Libraries used to be repositories of knowledge. Writers wanted their books bought by libraries so they could be preserved for all time. Times have changed and their labors of love are being lost. Quite often when I buy a used book on Amazon.com I get an ex-library edition back in the mail. I recently bought Stories of Your Life and Othersby Ted Chiang, an exceedingly fine collection of science fiction/fantasy writing. Its previous owner was the Palm Springs Library in California. It’s easy to spot how many ex-library books I own because their call number labels stand out along the rows of books in my bookshelves. To me this is a literary tragedy.
Libraries have made a paradigm shift from storehouses of culture to panderers of popular taste. Librarians use computers to track usage and if a book hasn’t been checked out for a certain period of time, neglected volumes are pulled from the collection and made to walk the plank, thus falling into the sea of oblivion. Libraries were meant to preserve books and copyright laws were meant to protect authors, but I’m not sure if that’s not more love’s labour’s lost.
While libraries dash to digitize crumbling ancient books modern books are disappearing too. With strict copyright laws books are “protected” for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. There are millions of books published and most are never reprinted or even make back the advance paid to their authors. The last time I saw anything on this subject; it took on average, selling 2,500 copies of a hardback novel to break even for a publisher. That’s not a huge print run. Like giant sea turtles laying piles of eggs, few ever hatch and live to find homes in the sea.
I collect books by Lady Dorothy Mills, a writer of travel and fantasy adventure books from the 1920s and early 1930s. Her fifteen books have almost disappeared from the Earth, with just a handful for sale at any given time. Her books are still within copyright, so they can’t be reprinted on the web. Lady Dorothy Mills is a forgotten writer. It’s doubtful she gets many new readers – I feel I’m one of her last fans. If her labors of love where still on library shelves or reprinted as e-books on the web, Lady Mills might have a few more fans.
Copyright laws exist to help writers make money, but most writers labor for love. It’s like Las Vegas, a few gamblers make a killing, some win a little, and most leave the glittering casinos with empty pockets. Copyright laws should be changed to help the writers who don’t make money. I’d suggest that any book that hasn’t been reprinted for ten years be allowed to be republished free on the web. However, if the book is ever used for profit the same lengthy copyright laws should still apply. There’s always a chance that if enough people in the digital world rediscover a book it will help resurrect interest in a novel for the people in the analog world.
Books are owned by the writers, but they belong to their readers. Fans are what keep books alive. Once a book comes into existence it deserves every chance to live. Sure the writers deserve every dime they can get, but a book deserves every reader it can find. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and bootleg albums. Dylan and his publishers may want to protect his catalog and reputation, but as a Dylan fan I feel it’s my right to be able to listen to any song he recorded during 1964-1966. I love Blonde on Blonde, and have bought it many times in many forms, but I love those songs so much I feel it’s my right to hear any version of them that still exists. Once an artist creates a work of art, fans have the right to explore and experience that work to the nth dimension. Artists have the right to sell access, but if they don’t offer such access for sale, it should be wide open to free access. The reality of the web reflects that and I think copyright laws should too.
It’s my hunch that if writers can’t have money they might like readers for their love’s labour’s lost.