Forward to next post: But wait, weren’t they supposed to be on our side?
[Update, 8:32 a.m. EST: I’ve added new material to the bottom of this post.]
We talk about immortal literature, but the vast majority of books are as mortal as we are. Who here has read John Cleveland? He was the most popular poet of his era, with numerous editions of his work published during his lifetime and just after. Then his style went out of style, as did his Royalist sentiments. Bye-bye, Cleveland.
It happens. You wouldn’t believe how many authors were left gasping on the beach when the tide of 1920s experimentalism ebbed—not that you could tell, looking at a bestseller list, that they’d ever been in print in the first place. When I was young, paperback gothics and nurse novels and books of poetry by Rod McKuen were all over the racks, but they disappeared like the passenger pigeon. More recently, the collapse of the horror boom left a lot of authors with nowhere to go.Let us consider the Cader Books website, where they’ve put up the bestseller lists from 1900 to 1995. Reading through the lists makes an interesting exercise:
Which books have you read, from what years? Did you read them for a class, or for fun?The literature taught in schools is that which has survived: a collection of gross statistical anomalies. This is misleading. Falling out of print is a book’s natural fate. We can belatedly train ourselves to believe that this will happen to other people’s books. What’s hard is for writers to believe it will happen to their own.
Which books have you heard of but not read? If you’ve heard them referred to in the past, did you recognize the reference as the title of a book? Do you know the title only because it was reapplied to something else—a movie, a TV show, the name of a nightclub, miscellaneous other?
Which authors are you familiar with? Which authors have you heard of? Did you hear about them for something other than writing yon bestselling book?
Do you own any of these books? How many of them have you seen on a bookstore shelf within the last couple of years?
Tell me again how unjust it is that your own books are out of print?(If you want to get a little more perspective on a given year, go to Wikipedia’s List of years in literature, though Wikipedia’s list of significant books for that year won’t match the bestseller list. You may also be able to find information on more recent bestsellers at the Bestsellers database.)
It’ll happen just the same. It happens faster in mainstream fiction than it does in Our Beloved Genre, more slowly for nonfiction history books, very fast indeed for computer manuals; but in the end, all but a very few titles will be forgotten. Just look at the authors in that collection of bestseller lists. You’re a literate bunch, but have you ever heard of Harold Bell Wright? How about Mazo de la Roche? Mary Roberts Rinehart, Lloyd Douglas, Irving Bacheller, Frank Yerby, Coningsby Dawson, Warwick Deeping? These were all notable authors in their day. Some of their books were no better than they should be, while others were genuinely praiseworthy; but all of them spent some time perched on top of the commercial heap.
All gone, now. We shall none of us escape obscurity.
Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.
This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.
Hollywood’s real attitude toward copyright is that it’s one more useful tool for gaining control of intellectual property. When I was a sprat, and Martha Shwartz was explaining copyright to me in terms of things to watch out for when copyediting, she used the Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes estate as real-world example.
Conan Doyle’s work was out of copyright, she said, but the estate was still combative about anyone using the works, characters, images, et cetera; and so they had to be tiptoed around. Furthermore, she said, images associated with Sherlock Holmes which originated in the movies, not the books—f.i., the deerstalker cap and the calabash pipe—belonged to whomever owned the rights to the 1940s Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. She said she knew of a case where someone had written a novel in which there was a Victorian detective, not explicitly identified as Sherlock Holmes, who wore a deerstalker cap and smoked a calabash pipe. One of the studios had taken some kind of legal action, and required that the book be rewritten.
I dutifully remembered all that. Years later, I took great pleasure in letting Martha know that those traditional images of Holmes did not originate in the 1940s filmed versions. The deerstalker cap was bestowed on Holmes by Sidney Paget, one of his early illustrators. The deerstalker cap was perpetuated by actor William Gillette, who played Holmes onstage from 1899 to the 1930s, and also was responsible for giving Holmes his curved calabash pipe. I don’t know which studio it was that harassed the house where Martha’s friend was working, but they were asserting rights they manifestly didn’t own.
