Monday, June 26, 2006

The life expectancy of books

How long can you expect books to remain in print?

It depends on the book of course, some books have been in print continuously for a century or more, while others are as ephemeral as a snow flake in a blast furnace.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden from Making Light discusses the lifespan 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.
The literature taught in schools is that which has survived: a collection of gross statistical anomalies. This is misleading. Falling out of print is a book's natural fate. We can belatedly train ourselves to believe that this will happen to other people's books. What's hard is for writers to believe it will happen to their own.

It'll happen just the same. It happens faster in mainstream fiction than it does in Our Beloved Genre, more slowly for nonfiction history books, very fast indeed for computer manuals; but in the end, all but a very few titles will be forgotten. [...]

All gone, now. We shall none of us escape obscurity.

There are consequences to this. Consider the concept of copyright. From its humble beginnings in Britain as a monopoly granted to the publisher as a royal boon, copyright became a way of rewarding the author as a way of encouraging the creation of new work.

But copyright assumes that works remain in print, that they continue to produce financial reward for the author forever. But since books have a limited lifespan in print, that assumption is rarely true:

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They've gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can't exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What's left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn't, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author's ex-spouse's step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They're bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

Somewhere along the line, long copyright terms have become a method of blocking access to an author's work:

If that's too complicated, imagine an author's entire body of work being kept out of print because the rights passed to the ex-spouse's third husband after the ex-spouse died, and he hated the author.

Even if the heirs-and-assigns aren't pulling flagrantly stupid stunts, those extra decades of copyright are a drag on the publishability of the work. David Hartwell and I were both doing big retrospective story collections in the wake of the last big copyright extension. That change did something which I'd been told in my youth would never happen: works that had gone out of copyright went back in. [...]

Right about now would be a natural time for people to be compiling anthologies of the early 20th C. writers of fantasy, horror, and proto-SF. It's not happening. Look at Dunsany. His marvellous and seminal fantasy short stories were published in collections from 1905 to 1919, but the man himself lived to 1957. And think of that moldering forest-floor mulch of writers who sold who knows how many stories in the course of their careers, only one or two of which a modern reader might still find striking. Just finding the stories would be a heroic but imaginable tasks. Securing the rights is beyond imagination. The heirs would range from intransigent to unfindable; and those you could find would have to have the entirety of standard publishing practices explained to them, after which they'd consult their cousin the real-estate lawyer, who would give them dreadful advice. Best not to even try. Too bad, but it's best not to even try.

There is a quick and simple fix to the mess that copyright has become. Get rid of automatic copyright, or at least drastically reduce it, from forever-less-one-day (almost!) to something realistic like 14 years.

When that 14 year automatic copyright is about to expire, let the author extend it for another 14 years by paying $1, and another 14 years after that, and another, and another... That will let the corporate monsters happy, keeping Mickey Mouse under lock and key as long as it makes them money.

But for the rest of us -- if the work isn't worth one lousy dollar to the author, then it is worthless (to the author, maybe not the rest of us) and should be placed in the public domain.

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