This week, Portland authors Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch and Ursula K. Le Guin, plus Bitch Media Editor Kjerstin Johnson, will gather at the Powell's in Beaverton to discuss their favorite books that were out of print before being revived by Pharos Editions.
It should be a great talk—and also a reminder of the positive side effects of the digital publishing disruption so often depicted as a menace to readers and authors.
1. "Out of print" is quickly becoming as antiquated as "floppy disk" as literary agencies begin to publish more and more backlist titles in digital format.
Although publishers will stop printing unsuccessful books, we're entering an era when there's no such thing as "out of print," since most books are becoming available on e-readers. Almost all books first published after 2007, when Amazon's Kindle was introduced, are simultaneously released in digital format since it takes only a few minutes of formatting to convert a book from the author's original document to an e-book. However, if a book was published before e-readers, or computers, and neither the publisher nor the author has a digital copy saved on a hard drive, the situation becomes more complicated.
2. It's often authors and literary agencies, not publishing houses, that are releasing backlist books for e-readers.
E-readers are changing the nature of the publishing industry because they're changing the relationships between literary agencies and publishing houses. Old publishing contracts give the rights to a book back to its author and agent when the publishing company chooses to stop publishing physical editions of the book. However, as publishing companies see literary agencies and authors profit from releasing backlist titles for e-readers, publishers are seeking to retain the rights to digital publishing in perpetuity. Agents, who get a share of the author's profits, want to keep that right for their clients.
Behind the scenes, agents and publishing houses are both consulting attorneys on how to keep digital publishing rights for themselves and retain the publishing rights in some unforeseeable future format. Negotiations are taut, as neither side knows precisely what it is fighting for.
3. Interns are the silent heroes of this digital revolution.
The people doing the mind-numbing labor of the digital revolution are frequently the interns at literary agencies. When the agent doesn't have a digital copy of a book, a young publishing hopeful will be assigned to create the digital copy. In other words, the intern will copy-edit the book after it is scanned and converted into a Word document, looking for mistakes like "amd" instead of "and" or "bve" instead of "love." If the agency doesn't have access to such a scanner, an intern might have to retype the whole book word for word, careful not to damage the literary agent's only remaining copy, for fear of ending her publishing career because of one torn book spine.
How do I know this? I was one of those interns. Which is why I'll rejoice the day the vast library of backlist titles—if not for the history of the published word, then at least covering the history of literary agencies—is finally in digital format. In the meantime, go ahead and romanticize this soon-to-be-obsolete phenomenon.
GO: Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, Ursula K. Le Guin and Kjerstin Johnson will speak at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651, on Thursday, May 15. 7 pm. Free.