(“I’ve seen other cases like that,” Teresa said briefly, biting her tongue.)
But I nearly digress. Hollywood and Sherlock Holmes are the big guys. Very few of us are big guys. We’re minor and less-minor and respectable-in-our-day authors. Nobody’s going to contribute heavily to elected officials’ campaign funds in order to get laws passed that will enable them to retain control of our works. All we have to shoot for is the hope of being read.
Life of author plus 70 years does squat for your chances of being read. The knowledge of books and publishing possessed by the aforementioned heirs of the ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage usually boils down to, “No one would have thought Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats would be worth a lot, either.” They’ll turn down a proposal to do a nice little reprint project (not a lot of money in it, but everyone involved read the books when they were kids, so they’re fond of them) that would be just the thing to revive a little interest in your work. Why? Because if one publisher is interested, it must mean that some other publisher would be interested as well. There could be an auction! A movie! A theme park! Woo-hoo! Pots of money!
Only there isn’t another publisher. Time passes. The heirs-and-assigns and their ignoramus lawyers lose track of the project. Nothing happens. The moment is gone.
It could be worse. One of the heirs could have literary ambitions, and conceive the idea of finishing Grandpa’s abandoned partial-plus-outline. They could offer publishers a joint package of their short stories plus Great-Aunt Eleanor’s stories, take it or leave it, which effectively means Great-Aunt Eleanor’s stories can’t be reprinted. They may refuse to allow republication because they can’t get their own work published, and their literary nose is out of joint.
Here’s a completely hypothetical case: ownership of a popular body of commercial fiction starring a very recognizable central character passes to some collateral branch of the author’s relatives. These people don’t know recto from verso. The estate’s executor is very knowledgeable, and is doing a good job. Unfortunately, some thuggish, ignorant local lawyers convince the heirs that the executor is doing them wrong, and get themselves made executors instead. They then proceed to mishandle the estate for their own profit and amusement. After years of bad behavior, they cap all their previous exploits by scuttling what would have been an extremely profitable pair of media projects based on the work. Why? Because part of their price for letting the property be used is that they themselves should be given high-level jobs in the projects, for which they’re completely unqualified. This doesn’t happen. Instead, the projects get rewritten to star two similar-but-not-copyrighted characters. One’s a great success, the other’s a huge success, and both would have done the literary property a world of good.
Mind, that’s hypothetical.
If that’s too complicated, imagine an author’s entire body of work being kept out of print because the rights passed to the ex-spouse’s third husband after the ex-spouse died, and he hated the author.
Even if the heirs-and-assigns aren’t pulling flagrantly stupid stunts, those extra decades of copyright are a drag on the publishability of the work. David Hartwell and I were both doing big retrospective story collections in the wake of the last big copyright extension. That change did something which I’d been told in my youth would never happen: works that had gone out of copyright went back in. David got caught with “The Machine Stops” already in print in his collection, and had to pay the E.M. Forster estate some undisclosed sum he still growls about. I was luckier. It took Bob Cloud of SMP Production two or three memos to convince me that “Danny Deever” was a problem, but I was finally made to realize that it really had gone back into copyright, and had to be pulled from Eileen Gunn’s introduction to “The Affair at Lahore Cantonment.”
Right about now would be a natural time for people to be compiling anthologies of the early 20th C. writers of fantasy, horror, and proto-SF. It’s not happening. Look at Dunsany. His marvellous and seminal fantasy short stories were published in collections from 1905 to 1919, but the man himself lived to 1957. And think of that moldering forest-floor mulch of writers who sold who knows how many stories in the course of their careers, only one or two of which a modern reader might still find striking. Just finding the stories would be a heroic but imaginable tasks. Securing the rights is beyond imagination. The heirs would range from intransigent to unfindable; and those you could find would have to have the entirety of standard publishing practices explained to them, after which they’d consult their cousin the real-estate lawyer, who would give them dreadful advice. Best not to even try. Too bad, but it’s best not to even try.
