Forgotten books and how to save them

On the Neglected Books site, there is a fine meditation on rescuing forgotten writers and their works from oblivion, and why this is important. As its author Brad Bigelow explains:

I have been searching for neglected books for over forty years and the one thing I can say with unshakeable confidence is that there are more great (and even just seriously good) books out there in the thickets off the beaten path of the canon than I or anyone else can ever hope to discover.

His post mentions three questions that “reissue” publishers must answer when looking at some of these neglected books as potential candidates for re-printing:

Is the book good (meaning of sufficient merit to justify being associated with the imprint)? Is the book in the public domain or are the rights attainable for a reasonable price? Will enough readers buy the book to recoup costs and, with some luck, earn a profit?

The first is an aesthetic judgement, but the other two are essentially about copyright. Walled Culture the book (free ebook versions available) discusses at length the issue of “orphan works” – works that are still in copyright, but which cannot be re-issued because it is not clear who owns the rights, and thus who could give permission for new editions. Bigelow makes a good point about why this is such a problem:

Even in the U.K., which has the advantage of a national database of wills, it can be practically impossible to track down who has inherited the copyrights from a dead author. The database, for one thing, is incomplete. There are millions of wills missing. There are plenty of writers who failed recognize their copyrights as inheritable assets and didn’t bother to mention them in the will. And there are plenty of writers who simply didn’t bother to have a will drawn up in the first place. Every publisher involved in the reissue business can name a dozen or more writers they’d love to publish, if only they could find legatees empowered to sign the necessary contracts.

The last question for publishers – will enough readers buy the book to recoup costs and earn a profit? – is the other main stumbling block to re-issuing out-of-print books for a new audience. Bigelow explains that this often comes down to a key challenge: how does a publisher get a reader who knows nothing about the book, the writer, or the publisher’s reputation to look at, let alone buy it?

If copyright terms were a more reasonable length, no more than the original 14 years (plus an option of renewal for 14 years) of the 1710 Statute of Anne, then both these problems would disappear. Relatively soon after the original publication of a book, before it sinks into obscurity, anyone could turn it into an ebook, and circulate it freely online under a public domain licence. Publishers could do the same, perhaps adding forewords and other critical apparatus, and they could also print new, analogue editions without worrying about copyright issues. The costs for both book forms would be lower without the need for expensive legal searches, which would encourage more publishers to bring out new editions, and increase the availability of these works, perhaps guided by the online popularity of the freely-circulating copies made by individuals.

It is the absurdly long intellectual monopoly created by copyright – typically the author’s life plus 70 years more – that has created the near-impenetrable thickets that Bigelow refers to. Slash the copyright term, and you slash the thickets. If that could be done, the main obstacles to finding, reading, enjoying and – above all – sharing those great but forgotten books would all disappear at a stroke.

Featured image by Famartin.

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