How Many Good Books — And Authors — Will We Lose In The Shift To Digital?
I stumbled across Roger Zelazny’s jewel-like science fiction stories in the early 1970s, when he was still on the leading edge of sci-fi’s new wave. He won six Hugos and two Nebulas (sci-fi writing’s Oscars) and despite his untimely death in 1995 at the age of 58, his name — at least among the older science fiction readership — is instantly recognizable.
In other words, he’s famous, and his books likely still sell.
So why can’t I buy any of his books in a digital format?
Who’s Getting Left Behind?
Publishing finds itself at a digital crossroads, and whenever a wholesale shift in technology occurs, something — or somebody — gets left behind.
Sadly, some writers simply won’t merit the transfer of out-of-print books to digital formats — especially if the writer is dead, their books are out of print, and there’s no estate interest driving the conversion.
In Zelazny’s case, it’s inconceivable that a six-time Hugo winner will vanish entirely from the sci-fi landscape, but at this point, only a tiny handful of his books are available on Amazon’s Kindle (even fewer on B&N’s Nook).
It seems likely that Zelazny’s better-known efforts eventually will appear in digital form, but will the happily engrossing, lesser-known Doorways In The Sand appear alongside his multiple-award-winning Lord of Light?
Or will a spreadsheet jockey in the bowels of a publishing firm decide Zelazny’s less-popular works and jewel-like short story collections aren’t worth the cost of transfer?
Bear in mind we’re talking about a famous writer; what’s going to happen to less-famous authors?
My Alltime Top 50 Boo… Oops…
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a midlist author dies, and from heaven (let’s assume writers have a chance) sees his books fail to make the jump to digital, eventually fading from view.
Sci-fi writer Walter Jon Williams suggests exactly this scenario when asked who isn’t going to make the jump to digital:
There are some people who are just going to fall through the cracks — people who are deceased, who aren’t yet in the public domain, whose heirs aren’t in the literary world and don’t know about the changes going on, and whose agents wouldn’t make money through the ebook conversion, and therefore aren’t pressing it.
For now, used print books are easily searched for and bought, so with a few keystrokes, you can order the collected works of even mildly successful writers.
In ten, twenty or thirty years, that might not be the case.
Sure, nature hates a vacuum, and it’s likely a special breed of digital-only publishers are already moving into the space, but there’s little doubt a whole class of worthwhile literature won’t make the jump.
Right now, if you wanted to assemble an ebook collection of
10 50 100 titles you couldn’t survive without if stranded on a desert island (that rare desert island with electricity but no wi-fi), could you?
How many of your favorite written works wouldn’t make the trip?
In my case, a distressing percentage.
I’d like to think that less-popular works by Roger Zelazny and the gems from less-famous authors will eventually find their way to my ereader.
But I’m starting to wonder how much good stuff is going to disappear — and if this is in fact the argument or Google’s book-scanning service, the legality of which has concerned me in the past.
Keep writing, Tom Chandler.