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Imprints Literary Supplement

The Rest of the Story

Tracking Down Out-of-Print Books

Gina Coffman

Imprints Literary Supplement 1999

Our Favorite Things Writing about books for a living means reviewing new releases, covering publishing-house hijinks, an...

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By Eileen Murphy | Posted 10/13/1999

Through a series of bizarre and unforeseeable events, you accidentally set fire to your mom's favorite comic novel from the '40s. While fighting the fire, you fish the book's spine out of the flames and salvage the title and author's name. Clever child that you are, you happen upon a wonderful solution—buy Mom a new copy of the book as a gift. You'll avoid trouble and earn points in the process. But as you drive from bookstore to bookstore, you learn the ugly truth: Books go out of print, and comic novels from the 1940s are among the most likely to be unavailable.

So what happened to that book? Why did it go out of print? And what would it take to bring it back?

Going out of print means a book's publisher has decided to stop producing it, usually because sales were low. Obviously, that doesn't mean copies of the book cease to exist, but it does mean that most major bookstores no longer carry it. During their regular "pulls"—when chain stores return leftover stock to publishers—booksellers send back books that have gone out of print.

If you're desperate to find mom's favorite out-of-print book, you do have some options. Locally, Greetings & Readings (809 Taylor Ave., Towson, [410] 825-4225) will launch a five-month national search to locate a book for you; the service runs $5. On the Internet, more and more virtual booksellers specialize in locating discontinued books. Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) will search for you, but you can do your own detective work at sites such as the Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com), a cooperative of used-book stores and dealers that boasts "15 million titles listed," or Bookfinder.com (www.bookfinder.com), which scans bookselling sites.

There's an even more promising technological weapon on the horizon: on-demand publishing. In 1997, Ingram Book Co., a major distributor, formed Lightning Print Inc., an on-demand press that can print a small run of a book using a digital copy. Publishers supply a digital copy for the press to keep on hand, and Lightning Print manufactures books only when an order is received. Earlier this year, Lightning Print launched Vivisphere Publishing, which provides new and out-of-print books only on demand.

According to the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, "Lightning Print's high-speed printing and binding technology allows a publisher to print one copy or 500 copies in minutes. In this context, "releasing' or "reprinting' a title means that a book is not actually manufactured until it is sold, eliminating warehousing costs and allowing the publisher to quickly respond to retail and wholesale orders." Eventually, this same technology could respond to your single Internet request; for now, however it only takes orders from publishers.

But let's say you locate a copy of your mom's comic novel and read it yourself. What if you decide that this bit of brilliance belongs on every bookshelf? What can you do?

Bringing a book back into print on a large scale is simply a matter of bending the right ear in publishing. Random House's Vintage Books has Rediscoveries, an imprint that specializes in reviving out-of-print books. Smaller publishing houses and university presses dedicate a certain amount of catalogue space each season to discontinued titles that have been revived. (Steerforth Press, a Vermont-based publishing house, recently brought 11 of Dawn Powell's books back into print; see "Bright Lights, Big City," page 4.) Locally, Black Classics Press is devoted to resurrecting obscure books by and about people of African descent. (BCP Digital Printing can provide on-demand copies of the Press' titles.)

Michael Asher, editor in chief of Vintage Books, says he considers films to be one of the best ways to drum up interest in out-of-print or unknown books. But any media or commercial attention paid to an author can bring his or her entire backlist into circulation. Some of the best books to come back into print this year are just good works by big names—Lillian Hellman's An Unfinished Woman, Dashiell Hammett's Complete Novels, Ruth Rendell's Some Lie and Some Die. Others make it back into print to piggyback on a writer's more recent success, as is the case with Peter Guralnick's Lost Highway, Feel Like Going Home, and Sweet Soul Music, back on shelves in the wake of the same author's Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. And some, like all of the reprinted Ernest Hemingway biographies or David Goodis' noir classic Dark Passage, simply fall in line with current trends.

In some cases, it's important to make a book available because it exemplifies a certain style of writing or speaks to a certain period of history. But the best reason to bring a book into print is its quality, the fact that it's worth reading. When you discover a great book—say, a comic novel from the 1940s—you want everyone to share in your good fortune. Great books make terrible secrets.

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