What E-Book Revolution?

John Rhode, aka Miles BurtonThere is a special circle of literary hell reserved for completists—those of us who feel we need to read every book in a particular series, or by a particular author. Our friends and family recoil in horror each time we plunge into a dusty second-hand bookshop or shuffle through another obscure website, looking for those last few elusive volumes. Perhaps this time it will all be different—but it never is, and the next bookshop, the next Google search, sends us haring off again, hope triumphing over experience.

I am a fan of classic detective fiction, and detective fiction doesn’t get any more classic than the multitudinous works of Cecil John Street, who wrote under several pen names, mainly John Rhode and Miles Burton. Apart from a dozen or so non-series thrillers and non-fiction histories, Street’s entire output of over 150 books falls into two series: the Dr. Priestley detective stories written under the name of Rhode, and the Desmond Merrion/Inspector Arnold series, written as Burton.

Street was never as popular as, say, Agatha Christie, but he was a competent plotter, well-respected by his peers, and he made a very comfortable living from his considerable efforts. There’s a very good chance that your grandparents or great-grandparents were familiar with one or both of his pen names. I currently have about forty of his books—around a quarter of the total. Yes, I could grit my teeth and buy most of the rest at exorbitant prices from specialist booksellers, but most of them are in the UK, and the shipping to Australia alone would just about double the price.

The Milk-Churn Murder by Miles BurtonSo how does this competent, prolific, once-popular author rate on the great aggregator known as Amazon? The John Rhode page lists just five titles. The Miles Burton page has the same number, with one ‘collectible item’ listed for no less than $15,900. And none of them are e-books, because Street, who died in 1964, is trapped in copyright limbo—too new to be public domain, and too old, the copyright holders believe, to be popular. As far as Street’s fans are concerned, the e-book revolution never happened.

And with very few exceptions, most of Street’s Golden Age contemporaries are in exactly the same boat. Sometimes one or two of their works will appear in electronic format, where the book was especially popular, or the copyright was given or sold to someone with a clue, but the vast majority remain financially—and often physically—inaccessible.

Death Lights a Candle, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, 1943A few Golden Age authors—particularly those from the United States—are getting more of the attention they deserve. Some small presses are busily reissuing works by Anthony Berkeley, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Clayton Rawson, Norbert Davis, Fredric Brown and other second-list detective writers. Some presses are starting to issue e-books, but their profit margins are small and their work is largely a labor of love, so it’s all happening very slowly. And of course, they generally issue the more popular books first, when any completist worth their salt will have all those already. I wish them well, but there’s no point in their trying to sell me books I already own.

Maybe we need a Completist ePress, dedicated to reissuing those dud books that only a collector could love—fumbling early attempts to find a market, last-ditch attempts to squeeze the last few dollars out of a creaking series. Failing that, I’ll just have to wait in patience till Street’s copyright holders wake up in the 21st century. When I can acquire complete sets of the Rhode and Burton series without cashing in my superannuation, then I’ll know that the e-book age has finally arrived.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

Editor’s note: As reported by Paid Content, some print magazine publishers have recently begun tackling an issue (no pun intended) similar to the one Jon raises in this post: They’ve started digitizing their entire archives, and making them searchable. Click here to read about it. (Books, of course, are another situation entirely, especially when complicated copyrights and deceased authors enter the picture.)   

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12 Comments on What E-Book Revolution?

  1. This is one of the reasons I think the current terms of copyright need to be tweaked. A work that has been out of print for more than a decade should probably not still be under copyright. At that point copyright ceases to fulfill its role as getting works into the public domain and starts to condemn older works/authors to a sometimes undeserved obscurity. I know its unpopular, but I would like to see the USA and indeed the civilized world return to copyright registration. If a rights holder cannot be bothered to renew the rights on their work every decade, then they can’t argue that others shouldn’t be allowed to use the work as they see fit (i.e., read it, expand it, etc.).

  2. Dan, regarding journal archives, Mike Tooney of the Golden Age of Detection Yahoo group is meticulously going through the digitised collection of journals and magazines held by the University of New Zealand at

    http://www.unz.org/Home/Introduction

    and linking to all the GAD mystery reviews and related articles. But it’s a BIG job.

  3. Some of these writers disappear for a very good reason. Almost no one wants to read them, or their writing is so poor no one wants to remember them.

    That’s hardly an excuse to take away copyright from living authors.

  4. @Maryland Bill — I’ve got to say, I tend to agree with you. Ten years seems like more than enough time to get your proverbial ducks in a row, right? Of course, this sort of thing tends to never be simple. What does everyone else think?

  5. While I agree that works fall out of print should enter the public domain after a time, it’s hard to say what that should be. For example, a novel by J.R. Salamanca (an old writing professor of mine) was originally listed as an abandoned copyright work, but that prooved false as he and his son were then working on republishing his out of print novels. Good for him. Bad for folks who were researching copyright.

    It would be wrong to sweep down with a general rule about what can or can not be public domain. Some one might now be working on getting these authors back in print as ebooks.

