Friday, March 9, 2012

On Going Out-of-Print

What's the average lifespan of a book?

I'm not referring to the length of time a book can survive in a library or private collection, but the time between a book's publication and its eventual, inevitable obsolescence. How many novels published twenty years ago are still in print today? How many from two years ago, even? (At the moment, I'm only considering books published traditionally by publishing houses, not Print on Demand titles--even though POD technology is rapidly changing the way we conceive of the life cycle of a book.)

Without any recent statistics (or, rather, the motivation to dig them up), I'd be hard-pressed to come up with anything more than an educated guess, but I doubt I'd be too far off by estimating that 70-80% of books don't stay in print for more than a few years. If we limit the discussion to novels, I think this number may be even higher.

This isn't to say that a book's death is necessarily a tragic event--at least not for those of us who feel overwhelmed by the enormous quantity of books being published every year (close to 300,000 in the U.S. alone, according to UNESCO). A book's author suffers, I'm sure, and every book has at least one or two devoted readers who will lament its passing, but the fact is that most books are published, sell poorly, then fade into oblivion, perhaps to be resurrected later. It's the natural progression.

In the abstract, this all sounds like a fine argument for the obvious necessity of a sort of literary Darwinism, in which the fittest survive and the weaker go the way of the dodo. But as a bookseller, I've seen too many fine books slide into oblivion to believe that fitness, to extend the metaphor, is the most important characteristic of a book's continuing existence. Unless we're okay with equating fitness to sales figures (I'm not), what do we make of a masterpiece like Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe--a novel as perfect and haunting as Albert Camus' The Stranger--being permitted to slowly fade into obscurity?* Or one of my recent staff favorites, Roland Topor's cult classic The Tenant, which we sold hundreds of copies of before it too became a ghost? Or, to use another personal example--and the impetus behind this post--what of Wilcock's Temple of Iconoclasts, a book Roberto Bolano called "one of the funniest, most joyful, irreverent, and most corrosive books of the 20th century"? (Our inventory tells me we have one left on the shelf, so if you want it, come and get it.)

By nature, this consideration is very personal: these are all books I've loved and done what I could to pass on to other readers. Yet they have nevertheless gone out-of-print. What's a bookseller to do in this situation? Feel guilty that I couldn't more convincingly persuade you to read them? Or feel humble pride that I was able to sell the copies I did? In a paradoxical sense, the guilt I feel is less for my inability to turn these books into bestsellers than it is for speeding them along the road to oblivion: if we'd sold fewer copies, they'd still be on our shelves--for a while longer, at least.

In the end, my only recourse may be to lament all the factors that lead to a book's death--the cost of printing, warehousing, and distribution; the sometimes odd constraints of acquiring rights; the difficulty of getting a book noticed among the avalanche of other books; our suffocating copyright laws. It's a helpless feeling, but more than ever, with the POD technologies mentioned above and the increasing digitalization of books, it may be that in the future we'll look nostalgically at the days when books had a lifespan. It may be that in a subtle way, the threat of disappearance is part of the reason we so cherish the books we love.


* Buzzati's novel is technically listed by its publisher as being Out of Stock Indefinitely, which is a polite way of saying "We're waiting to pull the plug." My inquiry to the publisher, David R. Godine, about the status of the book wasn't answered.


Eric Kelley said...

I'm a bookseller as well (The Book Den in Santa Barbara) and I know the frustration of seeing a favorite book that we are still selling well suddenly become unavailable. But I also know that, with limited shelf space, some old things must make way for the new. But both of our stores also stock used books, so we function as the real-world equivalent of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in The Shadow of the Wind, where old books slumber, awaiting rediscovery. There is also the possibility of reincarnation. If its a really good novel, perhaps the New York Review of Books will republish it.


Frank said...

I, for one, have no problem with books going out of print. It is good for libraries, it is especially good for used book stores, which I don't think I could do without. The good stuff will usually get reprinted in one form or another. POD creates one more option to making the very esoteric available. More books than ever before are getting published; we can't keep them all around. The cream will rise to the top.