Business Musings: Out of Print

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

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I had a shocking experience this past week, and yet the experience shouldn’t have been shocking at all if I actually thought about it.

Because of the events of the past three weeks, I’m behind on almost everything. For those of you who don’t know, Dean fell in a 5K (while running really fast) and shattered his shoulder. He had surgery to replace the shoulder five days later. (The American system, my god, it’s a nightmare of phone calls and organization and…well, some of you know. I hope the rest of you never find out.)

He met with the surgeon two weeks after the surgery and is recovering well. We’re moving into a different, less intense, phase of the injury, for which we are both grateful.

So we’re getting back to doing the things we had to set aside. For me, that includes getting our workshops in order. I had planned to release a reading list for the Science Fiction/Mystery workshop that we’re holding in person here in Vegas in January.

I was working on the list the day before we headed off to the now-infamous run, but I was missing a piece that I really wanted. I was missing an anthology of science fiction mysteries. We had not done one in Fiction River (oversight mine, I guess), although we have some fantasy crime volumes. I was about to research what was available when an accident sucked three weeks out of our lives, and made us face a different direction.

This week, I was able to get back to the research. I was looking for an anthology that featured writers who have been active since 2010. I have read some great sf mysteries in Asimov’s and some of the other publications. I figured someone had to have collected them. My friend the Google didn’t come up with any anthology of science fiction mysteries that fit that criteria. Neither did GoodReads or any place else I looked.

So I emailed some long-time editor friends of mine, many of whom had done theme anthologies in the past, and asked them if they had an anthology that I had missed. Not a one had done a science fiction mystery anthology, although like me, they had all done fantasy mystery or straight mystery/crime anthologies.

Whoopsie. That’s a major oversight.

So, I went to my own brag shelf and looked for an sf mystery volume. I had been invited into several. I wrote stories for all of them, and I wrote two major novellas for different sf crime volumes. I figured if nothing else, I’d default to those.

First shock: the volumes were 15-20 years old. Jeez. Writing one of those major novellas felt like just yesterday. But nope. The book came out in 2007, which means I wrote the thing in 2006.

Okay. Time is blurring for me. That’s apparently normal for someone my age. Lots of life lived, and the highlights seem like a moment ago.

Yeah. Got that.

I thumbed through three of the anthologies. One was good except it had a dead baby story by a big name author, and I almost never force my students to read children-in-jeopardy stories. I figured I could tell the students to skip that story if they wanted.

The other anthology—well, mine was the only female name and the only story that had been published in this century. It was usable as a historical anthology of crime stories, but it really wasn’t what I wanted. So, I ruled it out.

I went to various online booksellers to find the really good first anthology, only to discover that there were about 25 print copies available and affordable. (The hardcover was $92 at its cheapest.) There was no ebook edition. The editor had passed away before the pandemic, the publisher is long gone, and so…those 25 books are all that we could get our hands on.

Not a good solution at all, because even though I limit the in-person classes, the study-along often has upwards of 80 people in it…all of whom would need to read that anthology.

The math simply didn’t work—and there was no one to appeal to so that I could get a PDF for the students. I doubt I would have gone to that trouble, but the option simply was not there.

So…I went to the third anthology. I was going to use this one anyway, even though it was a bit older. It has some great award-winning stories in it, and it makes you think.

The editor has left the business and the company got absorbed into another company before being shut down entirely. But surely, that anthology would still be available.

But, no. It wasn’t. It came out in 2007 as well and there was no e-book. There were 34 copies available on all the sites. That’s it.

Once again, the math did not work, and I was deeply disappointed.

I had a momentary lapse of judgement. I held a copy of that anthology in my hands and thought: WMG could reprint it. And then I thought about all the work—contacting the authors or their estates, figuring out how to pay everyone, dealing with an agent or two—and I let that idea slide away.

There wasn’t enough time anyway, even if I did suddenly have a mental meltdown and decide to reprint the anthology. At least, not enough time to get everything for this class.

So, I went back to the drawing board, found an anthology by an editor I respect, one that I could teach something useful from even though there were some fantasy stories in the volume, and put that on the list.

