Kodansha International and translator rights
As most of you know by now, Kodansha has made the decision to close Kodansha International, which has published a stunning array of Japanese books in English translation for a long, long time. KI will apparently cease operation at the end of April 2011, and rights will be transferred to Kodansha along with all their other assets.
A lot of KI's fine books, though, have been out of print for a decade or more, although KI has retained rights. While the company used a number of different contracts, the majority of them state that if the book is out of print for 90 DAYS (not years or decades!) then the author has the right to serve a notice requesting a reprint within 90 days, and if KI fails to reprint within 30 days of that term, the rights revert. As for what constitutes "in print," most of them state that the work needs to be "available for sale" and sometimes that there must be a minimum of 100 copies in KI's stock This is still pretty vague, but it does put the onus on KI to prove that they are making it available for sale.
Once rights are transferred to Kodansha, it will be much more difficult to pry them loose. If action isn't taken RIGHT NOW, those books could be locked up in oblivion for another decade.
My advice to translators, therefore, would be to request a statement of sales covering a given period of time (they should receive this in the form of a royalty statement anyway, and should also have the right to examine the publisher's records upon serving advance notice). They can also try to find if there are any copies available for sale via Internet (and print out any pages that state "out of print" or offer the book at an elevated price!). If the statements/records show that there have been no, or negligible sales for a number of years, then whatever KI's database says I think they are quite within their rights to request the work be reprinted or the rights reverted within the time specified on the contract. I would suggest the approach to KI would be better coming from the translator (or their agent/lawyer whatever) than from another interested publisher.
KI has been sitting on these excellent translations for years. I know, because I have approached them a number of times about republishing selected works, and they have hemmed and hawed and delayed. They claim that just because the book hasn't been on sale or in stock for a decade doesn't mean it is out of print.
If translators regain their rights to these translations, they can hopefully sell them to a publisher which wants to publish them. Kodansha would be able to publish the books as easily as any other publisher, and I doubt a translator would balk if Kodansha offered them a contract. So why keep them all locked up?
I urge everyone in the JLIT community to pass this email around freely to translators, organizations and everyone else and do what we can to get these rights reverted to the translators. At least that way all of this material has a chance of seeing daylight again!