Teresa Nielsen Hayden muses on the life expectancies of books:
We talk about immortal literature, but the vast majority of books are as mortal as we are. Who here has read John Cleveland? He was the most popular poet of his era, with numerous editions of his work published during his lifetime and just after. Then his style went out of style, as did his Royalist sentiments. Bye-bye, Cleveland.
It happens. You wouldn’t believe how many authors were left gasping on the beach when the tide of 1920s experimentalism ebbed—not that you could tell, looking at a bestseller list, that they’d ever been in print in the first place. When I was young, paperback gothics and nurse novels and books of poetry by Rod McKuen were all over the racks, but they disappeared like the passenger pigeon. More recently, the collapse of the horror boom left a lot of authors with nowhere to go…
All gone, now. We shall none of us escape obscurity.
I’m six years into my book writing career and already I’ve had a book fall out of print: The Rough Guide to Money Online, which was published in November of 2000 to great expectations and was brutally sideswiped by both the bursting Internet bubble and a disputed presidential election that sucked all the media oxygen into itself, leaving none for my poor little book and my poor little book tour. Barring mere neglect, its term of life would have been limited anyway because of the relentless pace of change online; a short year after the book came out, half the online institutions listed in the book were gone, either merged with other companies or simply out of business, and the software noted in the book had already undergone revision.
Even if you could find a copy of this little book I could not in good conscience recommend you buy it — it is no more useful today than an Internet book from a decade ago, which would tell you about gopher and archie and .plan files but nothing about blogs or VOIP or mp3s. I suppose it could be updated, but Rough Guides has exhibited no interest in doing so and at this point I would probably be more inclined to let someone else do the revisions and share author credit (as specified in my contract), because I have other things to do. I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for this book because it’s my first, and because it opened the door for me to write more books. It certainly was a useful book for me. But out in the real world very few people know it ever existed now, and in ten years it’s not an entirely safe bet I’ll be able to reel off the title of it myself.
As TNH notes: It happens. Books die. The new media promises that books that shuffle off the publisher’s coil might now have a shadowy second life as “publish on demand” entities, but just as the real issue for today’s authors isn’t piracy but obscurity, so will obscurity be the main problem in this new second life — as TNH notes: “the number of books we can hold suspended in book-mindspace will be smaller than the number of books whose text is stored in POD databases, ready to be printed out.” Not all of us are going to be major authors, even in our respective genre, and even being a major author in a genre is no guarantee: All fans are slans, but have all fans read Slan? At least Slan is in print. Not so, with, say, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, another important book by A. E. Van Vogt. Beagle is available as an e-book, but looking at the Amazon sales rank at the moment (#1,072,413), being an e-book isn’t doing Beagle a whole lot of good. If the source material for Alien (as Beagle was, at least partially) is out of print physically, what should I eventually expect for my own genre novels?
Does this worry me? Eh. I mean, I have an ego. I like the idea of people buying and enjoying my books for decades to come. Being out of print does put a hard cap on readership; at this point being available as e-book or publish on demand is like the Hawking radiation of publishing — every so often something will happen and someone will buy a book, but you don’t know when and as an appreciable event in itself, it won’t be significant. I’ll be sad that people can’t read particular stories of mine, because they won’t know they exist.
On the other hand, I’ve had a book go out of print already, and it doesn’t really bother me. True, it’s informational non-fiction as opposed to fiction, and that probably makes a difference. But from Subterranean Press I hear that Agent to the Stars is down to the last few dozen of copies (get yours now!), so when those are gone, the book will be out of print; unless someone wants to make me an offer, there are no plans at the moment to do a paperback or other printing. It’ll exist again only in electronic form. And I feel fine about that, too.
Part of that is that unromantic business thing of mine — in a career sense, any book I do merely has to make it possible to write the next book. If I can keep swinging that, then what happens to a book when it’s in the wild is immaterial. I’d prefer it do better than that, of course; just as everyone hopes all their kids grow up to be happy and successful, I hope all my books connect with readers and make me fat pots of cash. But simply as a business matter, getting to keep writing books is the name of the game. So there’s that. Another part of it is that at this point I still have other stories to write, and I’m focused on that. If there comes a time when I feel tapped out, I may be more concerned about what I’ve done than what I’m doing. Fortunately and thankfully, that time isn’t now.
The other part of it is that once you realize the universe is going to end in a thin entropic soup in which all the energy-depleted atoms wink out of existence one by one, worrying about immortality through your writing seems a little silly.
Anyway, another useful thing is that I’ve gotten ample training in writing ephemera; it’s called “newspaper writing.” Magazine writing and online writing, too. I’ve written thousands of movie and DVD reviews (not to mention hundreds of music reviews and dozens of book reviews and columns and general articles) and unless you read them the day they came out, well, you missed them, pal. Yes, some of them exist somewhere in the Lexis-Nexis database, but the likelihood of anyone anywhere searching to discover my opinion about, say, 1994’s Sugar Hill, starring Wesley Snipes, is roughly as likely as me sprouting feathers from my pinky toe. The majority of everything I’ve ever written — at least a couple million words overall — is deeply unlikely ever to be read by anyone ever again. I mean, if you want to track down all that stuff and read it for yourself, please, be my guest. Enjoy! I hope you get a BA thesis out of it. But you will be one of the very few. I’m all right with that. I’m in good company on that score.
Here’s who I write for. Right now, I write for as many people as I can, in the various places that I write: in books, here, in newspapers and magazine. As noted before, I have an ego; I like for my writing to be seen. I also like to be paid. Toward the future, my ambitions are slightly more modest. I wouldn’t mind if millions read me decades after my death, but what I’m aiming for is that my kids and grandkids and other Scalzis and other family yet to be born are able to find my writing and get an idea of who I was from it (I expect them to say, “he seemed kind of ranty.” Damn kids). I’ve written before that if some great-great-neice or seventh cousin thrice removed comes across some of my words and has a glimpse into my world, that works for me. I wouldn’t mind having what I’ve written passed down through the generations of my own folks. That seems reasonable. It’s also not necessarily contingent on remaining in print.
If you are one of my far-distant family, reading this from the future: What, you guys couldn’t clone me, or something? Jeez. I’m pretty sure being dead sucks. I hope you at least have your rocket cars to the moon by now.