Let’s say you got interested in the books of Eve Babitz after I waxed enthusiastic on Podunk Pundit. So you go to Amazon or your friendly neighborhood bookseller to buy a copy. No dice. Out of print.
Well, it happens. Let’s try Amazon or ABE or Alibris for a used copy. Yes, there they are. I can buy a used copy of “Sex and Rage” for $64, “Two by Two” for $315, “Slow Days, Fast Company” for $105 or a copy — presumably illuminated by cloistered monks — of “Eve’s Hollywood” for $2420.00.
What gives? Rarity, one supposes. But these are mass market books published a scant 40 years ago, not the 1840 Penny Black or the Brasher Doubloon.
But who cares? I’ll just get a nice digital copy now that everything is available on the internets. But there too, no soap. Everything is not available on the internets. Why?
Turns out, according to a study by University of Illinois School of Law Prof. Paul Heald, part of the problem can be traced back to copyright changes that are now granted for the life of the author plus some.
Heald found an odd result. About 85% of popular songs from 1923-1932 are available on iTunes whereas only 35% of popular books from the same period are available as eBooks. And it gets worse if the books are more recent and not in the public domain. So, less than 10% of books reviewed by The New York Times between 1930 and 1950 can be purchased as eBooks.
Letting author’s earn longer has had the perverse effect of not letting them learn anything since their publishers simply let the books remain out of print. Presumably they calculate that they won’t make enough from their oldies but goodies to pay the cost of digitizing them. But they are also apparently unwilling to relinquish the copyright and allow the author or a more enterprising publisher to take the plunge. This is behavior may mother used to describe as a dog in a manger, probably unaware she was channeling Aesop.
The result appears to be a vast Sargasso Sea of intellectual property that is unavailable to posterity or readers willing to look beyond today’s ephemeral bestseller list. Publishers no doubt feel they know best, but they don’t.
A shining example is the wonderful fiction of Dawn Powell which was long out of print until Tim Page, blessings upon him, wrote a biography and twisted the arms of publishers until they brought back a few of her titles. Her “My Home is Far Away” is a classic portrait of the artist as a young American woman and her comic novels of bohemian New York in its late 1940s heyday are priceless. She was a posthumous hit, remains in print and may secure a niche in the canon.
The same could be said of Henry Green and countless others. And that was before the advent of the eBook made it cheaper and less risky to resurrect forgotten authors. Nor is such carelessness with their own possibly valuable property confined to publishers. Recond companies are known to engage in similar short-sightedness.
For years one of Tony Bennett’s greatest albums, “For Once in My Life,” from 1967 was unavailable except on scratchy used vinyl . Yet it boasts tremendous arrangements by Torrie Zito and Marion Evans of rare gems like “How Do You Say Auf Weidersehen?” Finally a CD was issued overseas, then a US reissue and now it can be downloaded, but it was down the memory hole for decades. And this is a guy still going strong who has achieved national treasure status.
What chance do lesser acts have? In this case I blame Columbia which had a tremendous line-up of artists in the 1950s and ‘60s in part due to the brilliant John Hammond. But now much of it languishes in the vaults. Are these people record promoters or hoarders?
For example, where’s “Like Sing,” a lovely vocal jazz album by Jackie and Roy performing songs by André and Dory Previn from the “Mad Men” era. It is unobtainable. God knows how many hundreds or thousands of equally delectable records are MIA.
Put them on line or let somebody else do it. You just might make a buck and would surely gratify fans and keep intact a more complete record of the cultural heritage your company helped create and now is content to forget. Shame.