Tuesday, 19 February 2013

ebooks and the backlist problem

I’ve previously written about how the rise of the ereader and allied technologies such as the espresso book machine allow an easy way of distributing, older and less popular books. The cost of storage is pennies, the only real cost is that of distribution and printing, and if you have an espresso book machine you don’t even have that.

However, there’s a problem I’ve been dancing around.

A lot of older books, say pre-1995 were filmset and even if the orginal text was marked up on a computer techology and file format changes have probably done for them, and the publishers may well have got rid of the film masters as well - meaning that we can’t even scan them.

Now I kind of had this problem tracking down some books about the post-Revolution civil war in Russia, but I thought that that was an artefact of no one in the west really giving a stuff about Russian twentieth century history .

But recently, I’ve been re-indulging in my love of classical period and mystery novels (actually I’m a sucker for anything set in the classical period, mystery novel or not), and I thought I would try and track down two books that I enjoyed at the time, ‘Tamburas’ by Karlheinz Grosser and ‘An elephant for Aristotle’ by L Sprague de Camp.

Tamburas was published in English in the early seventies and reasonably popular at the time. Basically the sort of book that a publisher might reissue as an ebook if they had an electronic version in the vaults. It might be popular ad it would cost very little to put online.  Obviously no one did, as the only version I could find was a pre-loved paperback on Abebooks.

The other one is slightly more interesting. Lyon Sprague de Camp was a well known science fiction author of the golden age of science fiction and commanded a substantial and loyal fan base. Now while his fan base is probably my age or older there’s probably enough people out there who would buy copies or retrospectives of his work - as evidenced by the prices being asked for second hand paperback versions - the original hardback being on sale for something like $50. At these prices they’re probably going to collectors rather than readers.

But again the same problem. The last paperback edition appears to date from the late sixties, Again it was probably filmset and if there was an electronic version of the text it has probably long gone to the big bit bucket in the sky aka /dev/nul.

Now, there’s a more important point here than my own literary tastes (or lack of them).

Clearly the future of the book is electronic. Ebooks are going to replace the mass market paperback and short run literary fiction. The change will be uneven, and take time, but we see this already with well known chains like Borders going to the wall and ebook sales beginning to overtake print.

Fine, change is good. But this does leave the problem as to what to do about pre-electronic books. Some of course, like the classics, and pre-ebook works by popular authors, will undoubtedly end up in the Kindle store sooner or later, but the obscure, the niche, may simply disappear. People chuck books out when they move, when they no longer have space. And so the books just disappear because they’re no longer popular, be it an obscure historical novel or the Alexiad. And that’s a problem as it means that most of twentieth century writing will disappear off the radar.

Frequently, when I talk about digital archiving I talk about a mythical archive of Cantonese pop songs that track changing social attitudes among the population of Hong Kong. The same is true of twentieth century popular fiction, it reflects the changes in society, the paranoia about the coldwar (spy novels), the rise of technology (science fiction) and even changes in social structure - material that is even now being chucked in the bin ...

1 comment:

dgm said...

for the record 'An elephant for Aristotle' has since appeared in the kindle store and as BookDepository print on demand book ...