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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.
Posted by john at January 30, 2006 05:49 PM
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JonathanMoeller | January 30, 2006 09:58 PM
Terry Prachett's Death had it right:
NORMAL ENTROPY TRIUMPHS.
Martin Wagner | January 31, 2006 04:52 AM
Hmm, she talks about the disappearance of Rod McKuen poetry like it's a bad thing!
Martin Wagner | January 31, 2006 05:05 AM
Out of curiosity, I clicked on the "paperback gothics" link you provided, then did a little extra surfing. Apparently, Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting has not only continually been in print, but is being reissued yet again this May.
But the point about eventual obscurity is still taken! Who still reads F. Marion Crawford?
Part of what I've been trying to do on my site is balance reviews of the newest SF (which brings in the punters) with plenty of older and often long out of print titles, with admonitions to haunt used book stores for the good old stuff. Publishing realities being what they are, the way for books to continue to have a lifespan beyond what they generally get on their initial release is for readers to keep that word of mouth going, and above all, recycle your used books at secondhand stores, or even simply by loaning them to friends over and over till they fall apart.
WizarDru | January 31, 2006 08:34 AM
It's pretty damned hard writing for the ages...if that's even worth doing. William Shakespeare certainly didn't think his plays would be practiced months after they were performed, let alone hundreds of years later. It's a form of immortality, sure, but how many people can achieve that?
Yesterday I couldn't put "Old Man's War" down; I'm flying through the book, and looking forward to get "Ghost Brigades" next. I don't think I can pay a higher compliment than that, other than rereading the work and enjoying it again.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading Ellison's "The Other Glass Teat", and while it was interesting to see how some things never change...it was also interesting to see how some bits of language and attitudes HAD changed. Compare that with something like G.K. Chesterton; I TRIED to read "The Man Who Would be Thursday" and found it utterly unreadable. The cadence and writing were more alien to me than Shakespeare's work, and too difficult to penetrate. I read for entertainment, whether it be John Scalzi or Jared Diamond, or for knowledge. I don't read just to keep an author alive and I suspect that's true for all readers (or an overwhelming majority of them).
John Scalzi | January 31, 2006 08:51 AM
Yeah, I think that's correct. I find it very difficult to read novels published before the 1920s, for example, because the outlook and language use is just to alien (Twain is an exception here). And even then, the vast majority of my reading is from the last 30 years, and particularly recently in the last 10. I don't feel bad about this because I like the idea of supporting living, working writers for my entertainment, as opposed to ones long dead.
James | January 31, 2006 10:08 AM
I'm probably an outlier, but I have no problem, per se, with reading books from an earlier period -- whether that be the 1910s or the 1310s; but there's a caveat: quality, and that doesn't necessarily line up very closely with initial popularity.
The Man who was Thursday I find to be quite readable; but I note that not one piece of Chesterton appears on the bestseller lists that Teresa linked to (admittedly, they were American lists). Not even Father Brown. I've read lots of novels from the 1900s and 1910s; with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, none are on the lists.
Van Vogt is an interesting case. I have both Slan and Space Beagle on my shelves; but as with all of Van Vogt's work, what seems to shine through more clearly with every passing year is his sheer crankishness. Attitudes which were a little crankish but had enough "cover" from characteristics shared with evanescent currents in popular culture have been stripped bare, partly by the fact that technocracy, which is part of the common underlying theme of much of Van Vogtian supermannishness, now has far fewer supporters and is no longer "in the air".
Maybe twenty novelists of the entire nineteenth century are still read by anyone other than scholars, by my count. To be fair, there are also other authors in other genres, but the point stands: even if you are really popular and manage to stay in print well beyond your lifetime, your likelihood of having any significant number of readers after a hundred years have passed is vanishingly low. And you may be in a better position with sleeper rather than bestseller status -- and most authors would, I think, rather have the immediate kudos and cash of bestseller status.
PN NJ | January 31, 2006 11:31 AM
Fortunately, some of the SF classics are still available:
Todd Derscheid | January 31, 2006 09:18 PM
It could be worse: you could be a board game publisher:
David Ross | February 1, 2006 03:29 PM
Some old classics end up drifting in and out of vogue. Good examples are Lord Dunsany (Pegana) in the fantasy genre and William Beckford (Vathek) in gothic. Ambrose Bierce may also qualify. Their books were wildly popular when they came out; then as of 1980 or so no-one would have known what the hell you were talking about; nowadays genre fans expect you to accept them as canon.
But yeah, a great way to get your book expresslined to history's dustbin is to base it on a technology or a milieu that doesn't exist anymore (esp. nonfiction). Hellenistic-era (100 BC) novels are a case in point. When there is a mystery the upper-middle-class protagonists just go downstairs and beat the information out of a slave, and the narrative either ignores or praises the event. No-one reads that shit anymore unless they are doing a dissertation on (say) the narrative roots of "The Acts of Paul and Thecla" (which as a religious apocryphon *does* get read today).
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