Over the years, I have spent many happy hours wandering among the shelves of used bookstores, looking for gems among the out-of-print titles. It was during a ramble through the rickety maze of orange-crate shelves in the dark, back room – Literature – of the late, lamented, Acres of Books in downtown Long Beach, that I found a used, decade-old edition of Margaret Millar’s “Stranger in My Grave,” the book that nudged me to get serious about writing. If it had been a new, full-priced book instead of costing a buck or two – I was on a student budget – I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.
There came a time when my own books began to show up in used bookstores. It always tickled me to find them, as it does still. Every author should be happy to see a book remain in circulation in any form, even when we nothing from the resale. There is a great investment of heart and soul encompassed within those pages. As Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
A paper and ink book takes months or years to write and about a year more to edit, proof, design, print, distribute. And then, all too soon, the letter from the publisher arrives letting you know that because of diminished sales numbers, the book has been taken out of print – remaindered – and any remaining stock will be sold by the pound and will soon show up on Bargain Books shelves somewhere. At some point after that – until e-books came along – the book would disappear except for the shelves of random used bookstores. And publication rights would revert to the author.
Enter the brave new world of e-books. Theoretically, e-books never go out of print. Better yet, they cost roughly the same as used or remaindered books. Right away, authors understood the potential for electronic publication to breathe new life into their out-of-print books.
Initially, electronic publication was a do-it-yourself project. A complicated and fairly fussy project, I might add. First, the legal department of the original publisher has to be coaxed into sending a letter acknowledging reversion of rights to the author. Next, the pages of the book have to be stripped from their binding, scanned, proofread, formatted for Kindle, etc., a new cover made – the author never owns the cover – and a site found or made to access the text. Electronic payment arrangements have to be figured out, a separate account set up, and the book has to be promoted. All of this, by the way, is what writers who self-publish via the web have always done, minus the rights and scanning parts.
It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to see the potential in the front end of the re-print market, that is, the authors themselves as a source of income. A variety of “producers” and “facilitators,” like Kimberley Hitchens’ BookNook.com and Amazon’s CreateSpace, emerged to offer authors various services for fees that vary depending on what the author is willing to do herself or has the wherewithal to pay the producer to do. Stripping and scanning the book and making a new cover are generally up-front charges – a few hundred dollars – and then a fee sharing arrangement is made, with the producer taking a percentage similar to the share an author’s agent would have received.
Last summer, I started the process of scanning and proofreading my backlist – the out-of-print books – guided by a producer. But it turned out to be very time consuming. The deadline for The Hanging, the next Maggie MacGowen book from Perseverance Press (September 2012), loomed, so I set the e-book stuff aside until I had time to fuss with it. A good thing, it turns out, because while I was procrastinating the e-book reprint marketplace went mainstream.
In September, seemingly out of the blue, my former agent contacted me with an offer – as a service, she said – to bring out electronic versions of the books we worked on together many years ago. I didn’t ask her for details because I had just signed with Otto Penzler’s new enterprise, www.MysteriousPress.com, in partnership with Open Road, to produce, distribute and market e-book versions of my entire backlist. Otto reminded me, when I got this wrong in my Grunion Gazette column, “[www.MysteriousPress.com] is a totally separate entity from The Mysterious Press, which is an imprint at Grove/Atlantic. Apart from the fact that I [Otto P.] run them both, they have zero connection to each other.”
Late last summer I shipped Otto hardcover copies of my backlist and let him do the rest. Recently, he sent a note that they were all up on www.MysteriousPress.com. And there they are, right next to Joe Wambaugh, all of the books that I published before 1998, now available on Kindle, Nook, SONY, you name it. Glorioski!
It will be interesting to see what happens from here. I don’t imagine great riches, but some earnings would be welcome. Those books are all old friends, so seeing them made available again is a reward unto itself. To borrow from Baron von Frankenstein, “It’s alive!”
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