their contracts establishing a process for revisions. “If a book has been selling consistently for five or more years but the look is getting tired or the author expresses interest in expanding the content to include new techniques or projects, we will often work with the author to produce an updated and revised edition,” she says.
Others echo the importance of reading carefully and asking questions when you are working on your book deal. “My advice to authors at any stage is to really know their contract,” says Kim Piper Werker, author of several craft books and co-founder of Nine Ten Publications. If you have a clear rights reversion clause in your contract, it can help this process go smoothly later on. This clause should include when your book goes out of print and what will happen to your rights, says Kate McKean, a literary agent who’s worked with several craft book authors and writes the “Agents & Books” Substack.
Quilt designer Doug Leko, now sell their PDFs through Fat Quarter Shop, where the audience and reach make the process worthwhile.
What it means to be out of print
“Out of print” has become difficult to define, now that books can be printed on demand and sold digitally. McKean points out that “out of print” almost never means zero books are available. “Ebooks never go away,” she says. So, in a publishing contract, out of print is typically defined as “fewer than X number of books (or X dollars in sales) over Y royalty periods.” An example might be fewer than 250 copies sold over one year.
How to know when your book is out of print
Traditional publishing companies still mail paper royalty statements to their authors every six months. “There’s a huge delay,” craft book author Kristin Nicholas says, in when you find out if your book has gone out of print. You can check to see if your book is available at local or online booksellers, but the best way to find out is to email your editor, McKean says, and ask about stock levels.
What to do next
Ok, you know your book is out of print. The next step is to email your editor to begin the process of getting your rights back. This gets tricky when your editor moves, or if your publisher is acquired by another company—something that happens often to the small and mid-size presses that publish craft books, notes Werker. If you have an agent, they can be helpful in tracking down who to contact. If not, it may take some legwork to find the right person.
The process may take longer than you would expect. A typical rights reversion works like this: once you ask for your rights back, your publisher has six months to a year to try to get your books sales back up (if they wish); if sales don’t increase, your rights will return to you.
What “your rights” means
Craft books often have photos, illustrations, and special formatting. If your publisher provided any of these, then you will not automatically get them back. However, you may be able to ask for the complete book files, or have the option to buy them. Nicholas, whose books cover color, design, and knitting, has done both. Nicholas’ agent was able to get her complete book files back for her last published book, Color by Kristin, including the images. Carrie Nelson, an author with Martingale Press, which closed earlier this year, was able to buy the complete files for her books.
You can also reach out to the illustrator or photographer to relicense their work yourself. This is a possibility Werker has considered for her crochet books, Get Hooked and Get Hooked Again. The cost of relicensing is likely to be less than doing the work yourself or hiring another artist to do it again.
Kristin Nicholas’ agent was able to get her complete book files back for her last published book, Color by Kristin, including the images. She now sells the digital patterns through her online store.
What to do with your out of print book
Sometimes, republishing, perhaps with a non-traditional publisher, is an option. Shannon Okey founded Cooperative Press as a way to republish her own books that had been traditionally published. The small press operates on a shared profit model which gives higher royalties to authors than a typical traditional publishing contract. “I thought the ‘one and done’ single-season promo calendar for a big publisher book was outdated,” she writes, “and given opportunities for long-tail sales in niche publishing, things were ripe for change.”
After Nicholas received the complete files to Color by Kristin, a knit design book, she spent two weeks splitting the knitting patterns inside into separate PDFs, which she now sells on her website and on Ravelry. Many people told Nichols, “I really want to make this sweater, but I don’t want to buy the book.” Now, her “Best Friends Pullover” pattern is a bestseller for Nichols—on Ravelry.
Try new platforms
Nichols describes the process of breaking her book into individual PDFs as “giving knitters what they want.” Knitters are very used to buying patterns from Ravelry, which has been in operation since 2006. Though there isn’t an equivalent platform for other crafters, many designers sell their digital patterns on Etsy or on their own websites. (Check out our guide to the best tools to sell PDFs online.)
You could also approach online or local retailers about carrying your book, either as a hard copy or as a PDF. Some authors from Martingale, including quilt designer Doug Leko, now sell their PDFs through Fat Quarter Shop, an online quilting store that also sells fabric, notions, and patterns. Leko says the audience and the reach make it worthwhile—FQS is a “one-stop shop” for quilters.
Re-use your patterns and designs to help your business grow. Teach a workshop using a pattern you’ve already written, or use a tutorial as a lead magnet to encourage people to sign up for your newsletter. Consider building kits based on your designs, or use your designs to create fabric (on Spoonflower, for example) or other products. Werker has thought about repackaging her more anecdotal and story-filled book, Make It Mighty Ugly, as a Substack newsletter or podcast.
Getting the rights back to your book might be the only thing you wish to do with them; it might make you feel better to know that your work belongs to you again, and you have the option to use your intellectual property as you wish. “A good outcome is whatever the author wanted,” McKean says.
And remember not to judge yourself. Going out of print is “part of the life cycle of publishing,” Werker says. “Do not, do not, do not let yourself think that this is because you have failed.”
Alicia de los Reyes
Alicia de los Reyes is a freelance writer who loves to make things. She has her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire and her work has appeared in the Billfold, the Archipelago, Sojourners Magazine, and others. See more of her work at aliciadelosreyes.com.