But that still didn’t satisfy the sf mystery short story need that I had, so I went back to the old anthology, the historical one, and figured we’d all have something to talk about. Some of the people in that anthology did help start the short sf mystery genre, so that’s helpful.

It was the oldest volume, having originally been published in 2003. Then, apparently, it was licensed for ebook in 2014 by a completely different publisher. Which is, by the way, something I should have known about, since I have a story in the volume, but no one informed me. I haven’t seen royalties on that book…ever, even though my contract says I’m entitled to them.

Honestly, if I were to get them, it’s a mess. The surviving editor lives in Australia. The other editor is, sadly, gone, and the estate is really not active. So, trying to get a handful of dollars out of a 20-year-old publication is just plain silly.

All of those things combined to create my shock. I had forgotten how awful traditional publishing was before ebooks. How books went out of print, never to be seen or found again. If the print run was 20,000 and people liked the book, they kept it. Finding a copy was nearly impossible.

I had once spent decades trying to find a novel by Phillip Rock. I had read the first book in his trilogy, The Passing Bells, in 1981 and loved it so much that I wanted to read the second. By the time I got to the second one, it was out of print. I couldn’t find it in any used bookstore. In the days before Amazon, every time I went into a used bookstore, I searched for that book.

I finally found it, thanks to Downton Abbey. Because of the TV show, someone had thought to revive Rock’s trilogy and reprint them in 2013. I got to read the second book—and while I didn’t love the second like I loved the first book, I still enjoyed it. The satisfaction of finding something I’d been searching for was profound.

That was ten years ago. Ten years to get used to the fact that any book I wanted was at my fingertips. Clearly, it’s not. Many of the books on my brag shelf are not available anymore.

I had given that some thought as the indie publishing movement started up in 2009. WMG started a project to put all of my (and Dean’s) work back into print. That included short stories. The novellas I mentioned above are available at the touch of a finger. “The End of the World” was in the volume with the dead baby story. (My story does not have a dead baby.) And “G-Men,” from the anthology that I really wanted to use, is available in both English and Italian.

I’m not worried about my work. Now that I have control over it, I’ve put it back into print, so that my readers can find whatever they want. I still have to get my bibliography straight so that people know what’s available, but I’ll get to that. (We finally got the website updated! Yay!)

What breaks my heart is that the work of these editors is gone. Editing anthologies is a specific skill akin to writing a novel. The stories get chosen because they fit a vision. Then they get organized so that the reader who goes from beginning to end can enjoy a particular set of emotions.

Some anthologies are ground-breaking. Others are just fun to read.

All of the ones I considered are worthy of reprint, only it would be much too hard to put the pieces together to do so. And the economic downside is extreme.

A reprint anthology would involve a lot of work (which I outlined above). The participants would need to be paid (unlike what I found with that 2014 reprint), and so would the staff who did the work of tracking everyone down.

It would cost a lot, and it would probably take another decade to recoup just the overhead, not counting the modest fees for the writers, editors, and estates.

So, the work is mostly lost. It provided entertainment for the people who bought the books when they came out, but it will not entertain any longer. It did inspired me to write some stories and maybe it inspired other writers whose work is still in print.

But for the most part, these works have become ephemera. And while that was normal in the previous century, it’s weird from the perspective of 2023.

I’m still a bit shocked that I had forgotten so much of what that pre-ebook world was like. When I lived in it, I had been in denial about it. I figured my books would stay in print, and when they didn’t, I figured they were still available in libraries.

Of course, when I discovered that libraries culled their collections, getting rid of books that hadn’t been checked out in some designated amount of time, I comforted myself with the thought that such a thing would never happen to my books…while it was happening to my books.

I do love the world we’re in now.  But it is astonishing to me how much work—work I’ve been attached to, involved in, loved, admired, and was inspired by—is either down to fewer than 50 available copies or is gone forever.

That’s a little strange and a little painful.

And so, while my brain is still coming back from the black hole it had fallen into, I thought I’d share, with the hope that the analysis piece I mentioned last week will become possible next.

