Friday, January 27, 2006


The life expectancies of books

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has some interesting observations about copyright terms and The life expectancies of books, all of which are well worth reading. I think there's more wrinkles to the POD question than she considers at the end, primarily because having a book printed offset or POD is a meaningless distinction if the book isn't shelved in stores; long-tail is driven by online sales, and method of production is immaterial. If the complete works of a mid-20C writer are kept continually in print by an established publisher, but B&N and Borders don't stock those titles, the end result is no different than she ascribes to POD titles here. (Note that I long ago gave up the belief that "POD will save us"; I just think the situtation is more nuanced than a clean offset vs. POD distinction might suggest.) But that quibble aside, everything else she says is right on the money.

I have to admit to some snarky amusement over her comment about how so many great authors from the early part of the 20th century should be reprinted but aren't because of copyright restrictions.

There are a lot of authors like that from the 19th century, in a number of genres. They're public domain, haven't aged appreciably, and would do well if sold today. But nobody's reprinting them.

So, yes, by all means, let's see copyright laws loosened so that we can get yet another Lovecraft reprinting. But let's see an Emma Dawson collection first.
I can always count on you to put things in the proper historical context, Jess! An excellent point. I suppose, in defense of Teresa's position, that if a publisher wanted to publish those 19C authors, they could, while it isn't a matter of choice with mid-20C authors. But you're absolutely right that there are other factors and forces at work here besides just the availability of rights. There are loads of 20C genre authors who are still alive, and who are well versed with the publishing industry and would happily accept reprint rates, but who have fallen almost completely out of print, whether because fashions have changed, or they've fallen beneath the publishing industry's radar, or what-have-you.
You're right, of course, and I'm not really responding to her point so much as changing the subject, which isn't rhetorically kosher.

I do wonder, though, about the cen20 genre authors who are out of the industry's favor. What if they started making their stories available for free online? I know Spinrad's had problems getting a new contract (or did have that problem). What if he put, say, Bug Jack Barron and Pictures at 11 online--would that attract publishers' attention the way it similiarly has for Cherie Priest and John Scalzi? Or does that only work with new authors?

Or have these older authors been doing that, and I just haven't noticed it?
We're already publishing Norman Spinrad.

It doesn't cost that much to put a book into print. It costs considerably more to put it into bookstores. Promoting the book you've put in the bookstores requires further outlay. But the only thing that'll keep a book in the bookstores is sales.

Old science fiction has a built-in audience. Emma Frances Dawson does not. As far as I know, the most interesting thing about her is that the warehoused unsold copies of her book were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake. This makes her book a rarity -- a bibliographical curiosity.

But as I understand it, the book had been out for some time before the earthquake hit. If almost no copies of it remain, you have to figure she wasn't attracting a lot of readers. And if some copies survived, but nobody's put her fiction back into print in all years that've followed, I have to wonder just how compelling it can be.

T. Nielsen Hayden
You're focusing on specifics (my mentioning of Spinrad) and ignoring my larger point, which was to wonder if those authors who are out of the industry's favor (for whatever reason) could build up their audience by putting their books for free on the Internet. It has worked for Scalzi and Priest--would it work for established names at all?

As for Emma Dawson--I've read her work. Clearly, you have not. She is a compelling author--one of several dozen of the 19th century who are obscure or totally forgotten now, and have been out of print for decades. Did the long drought of Stanley Weyman (available, now, on p.o.d. and Wildside, but in the 1980s and 1990s, where was he?) mean that he wasn't compelling? How about Anne Marsh-Caldwell or Harry French or H.N. Crellin? They may not have the built-in audience of the early 20th century sf writers you'd like to see freed of copyright restrictions, but they are better writers, and if Samuel Shellabarger can be brought back into print, and sell reasonably well, they certainly could.
Somebody's put Shellabarger back into print? Excellent! As for the rest of those authors, if you're so high on them, why not start a small press?

"Out of the industry's favor" is a misleading model. In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, when a title goes out of print, it's your fault, not ours. You didn't buy nearly enough copies. If you had, it would still be in print.

I believe my original essay mentioned the option of putting books out on the net. It seems to've helped Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. It didn't do much for Norman Spinrad, if you mean that novel of his that's set at a convention.

What makes the difference? For starters, and I hope he'll excuse me for saying so, that novel is not top-grade Spinrad. Also, both Scalzi and Doctorow are gifted marketers and publicists. That talent has no necessary correlation with the ability to write decent novels, so we ought not extrapolate a system where every author follows their example.


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