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Editorial - June 1998
by Gordon Van Gelder

The Past

Nearly twenty years ago, the Supreme Court handed down the Thor Power Tool decision. The ruling, as best as I understand it, altered the way in which companies account their unsold goods at tax time. Inventory values could no longer be "written down," which meant that slow-selling items were taxed more heavily and thus weren't as profitable.

I do not know how this ruling affected the power tool business, but it changed the publishing industry. Book companies could no longer afford to keep in print titles that sold slowly over time. Mass-market paperbacks (your typical pocket-sized book) were hit particularly hard, since they were sold through a returnable system that calls for two-to-three books to be printed for every one or two sold.

Backlist books were devestated. Among those hit hardest were the odd ones, the literary sports, the unusual and non-commodifiable works, the novels by writers who only wrote a book or two, the books that required time and word-of-mouth attention in order to develop a following. They no longer had time.

The Present

I have not seen figures, but I would guess that the average time in print for a mass-market paperback novel is ten or eleven months. (Perhaps it's even longer now - the instances when the Philip K. Dick Award for best original paperback has been presented to a book that has already gone out of print have diminshed in recent years.) A hardcover's life ranges from nine months to two years on average. Trade paperbacks have become the refuge for backlist titles; I'd guess the average trade paperback stays in print two or three years.

What stays in print? Not much. Many classics from before 1980 are in print---More Than Human, The Martian Chronicles, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Childhood's End are all available, as is the more recent Neuromancer. But it's harder to determine "classics" without the benefit of time, and among more recent books, damn few of the best books from the past fifteen years are currently available. Try looking up your favorite writers in Books in Print and you'll find a lot of omissions.

The Future

Here's the way I see it: print-on-demand publishing will change everything. Online booksellers and download depots will make backlist books available again. You'll be able to request the title you want, they'll download it for a fee (so writers will get their royalties), print it out in a recyclable edition, and ship your book to you.

Books will still be printed in more durable editions - the recycleback won't supplant the hardcover any more than did the mass-market paperback. And there are plenty of other associated questions and issues for which I can't envision an answer now (questions of distribution, promotion, production, and accounting), but my main point is this: I think we're headed towards a day when backlist books will be readily available, when book one in a series will actually be available when book three comes out, when you'll actually be able to read that great book your father or mother remembers so fondly.

The Past, Again

While that day's not here yet, we've got to rely on libraries and used book stores (god love 'em!) for those good old books. In order to celebrate those gems, we're replacing Mike Resnick's "Forgotten Treasures" column with a regular feature to close out each issue. "Curiosities" will revisit each month something from this field's past, perhaps an obscure or curious tome of forgotten lore, perhaps a new insight into an old favorite. We hope you'll find them interesting.

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