****

One thing that did continue while Dean and I were in the throes of medical hell was the planning for the upcoming workshops. The great staff at WMG continued moving things forward.

Which is why we could announce that the Anthology Workshop, which writers love, is back. We only had 40 available slots, and we’re down to fewer than 20. The workshop will be held here in Las Vegas in July. For more information, click here…and do it quickly. The slots are filling up.

Speaking of which…

Because I was late with the reading list, you still have time to jump into the workshop. You can jump into the in-person workshop by November 27. Just contact Dean through his website. You can also sign up for the study-along until the end of November. See how I end up using these anthologies, and some other books as well.

And now that I’m past that, here’s the reminder:

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“Business Musings: Out of Print,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Photo at the top of the blog copyright © 2023 by  Kristine K. Rusch

7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Out of Print

  1. It’s quite motivational, this post. Mostly in the sense that we should want to get all our work into as many formats and sales channels as possible, to avoid the Fate of the Forgotten.

  2. Are any of these out-of-print books available from the Internet Archive Open Library? Perhaps that would be workable in this case, but special arrangements might be needed.

    As they are scanning books and archiving them they could certainly serve as a repository for out-of-print books and provide a source to recreate them as eBooks once the royalty arrangements are sorted out.

  3. In my 50s, I saw that my collection here at home — I have thousands of books — was made up of books that I always thought millions of people had read. Yet at most 20k copies were actually printed.

    – I realized that I was one of the few people still alive that ever read these books.

    We went from everybody in SF reading the same books — having an extended conversation — to most everything from that era now gone, along with us all too soon.

    That was profoundly disturbing.

    Terry Bisson wrote The Pickup Artist:

    There are too many books! Too much music, too much art. The job of the Bureau of Arts and Entertainment is to collect and destroy the old, so as to make room for the new.

    That story describes a world that never was, yet everybody felt that it was true because we were in the Now.

    When people would say, “That Story has already been written.” I now say, “So what.”

    That’s why my comment about the concept that copyright lasts 70 years after death is:

    – So what. It’s all Ephemera.

    Enjoy the writing while we last. Any worry of the future — what happens to our books after we die — is a waste of time. If I can figure out a Trust that will use the money made after I die, great, but I’m not going to obsess about it.

    BYW, I just noticed that Alexei Panshin died last year, and it’s made me a bit maudlin. I need to read The World Beyond the Hill again,

  4. My sympathies on the hospital nightmare. A few years ago, my father landed in the hospital and flatlined multiple times for an unknown infection. We struggled a lot getting information from across multiple states. His older brother is a retired doctor, and the situation horrified him because there was no one point of contact to even talk to. Finally, the doctor tried a big shot of antibiotics and that knocked out the infection. They immediately packed him up and sent him to rehabilitation. His system had been so trashed by the infection he couldn’t walk on his won. After a week in rehab, they essentially said, “We’re done. He’s your problem now.” His girlfriend was stunned; she couldn’t manage a fully grown man who couldn’t stand on his own. The insurance did provide a nurse to stop by, but pretty much it felt like no one wanted to invest much time because it was Medicare paying for it. (My father is on his own two feet now, still complaining that he’s stuck using a cane. But he was happy to be off the much hated walker).

  5. A dead books registry for books meeting certain criteria for availability? To be kept until the copyrights are all expired, and then be something you could download a la Project Gutenberg? It would be best to get copies while there were still a few of them around to copy.

    You wouldn’t be able to use them now – not without complicated arrangements for saving and distributing royalties – but they’d be available eventually, and could be seen by copyright holders with an interest meanwhile.

    As most books are now digitized, it might be a job such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – preserving a part of (literary) history, one that has thankfully been made unnecessary by advances in science such as DNA information stored before being necessary.

    1. I don’t think so, Alicia. That’s 70 years from the death of the copyright holder for the antho, if it’s a person, and 95 years from publication for the corporation. I doubt any of us will be around that long, and by then intentions will be long forgotten. Sigh.

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