One of the fall-outs from the economic troubles of the past two years has been publishers allowing books to go out of print (and, of course, remaindering books that aren't selling well). A book that may have been a small but solid part of your backlist is scrutinised with an eagle accountant's eye - how many copies are left? How many were sold last year? Will we reprint? Sometimes the answer is no, and lately the answer has been no quite a bit more often. The author has little say over this, and is then offered the remaining books to buy. Unlike remaindering, where you can buy a large number of your own books at a very cheap rate, in this situation there are few left and you tend to get normal discount only.
But what do you do then? With e-books growing by the day, you could republish as an e-book for little cost, and be selling your book on Amazon or on your website. However, the first thing you have to do is get your rights back. This is a process laid out in your contract - you have to request that the publisher either reprint (within the time stipulated) or return your rights. If you signed away all rights for a flat fee, forget about it, unless you can somehow negotiate with the publisher again.
Joe Konrath has been posting a lot of interesting information about e-book publishing on his blog lately. He's e-published several of his out-of-print and never-published titles as Kindle books and is doing really well out of them. However, he also has a number of titles in print, and a substantial web presence. He knows what he's doing, and warns against writers assuming that e-publishing is going to be the next big opportunity - if nobody knows who you are and the quality of your writing is not there, don't bother (he's very straightforward!).
One of my books, Farm Kid, went out of print last year. And there were NO copies left anywhere. With other books, I haven't worried too much, but this one was different. It won the NSW Premier's Award in 2005, but more importantly, it was the first of three verse novels I'd written. I considered it part of a particular "body of work", and with the third one published very recently - Motormouth - I wanted to have all three available.
The other aspect is that I do school visits, and often schools want you to bring books to sell to the kids. I had a market, even if it was only a small one. So I negotiated with Penguin to buy the use of the digital files (thank you) so that the book could be reprinted with the same cover and page design. At this stage, I have only printed 100 copies, which is the huge benefit of digital publishing, and can print more if I want to.
The next step is deciding whether I want to publish it as an e-book. I've come across two new websites that look to be the way things are going (if you decide to sidestep Amazon, for example) - Smashwords and Enhanced Editions. EE is already publishing e-books for the iPhone with lots of nifty extras. Smashwords seems to be more for the self-publishers, so we'll see how well it survives.
So now anyone can buy Farm Kid again if they want to (hey, you might have missed it first time around!). Either from me, or from Fishpond, who stock copies in their warehouse. Compared to the self-publishing I did (and taught to others) twenty years ago, this has all been unbelievably simple.