• Out of Print, Out of Mind?

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    Teresa Nielsen is a science-fiction editor at Tor Books and her blog "Making Light" is an expression of her interest in publishing, books and writing in general. It is a very popular blog:her January 27th post, "The Life Expectancy of Books", has almost 300 responses (the post is about half-way down the page). I read about her comments in my favorite daily news site - boingboing.net, and headed over to read her looooong post.
    Essentially, Teresa is writing to authors and telling them it's time to face the fact that your book is going to go out of print. Hence, her catchy phrase, "falling out of print is a books natural fate". The second part of her post (and the most effective) is a solid evaluation of how the copyright laws have become "useful tools for the control of intellectual property" by Hollywood and Corporate America. 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.
    The "last round of copyright extensions" she's referring to in her blog is the infamous Sony Bono Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"), which added 20 years to existing copyright terms. It also added 20 years to all works created before Jan 1, 1978. Her comments, while familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to this issue, aregood arguments that the new copyright laws actually produce results that are the exact opposite of what copyright laws were created for originally. I was amazed to read that certain authors whose works had gone out of copyright had actually come back in to copyright because of the 1998 law. She continues with a good discussion of electronic texts and their effect on copyright.
    Where I part company with Teresa is her implication that when a book goes out of print, it goes out of mind. Having worked in bookstores since I was 15 (I'm now 50), I've got a front line perspective on out of print books. I think that many authors whose books go out of print actually find their readers at this point. Melville is a classic example. I believe all of his books were out of print at the end of his life. It's taken a generation or two to discover the relevance and beauty of his works. Contrary to Teresa's suggestion that none of us have heard of list of bestsellers from 1920 (and so, the books are no longer worth reading), I think that when a book goes out of print it actually becomes part of a wider culture of readers. She rattles off a list of authors in her blog (like Frank Yerby, Mary Roberts Rinehart, etc.) and states that it's "natural" for these books to no longer be printed. The implication is that they should be forgotten as well. There's a little snobbery here that is probably what I'm reacting to. In the bookstore where I work, these authors have not been forgotten. In fact, we sell copies of their works every week. Remember Lloyd Douglas' "The Robe"? Remember Mary Roberts Rinehart's "The Circular Staircase"? These books are part of the everyday book language at our store and at hundreds of stores across the country.
    With the advent of the internet and out of print book brokers like Alibris, ABEbooks and Choosebooks, you can find an out of print book almost as easy as you can find a new book.The internet book trade has leveled the playing field between the in-print book and the out-of-print book. Amazon, which sells millions of books, has used and oop copies of a book listed for sale right next to the new book listing. I suppose what I'm proposing here is that while Teresa's comments are accurate, I don't like the idea of author's books having less regard because they are out of print and no longer in the publishers and advertiser's minds. It's understandable that she would think this way since her livelihood is in publishing, but I don't agree with that perspective. Part of my motivation for starting this Booklad book blog is to bring people's attention to works that are unusual and neglected. I don't think I'm alone in this effort either. Ecco Press did a great series called "Neglected Masterpieces of 20th Century Fiction" some time ago and I've read several of the books on their list ("Mooncalf" by Floyd Dell, being my favorite). Certainly the major publishers (like the one Teresa works for) wouldn't be interested in such a series, but smaller publishers and university presses would be. Why? Because these books are truly great and deserve a new audience; not because they would only make a very small profit, if any. It seems as if out culture is more interested in making money than in valuing our great artists and writers. Sigh....oh, well, back to reading forgotten authors!
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