Out of Print, Not Out of Reach

Rare books, while a collector's joy, can be the bane of a reader's life. While technology is changing our ability to access works that have slipped out of print, it's not solely a question of ebooks. And as Veronica Sullivan discovers, reviving lost classics is changing life for writers as well as readers.

Image: Connor Tomas O'Brien

Until recently, the average lifecycle of a newly released book was brief. Books that failed to find a readership and make a mark on bestseller lists within three months of their release were returned from bookstore shelves to the publisher, to await their inevitable eventual fates of being remaindered or pulped. Even those books that did manage to sell their first print run weren’t guaranteed a reprint, and within a few years could potentially slip into purgatory — out of print and never seen again, odd copies languishing on dusty op shop shelves and in the basements of secondhand book stores.

Soft touch

The advent of ebooks has to some extent alleviated the financial imperatives of production costs. Once a book has been typeset and converted into digital form, there are no ongoing costs attached to its reproduction and distribution to a potentially infinite number of readers. This presents a relatively low-risk option for the soft resurrection of an out of print book in ebook form, and can even allow for traditional publishing’s constraints and formalities to be sidestepped.

I believe that books that have significantly changed our culture need to be bound in a way that will last.

Donna Ward, publisher, Inkerman & Blunt

In November 2014, Australian journalist and feminist Dr Anne Summers rereleased her seminal work Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975) as an ebook available to purchase through her website. Summers had fielded many requests from readers looking to purchase Damned Whores, which had been out of print since 2008. Having been unable to find a suitable publisher to reissue the book, she chose to do so herself in electronic form, retaining control over its distribution and pricing.

Small, independent Melbourne publishing house Inkerman & Blunt have subsequently announced they will be reissuing the book in hard copy in September 2015. ‘On the day I heard [Summers] was publishing an ebook of Damned Whores and God’s PoliceI felt it was not enough,’ says Inkerman & Blunt’s publisher, Donna Ward. ‘I don’t have an e-reader, my 1975 edition is tied together with ribbon and even second hand copies in good condition fall apart when they are opened. I can’t curl on a couch with this book anymore, yet that day Damned Whores and God’s Police was the only book I wanted to read.’

Ward continues: ‘I believe that books that have significantly changed our culture need to be bound in a way that will last. There are certain books that are the foundations of a culture, this is one of them. That is the sole reason I decided to republish Damned Whores and God’s Police, and it is the reason I decided to do a limited edition in hard copy. We need our ‘bibles’ to be available in this world in flesh and blood.’

Supplying demand

Beyond the much-vaunted rise of ebooks, advancements in technology have also afforded accessibility and perpetuity for works that had previously slipped out of print. The vast records held by Google Books have ensured great swathes of literature and academic writing are freely available to access online. The advent of efficient and easily accessible print-on-demand services has further altered the publishing model. Smaller print runs, once economically unfeasible, have become de rigueur; books are granted a longer lifespan, albeit one whose economy of scale is still dependent on customer demand.

Publishers can now respond relatively quickly to the whims and demands of the reading public. The disappointing limbo state that once befell a book that did not immediately succeed upon publication has been supplanted by a more forgiving and prolonged afterlife — and the potential for it to be rescued from the pulp pile.

In June 2010, Jonathan Franzen penned a glowing ode to expat Australian author Christina Stead’s novel The Man Who Loved Children (1940) for the New York Times, labelling the book a work of ‘genius’ and pronouncing it ‘especially confounding … that The Man Who Loved Children has failed to become a core text in every women’s studies program in the country’.

Upon its publication, Stead’s novel was ‘exiled from the canon’, as Franzen puts it, subject to ‘negligible sales’ and tepid reviews. Writing for the Monthly, Michelle de Kretser diagnosed the cause of its relative obscurity as ‘Oz Lit’s eternal preoccupation with cultural DNA testing [which] ensured that this “un-Australian” masterwork was ignored here for decades’ .

Republication of a previously forgotten book can transform or enlarge its writer’s legacy.

As a result of Australia’s abnegation of ownership, The Man Who Loved Children had been out of print in this country for some years when Franzen’s piece was published. He anticipated that this neglect would continue: ‘Anyone trying to revive interest in the novel at this late date will labor under the shadow of the poet Randall Jarrell’s long and dazzling introduction to its 1965 re­issue. Not only can nobody praise the book more roundly and minutely than Jarrell already did, but if an appeal as powerful as his couldn’t turn the world on to the book, back in the day when our country still took literature halfway seriously, it seems highly unlikely that anybody else can now.’

However, in the wake of Franzen’s review, that supposedly unlikely resurgence occurred — spurred by a flare of renewed interest in the novel. The Man Who Loved Children was reissued in Australia by MUP’s Miegunyah Press imprint in November 2010, five months after Franzen’s review appeared. This coincided with the seventieth anniversary of its publication, an act of recognition that would not have come about were it not for Franzen’s gushing praise. There is a delicious irony in the ability of an infamous technophobe such as Franzen to create a very modern, internet-centric buzz around an old novel. Miegunyah have subsequently republished five more of Stead’s previously out of print novels.

Liberated from the circumstances of their making, books become new when we read them again, more themselves than ever.

Michael Heyward, publisher, Text Publishing

A number of comparable examples can be pulled from the Text Classics range, which was instigated by publisher Michael Heyward in 2012 as a direct counter to the slippage and loss of significant Australian works. ‘It takes just a generation or two, sometimes less, for us to lose the plot,’ Heyward said. ‘We put our books and writers on the high shelf of the past, where we forget about them.’

Among those works reissued as Text Classics are four novels by three-time Miles Franklin Award-winning author David Ireland, whose books were previously entirely out of print. In March this year, on the back of renewed interest in the author’s work, Island magazine announced it will be publishing a new Ireland novel, his first in 18 years, as a series of five serialised instalments. Republication of a previously forgotten book can transform or enlarge its writer’s legacy, and the increasing number of ways in which works can be rediscovered do not always align with established publishing models. 

Backlist to the future

In any era, the tastemakers and arbiters of a book’s worth or lack thereof are inherently fallible, and often short-sighted. It’s no longer necessary for books that don’t find immediate critical or commercial success to be exiled from the canon; in the literary democracy, whatever pleasures and rewards they offer can be realised anew by each successive generation, their resonances not dulled but reinvigorated with the passing of time. Michael Heyward recognised the potential for a lost classic to be rediscovered and remade: ‘Liberated from the circumstances of their making, books become new when we read them again, more themselves than ever.

Modern readers have come to expect that they will be able to create their own personal version of the canon, which, by virtue of its capaciousness and flexibility, provides them with access to whatever book they seek at any given moment. With the enormous backlist of out of print books that can be potentially reprinted and rediscovered in both electronic and physical form, the once-venerated canon is rapidly shifting to an individually determined list of challenging and meaningful works, each reader with their own collection of ‘flesh and blood’ bibles; a body of Australian literature without an expiry date.

Portrait of Veronica Sullivan

Veronica is the Wheeler Centre’s Programming Manager. 

She sits on the board of the Feminist Writers Festival and co-hosts Sisteria, a podcast about women’s experiences as creators and consumers of arts and culture.