Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Long Tail: Derek Charles Catsam on Technology and Out-of-Print Titles

By Eric Banks

Over the past month we've been publishing the results of our Fall 2010 NBCC Reads survey, in which we asked our membership and past winners and finalists for out-of-print works of fiction or nonfiction that ought to be newly republished. Here's an interesting response we received from Derek Charles Catsam (click here to read all the responses).

If I may, I’d like to approach this question from a different angle. One need not search far to find people who are deeply committed to the written word lamenting whether the book is going to go the way of the typewriter – a quaint anachronism that inspires eye-rolling when it does not inspire blank stares. But trends in book publishing might actually bode well for out-of-print titles.

Consider two technologies that many of us have approached with trepidation: The Kindle and Nook and their ilk on the one hand and Print-on-Demand publishing on the other. The one we are wary of both because we love the actual feel and presence of books and because we fear that such technology will accelerate the reading race to the bottom; the other because for its first years of existence, anyway, Print-on-Demand seemed a bit too close (unfairly and inaccurately, it must be noted) to self-publishing. Yet both of these phenomena actually might bode well for books that have gone out of print, for in the case of both there almost literally is no such thing as “out of print.” With the various readers all that would matter is the ability of a publisher to create a digital file. No more printings, no more binding, no more of the expense of real paper-and-pages books. With print on demand, there are no worries about printing expensive runs of books that might go unsold. Instead they, well, print, on demand.

I am a historian, and as a result, the books that are out of print that frustrate me the most either are ones that I would like to own because they will sustain my research over a period of time longer than interlibrary loan serves or else are good books to which I would like to expose my students. Increasingly good university presses are implementing Print-On-Demand technology to help them to manage their stocks and to keep books effectively in print that otherwise would have gone out of print after the initial run sold out too slowly to justify a second run. University presses and others are also embracing both the technology to allow their books to be downloaded to the increasingly popular tablet-type readers and also e-books, that allow users to purchase an electronic copy that downloads on to their computer.

Many of us are rightly worried about the future of the book, especially in the physical configuration that we know and love it. But many of the new technologies and business-driven approaches may, at least, make the very concept of a book being out of print obsolete. For this both readers and authors ought to be thankful.