Saturday, September 01, 2007

Out of print

Several times a day I have to disappoint customers by telling them that a book they want is out of print. The seasoned book buyer knows what this means and leaves with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders, but many people seem to have problems understanding the full meaning of the term out of print.

Some seem to think that it only applies to my shop and say 'Oh, I'll try Smith's then.'

Others believe that although the book is unavailable, I am able to make an exception for them because they are special.

Then there is a third category of people, most of whom are quite old, who believe that literary merit will secure a book a permanent place on the bookshelves. When I have told them that a book by their favourite author is no longer in print (today it was a book by Dirk Bogarde) I am met by incredulity and, sometimes, anger, as if I am personally insulting their literary tastes.

Sometimes I get 'But it can't be out of print. It's quite new.' And to be fair, the customers have a point. It's not unreasonable to assume that a book published in 1998 or even 2003 will still be available, but sadly many books never survive beyond their initial print run in paperback. On the few occasions I've told customers about market forces and printing costs, I have felt like a grown-up telling a child that there's no Father Christmas.

That's my bookseller's perspective. As a reader I'm completely on the side of the customers, as I never cease to be appalled by how many wonderful books are allowed to fade into obscurity. I don't blame the publishers. They're not philanthropic societies and if they allowed too many lame ducks a second print run they'd be wasting capital that could have been spent on new titles. However it can be depressing to see market forces in action.

Today I read a review of a new biography of Bernard Malamud and remembered a wonderful novel by him called A New Life. It is the sort of book that would appeal to anyone who likes Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and I decided to order some for our Staff Favourites bay. I looked up the ISBN only to discover that it's out of print.

If an author of Malamud's stature is allowed to drop out of circulation then it doesn't bode well for lesser authors. However the beauty of blogging is that the publishing world is becoming more democratic, as readers are now empowered to canvass in support of their favourite books. A recommendation from Dovegreyreader, John Self or Scott Pack is all it takes to get that essential word-of-mouth ball rolling and save a book from languishing in undeserved obscurity.


JPS said...

When my fifth novel was published (in the US) by a major NY house, it was given an amazingly positive feature review eight weeks after publication by People Magazine. They had me photographed and ran it on the first page of their reviews section. When I called my editor to ask how this was translating into sales, she said, "It doesn't matter. It's come too late. Your book will be remaindered in three months."

My book therefore had a shelf life of six months and was duly out of print a few months later.

And I remember the days when there was such a thing as backlist. Not many do these days, I'm sure.

JonathanM said...

I received copies of The Fixer and The Assistant from the US on Friday. To be fair, when I shelved them, I realised that they were sitting next to a copy of Dubin's Lives that had apparently been in the shop since 1999.