Introduction: The Backlist, Academics, and Electronic Publishing
Attebery, Brian, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
SOME BOOKS ARE CLASSICS. SO FAR AS I CAN TELL, THE MOST RELIABLE TEST for a classic (since some of them aren't actually readable) is whether it can always be ordered for a class. Maybe there's a previously unnoticed etymology there. A classic doesn't go out of print or stock, and if one edition is poorly proofread or ridiculously expensive, there is always another. Other books are around because they are of the moment: they've just come out, they're on the best-seller lists, they're part of an ongoing series, or their author is a name brand. Falling between these two categories is the backlist.
Technically the backlist consists of books that are still in print, but as writers and teachers both know, "in print" doesn't necessarily mean available. At one time, it was simple and profitable to keep an extensive backlist around. Everybody benefitted: readers, who could take time to find the books they wanted; publishers, who could invest in riskier properties knowing that there was plenty of time to recoup costs; and especially authors, who could gradually build up a valuable body of work. Then came the 1979 Thor Power Tool Decision of the Supreme Court, which changed the way companies can account for their inventory. According to Kevin O'Donnell, the end result is that instead of waiting in warehouses for their potential purchasers, books are turned ever earlier into "insulation and other recycled paper products."
For sheer cultural shortsightedness, this tax decision ranks right up there with Sonny Bono's Disney-backed bill on copyright, but that's an argument for another venue. As a literary scholar with writer friends and as a teacher of fantasy and science fiction, I'm interested in whether corporate greed and governmental obtuseness can be bypassed in the new electronic publishing world. Many of the works I love and most of the materials I rely on to teach are on somebody's backlist. That means that every semester is a gamble: Will the perfect book be there or not? Should I put it on the list or go for the less appropriate but reliable (i.e., new or classic) title? How can I give my students a sense of genre history when most of that history is continually vanishing into publishing limbo? A few writers have remained in the collective consciousness just because some heroic editor or publisher has made the effort to keep their books in print (a big thank-you, for instance, to the New England Science Fiction Association's NESFA Press). Other writers haven't been so lucky. But maybe things are going to change again, for the better. I had not thought about these prospects until I had them pointed out by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, with whom I was teaching this summer.
The nature of publishing is changing rapidly: print is giving way to e-books. I have not been a big fan of any of the electronic reading formats so far. They are not appealing to the eye or the other senses, and I don't like having to turn on a machine to get to a story (and can't do so when taking off or landing). Yet, having spent a few months away from my office and my book collection, I have begun to value the portability of e-texts. I've discovered I can indeed read a whole book on my computer--the least attractive of interfaces--if the alternative is not having the book at all.
More importantly, electronic books can be kept around indefinitely at virtually no cost to the publisher. They can be ordered and delivered as easily as one buys a song on iTunes (we won't go into the hassles Apple has created for music lovers). If a publisher is unwilling to make older texts available, authors can step in and sell their own books, thereby increasing their own profits. There may be other advantages as well. For instance, too many publishing decisions these days are made by marketing departments, rather than editors. That might change as the nature of the market changes. Sometimes publishers simply sit on books, neither releasing them to other publishers nor giving the rights back to the author. …