Sunday, October 14, 2012

E-Books and Backlists

Backlist Books (Massillon, Ohio)
I've made it pretty obvious that, for the most part, I am not a big fan of e-books.  My biggest gripe about them involves the outrageous ownership restrictions placed on e-books by major publishers, including the ridiculous use-restrictions placed on the world's public libraries.  And then, of course, I find reading an e-book to be an immensely inferior experience to reading a printed book...not even close.  But that is old news here on Book Chase.

There is, however, one use of e-books for which I enthusiastically applaud e-book publishers - publishing from backlists.  Thousands and thousands of wonderful books, many of which probably never saw even close to 10,000 printed copies, disappear every year.  Unless a reader stumbles upon them in used-book bookstores or during eBay searches, they remain dead to the world.  Not every great book is written by an established, or commercially popular, author.  Generally, the best books are buried by enormous piles of  the same popular trash that covers the shelves and floors of used-book stores everywhere.  James Patterson books, most of which are worthy of little more than doorstop-duty, are everywhere.  Good books are the needles lost in the James Patterson haystack.

Most publishers are sitting on backlist goldmines if they will just wake up and mine them.  Publishers already doing so don't seem to be doing enough to get the word out about their efforts.  Dedicated readers will jump all over the chance to discover the books they missed from the eighties, nineties, and oughts.  If - and this is a big if - publishers will price them reasonably.  After all, publisher cost will be minimal because readers will not demand major formatting changes (they will probably prefer seeing the original formatting, actually) other than to fit them to the electronic page.  Authors should be happy to accept the windfall this represents, so royalty negotiation could be relatively easy.

This can be a win-win situation in which all sides benefit.  I would love access to noir mysteries from the fifties and sixties, literary fiction from the last fifty years, and out-of-print science fiction.  The possibilities are endless.

The Guardian newspaper's book section mentions two publishing ventures that are already moving in this direction: Bello a Macmillan imprint and the Bloomsbury Reader imprint.  I suspect there are others, hopefully some of them by American publishers, but I have yet to find them.  Holler at me, publishers...I'm listening.

I'll buy a ton off the backlists at $3 to $5 a pop.  Let's do it.


  1. Like you, Sam, I am not a fan of e-books at all, but you are raising such a good point here with the Backlist possibilities.
    The "access" factor. Books that have gone by the wayside to make room [so often] for so many books that should be PLACED in the wayside. So true.

  2. Cip, I was out of the country much of the nineties and completely lost track of what was being published in the US and Canada and Britain. If it wasn't on display in a major bookstore, I probably missed it and I've always wondered what I missed. This would be a great way for me to catch up.

    Just because a book is new, it is not necessarily better than something published two or three decades ago. I want to read only the good stuff with my limited time.

    (By the way, if the post seems a little distracted, it took me hours to get it done...right in the middle of writing it, a water line in my attic started leaking and water began pouring from a bathroom ceiling. Fun and games ensued...

  3. I like the way you think, Sam, but I have been fearing that the changes in publishing portends LESS options out there than more.
    This is because with a printed book, at least it is out there. I have discovered incredible authors by picking up a book on a sale table and giving it a go. Sharon K. Penman, my favorite author, cam to me via the paperback version of HereBe Dragons on a dollar a book stack. Years later I brought that tattered treasure to a book signing and shared with her how untold friends and complete strangers had been recommended her work by me. I also discovered Mark Billingham and his wonderful Thorne novels by picking up Sleepyhead at the dollar store.
    What I am saying in a longwinded way is that printed books are at least out there to be discovered, and recommended, and loaned. In the case of Here Be Dragons, as many times as the pages can hold together. I enjoy being able to hand over an actual book to a friend and say "read this, I loved it".
    I just see ebooks as another way that our reading choices are being reduced. First everybody was reading the same 10 books offered at Costco, and now they are reading the same thing as everyone else on their Kindle.

    So I would join with you in a petition for publishers to expand and make available back catalogs. Anything to improve the options and quality of the books available.

  4. Beautifully said, Susan. You reminded me of my love for truly tattered books. They have a history; they have character; and they have very obviously been appreciated by a number of readers already. They are veterans and the wear on their faces is beautiful.

    Too, I have discovered a number of authors and books series exactly as you described.

    Where publishers can do us a service is by producing special catalogs of backlist books available only in e-book or print-on-demand versions. That's the only we we can find what's out there because browsing through an e-book website is frustrating and completely hit and miss. How can you find what you don't know to look for if there are no real-life shelves to pick through and experience?

    But nothing will ever beat a tree-book and I will only accept e-books in place of a real book when there is no alternative.

  5. "How can you find what you don't know to look for"

    Yes, exactly. I can open a book to a random page, read a few paragraphs and get a pretty good idea if I like the way the author writes.

    I cannot get that from reading a synopsis, or by reviews.

  6. Susan, that's the problem, for sure. And it's much tougher than it has to be because 99% of the self-published stuff that clutters up the search process is just pure garbage. Even free, I won't read that crap.