net.wars: Out-of-print on demand

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 November 2002

Last Thursday evening, I was fussing with something in the kitchen when I heard a strange sound, something like a waterfall, but not quite. On investigation, it turned out that what had happened was that section of one of the walls of books in the hallway had come loose, and the books had cascaded onto the floor.

Wendy M Grossman

This Thursday evening, I put them back up. And since Thursdays are the days I write net.wars, I found myself speculating that the readers of this column, if they saw the pains I was taking to put the books back in alphabetical order (so I can find them when I want them) and dust them off would say, "Oh, ferchrissake, scan 'em in and toss the damn things." As these particular books were a portion of the mystery collection, which I've been putting together on and off since I was 11, no chance. A few are first editions. Many are out of print, the authors dead. Yet they are beloved by small cadres of cultish fans who still find Manning Coles's tales of English intelligence officer Tommy Hambledon's exploits in pre- and post-war Germany funny, clever, and great entertainment. Cyril Hare ... Edmund Crispin ... Sara Woods ... the four mystery novels of American humorist Hildegarde Dolson. All right, you get it.

This week, I've also been seeing these dumb ads on TV in which a college professor tells his class they can't all be published. Kid raises his hand: sure they can. We have print-on-demand now. A vast exaggeration, of course, but let's say we do. (Although a bigger question is how we're going to read all those new authors.)

The books immediately become far less valuable for their raw content. After all, you don't need to find that dusty old bookshop in order to locate that last out-of-print Manning Coles title. Instead, you go to Amazon.com and click a button to order a freshly printed personal copy. You'll probably be offered your choice of binding colors, fonts, size, format, and overall style of book (classic, as-published, contemporary), and maybe even a facility to design a jacket. The only thing a physically published edition would be needed for is to deposit in the copyright library to "fix" the content, so that if the author later changed the text you'd have some record. Even so, if someone is running for political office on an anti-abortion platform, changes to an earlier work that contained pro-choice comments might go unnoticed.

The question is how valuable the books would remain as physical objects. And that depends on how they're made. It seems likely that print-on-demand could lead to a twin books culture. One strand would be the cheap, throwaway book: you pick all the cheapest options, you take your book on vacation, and you toss it or give it away when you're done reading it, like I now do with magazines when I'm traveling. The other strand would be the "permanent" book that you bought to keep or as a gift. Even more than now, the selection of books a person chose to keep would indicate their serious interests to visitors scanning their bookshelves.

Now, I know what you're going to say. You're going to say: eBooks. Certainly. For studying and required reading and frequently updated 700-page manuals for repairing airplanes. But for mystery novels to take to the beach? We're still a long way off from incorporating the all-weather, all-terrain convenience and readability of paper into an electronic device.

The other thing is that everyone seems to assume that eventually everything will be available electronically, permanently. After all, disk space is plummeting in price, and network bandwidth is cheap. Scanning old stuff in is still labor-intensive and therefore still expensive, but sometime in the future theoretically the world's literary treasures will all have been done. Though I'm not sure Manning Coles is the most important thing the Project Gutenberg should be doing with its time at present.

The presumption is that in the new era the marginal cost of keeping any particular title online and available will be near zero. But it won't actually be zero - and as long as the price of keeping them online is more than selling just one or two copies, sooner or later you're going to get some bean counter is going to come along and say, "Look here, you've got 100,000 titles that only sell one copy a year. What's the point of that? You could save a buncha money by dumping those."

An even more bean-counterish moment, of course, will arrive when technology changes, as it keeps doing, and Megabooks Inc has to pay conversion costs to get those "non-performing" elements of the catalogue from whatever format they're in to whatever format they need to be in next. These may be nothing like the cost now of turning a printed book into a digital file, but they're not going to be non-existent, either.

Only this time, when a book goes out of print, there may have only ever been a tiny number of physical copies, and if today's copyright revisions go through, no chance to copy or file-share them. Try finding one of that handful for your book collection.

So, bets: how soon will the books fall down again?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).