Electronic piracy is a fight that’s still being waged. Like extended copyrights, proposed draconian laws prohibiting electronic piracy and other copyright infringement are being hailed as a defense of the rights of the little guy. You know what? They aren’t. They’re being pushed because the big entertainment combines are all twitchy at the thought of their content escaping into the wild.
We known that the biggest reason people buy a specific work of fiction is that they’ve read and enjoyed another work by that same author. For years now, Jim Baen has been making electronic versions of his books available online in advance of their hardcopy publication. As far as anyone in the industry can tell, it does their sales no harm at all, and may well help. Cory Doctorow made his first novel available online at no charge. His hardcopy sales were just fine. Further afield, I’ve noticed that when Patrick has the opportunity to listen to lots of unlicensed copies of recordings, his record purchases go way up.
I don’t approve of hardcopy piracy of hardcopy publications, or online piracy of online content. That’s a different thing. But so far, when it comes to scattered feral electronic versions of hardcopy publications, the rule seems to be that familiarity breeds audience.
***For some time now I’ve been meaning to recommend Cader Books’ pithy and accurate Book Publishing FAQ. Everyone should read it. For example:
(The real answers are longer than what I’m quoting. I’m just giving you the flavor of the thing.)
Q. Do I need an agent to sell my book to a publisher? A. Probably, but not necessarily.
They also explain what a standard book deal looks like, how to put together a good proposal, and the three self-explanatory things to never say in a nonfiction book proposal:
Q. How do I find the right agent or editor? A. Smart research—the same way you do anything else in life.
Q. Can you copyright a book idea, or a title?
Q. So how do I keep my idea from getting stolen?Q. How do I find the right publisher for my book?
A. The best protection is to execute your idea as well as possible.
A. The same way that you find an editor or agent—by research.
1. “Who knows, it could be the next pet rock.” 2. “All my friends think this is a great idea.”
3. “I know we can make a million dollars with this one.”
Addendum:I knew there was something more I wanted to say about books going out of print. Julian Bond shook it loose by asking the right question in the comment thread:
I said, we’re talking about two different kinds of “out of print.” One is where you can’t buy a new copy of a book you already know you want. POD may be the answer there.
Falling out of print is a book’s natural fate. It may be now, but does it have to be? Do we have the technology now (eg print on demand) to make sure that a book is always available even when it’s initial print run has been remaindered. This is classic long tail thinking. Even if the number of purchasers drops to zero for a few years can we make sure that the next potential purchaser can still buy it?
The other sort is where, if you don’t already know you want to read the book, nothing in your environment is going to suggest it to you. Reviews are a significant cue, but the biggest one is the cover of the book itself.
Every book cover is an advertisement—for itself, for other books like itself, for the whole idea of literature; but mostly for itself. If it ceases to be displayed in places where people look at book covers, that’s a different kind of out of print. There’s only so much display space: a sort of collective physical mindspace.
(Incidentally: the loss of wire racks? A significant change in our culture. The chattering classes haven’t noticed it because they all go to bookstores. Books are still selling very well, but we’ve lost a lot of that collective display space that was an ongoing advertisement for the joys of literacy.)
POD technology can provide a copy of a book that you want, but it’s simply not the same thing as that larger and far more complex technology whereby a book finds new readers. The latter involves a sort of collective consciousness that the book exists. Historically we’ve instantiated that consciousness in a lot of ways: reviews, reading lists, library shelves, shop windows, book clubs, wire rack and bookstore displays, etc. New instantiations are evolving on the net.
No one knows all there is to know about the physics and geography of book-mindspace. There’ve always been people who’ve been intensely knowledgeable and familiar with the current physical forms and patterns of book-mindspace. What we’ll make of it electronically will be interesting to see.
I’m confident of one thing: the number of books we can hold suspended in book-mindspace will be smaller than the number of books whose text is stored in POD databases, ready to be printed out.