image911[1] Charlie Stross has posted to his blog about the mysterious absence of one of his Merchant Princes series—not the first book or most recent one, but a middle book in the series—as an e-book.

The problem, Stross explains, is that the missing book, The Merchant Wars, fell between two periods of Tor e-book activity. The first few volumes were issued during the ill-fated Tor Webscriptions experiment, which Tor’s parent company shut down after just a couple of days. The later volumes were issued after Tor started up again with e-books in 2008.

But The Merchant Wars was published in 2007, along with hundreds of other titles that fell during the several year gap. And there are just so many of them, making up such a huge backlog, that this particular book (not to mention all of the others) is unlikely to be scanned to e-book form at an acceptable level of quality (that is, without the infamous “Kindle typos”) any time soon.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that for Tor to put their backlist online would take on the order of 2000 employee-months of labour. Which is a tall order for a company with 50 full-time staff, to serve a channel that accounts for at best 6% of sales

Stross writes that he has made his feelings known on the matter of having the middle book from a series unavailable in e-book form, but there’s not much that he or his agent can really do. He adds, “If in the meantime you want to download a dodgy scan of that particular book (and buy a mass market paperback for the conscience money), I personally won’t hold it against you.”

Stross says that Tor would like to get all of its digital backlist available in e-book form, but even in this day and age when book publication is moving closer to digital from start to finish, getting that digital information into e-book format can continue to be a problem.

According to Stross’s post, there seems to be a “Tower of E-Babel” problem on the publishing side as well as the e-book side: the move from Quark Publishing System to Adobe InDesign has made it harder to convert older books, which are still in Quark format, to e-books. And a lot of backlist titles’ contracts don’t mention e-books, so those have to be negotiated separately (though this affects Tor’s pre-2001 titles, not mid-‘00s titles like The Merchant Wars).

It’s a bit ironic, but it seems that the volunteer effort of pirate scanners, who scan and proof paper books into e-format as a labor of love (or at least of ego), is doing a lot better job making these older paper books available as e-books (albeit illicit ones) than the publishers who in at least some cases have access to the original electronic source documents.

It’s too bad there isn’t some way to harness that effort to make these books available legitimately.