  6. We can take it, I hope, that with very few exceptions, no author actually wants their work to be out of print, even after their death. When a backlisted book has NOT been reissued — especially in modern times, when the cost of publishing is dropping towards zero — I think it’s reasonable to regard that as neglecting the copyright holder’s duty to the author. An enlightened legislature should be able to either enforce the work’s reissue — at a reasonable price — or release the copyright to the public domain.

  7. Actually, Jon, a surprising number of authors would be happy to see most of their works go out of print. I’ve read hundreds of author interviews, and a majority who talk about their works, particularly their earlier works, wish they’d disappear because they aren’t very good in their opinion.

    I was faced with a major health crisis earlier this year, and I did some serious thinking about my own writing. I decided that I’d pull all my books from my publishers so my siblings wouldn’t have to worry with the hassle and expense of keeping up with them. Fortunately, I came through the health crisis okay so the books are still available.

  8. @Jon:

    “We can take it, I hope, that with very few exceptions, no author actually wants their work to be out of print, even after their death.”

    I disagree. I am an unpublished writer myself still debating whether to try the old-fashioned route of sending off form letters hoping for a contract, or aim for this newer approach with few safeguards, a scarlet-letter stigma, and plenty of scam artists. If and when my work does make it into the market, I actually DO hope that my work will go out of print/disappear upon my death. The threat of piracy, however, is the one thing preventing me from going with e-books, whether via traditional means or self-published. I fear that my work still might be circulating in some dark corner of the internet (or whatever its successor might be — the “bionet,” perhaps, in which we’ll all be hard-wired with Google glasses and microchips carrying the Web on our person, a scary thought nonetheless) 75 years from now when “official” copyright expires.

    That is, if the damn pirate punks don’t win and make everything go public domain, doing away with the creator’s-life-plus-three-quarters-of-a-century rule in effect now. Speaking of “this administration” (per someone’s comment on another article here), I want to say to anyone who believes they have the “right” to “share” someone else’s work freely and wherever they like without the creator’s permission, claiming a stake in the work just because they’re part of the public audience…

    YOU DIDN’T BUILD THAT.

    And I am NOT by any means an Obama fan. I think this joke of a president is going to be a nightmare for anyone trying to become independently wealthy, since he obviously hates the idea that people might do something by themselves to earn money AND that people who actually worked for their keep should dare display the hubris of wanting to retain their earnings. NOT scurry their profits off in taxes to any flea-bitten, bottom-feeder moocher like the unemployed “anarchists” on welfare and food stamps, or the digital equivalent of leech sustenance programs, The Pirate Bay.

    When I die I want everything to go along with me. I have no family or friends, am not married and have no intent of ever getting married; even if I were married, I have no intent of having children, in which case I would have no heirs to leave anything to. That is, if sales were ever enough to qualify as a viable “inheritance” (pets don’t usually count unless there are caregivers to look after them). Who would benefit as an “heir” if there is no one left after I die? Random buyers/fans? They didn’t “build that” either.

    I would stand to receive no monetary gain after my death — not even a mere pittance that I’d probably get in my lifetime, regardless of whether I sold a hundred copies of a book or a hundred million copies of a book (thanks to “B.O.” and the putrid stench of American socialism). I’d obviously receive no attention that I would be aware of, being, well, dead and all. So there would be no one left to manage my affairs, and no one to really give a rat’s tail about something I’d produced anyway. I call it the dilemma of a dead tree falling on an Amazon e-book and having no one there to read it.

    If and when I am a Published Author ™, I would want anything involving my name to just disappear. It’s possible to remove or block archives of your websites from the Wayback Machine (archive.org); Google and the other search engines are different beasts entirely, and who knows in the future what will happen to DMCA requests. Perhaps they’ll be declared unconstitutional First Amendment breaches, and that too depends on whatever happens to the Constitution, since “B.O.” seems to love using it as toilet paper to wipe his filthy commie arse. Personally I think it should always be an option to purge “personally generated” references (like blog posts and comments and social-network profiles, making them the digital “e-quivalent” of an unlisted phone number). Such a practice would remove the bread crumbs one may have left behind once the old witch in the candy house — Death, in other words — decides to gobble little Hansel or Gretel (oneself) up.

  9. I don’t understand these copyright holders. “hmm, this one isn’t popular, so we’ll not release it as an eBook. No money is better than some!”

    What?

    I don’t get it. So you won’t get rich. You’ll still make more money than you are now… which is none.

  10. Yoda, confused are you. Publishers, not copyright holders, make the decision about whether or not to put a book out in what format.

    And, like in all business, they have to make a best guess about how to maximize the profit.

  11. However Marilynn, if a copyright holder says no way Jose, the publisher just can’t do it! Big author’s big estates are a big problem here!

  12. @Guest:
    I think the “damn pirate punks that want everything to go into the public domain” are more in line with the original intent of copyright than the more “modern” legislation extending copyright terms to the “creator’s-life-plus-three-quarters-of-a-century rule” that you seem to feel is a divine right.

    As far as piracy goes, if your work is popular it probably will be pirated, whether or not you make it available in ebook form. The only way to avoid it is to write very bad books or not publish your books at all.

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