$100,000 to bring back into print 18 old books seems quite a generous grant, but I guess incentives are needed — and the books are to be free. The National Endowment for the Humanities and The Mellon Foundation have announced several grants to bring back old out of print books, as reported in 22 December’s Shelf Awareness.

I have a certain amount of experience in this area: when I was doing print-on-demand books I was always on the lookout for old books which I could bring back into print for the cost of scanning, and occasionally purchase of a second-hand copy through Amazon.* Many of these were simply the hardback edition of a paperback currently in the catalog, but several of them did involve establishing that we did actually still have the right to publish. I confess my procedure here was not altogether rigorous: basically I would establish that nobody else was publishing the book (i.e. it couldn’t be found in Amazon in USA or UK) and take that as evidence that all was OK. Now of course this is not really necessarily true: the rights could have been reverted to the author, and the author might be living. I did involve editorial in one section of the list and would send a reminder every now and then: I still hadn’t heard back from them when I retired so I take that as confirmation that my rough-and-ready approach had at least effectiveness in its favor. My assumption was that if the author started receiving income from a small number of sales of an old book, for which the rights had been reverted, and found this upsetting the remedy was clear. A quick letter to the publisher and the book would once again become OP. I figured that not too many would opt for this remedy: mostly authors are keen to have their work available rather than the opposite (though of course such situations do exist, for instance where you may have changed your mind about certain themes in your early work and are embarrassed to be thought to be still offering them.) I never did get a “take-down” request though.

In general I have to applaud the NEH-Mellon initiative, but I am concerned about this free book aspect of it. Surely if an old book is worth bringing back into print it’s worth more than $0 to anyone interested. Training our customers to think just because it’s old it should be free seems ludicrously risky. Do we have to anticipate pressure to reduce the price of the many one-hundred-year-old books which abound in the lists of university presses, and which sell perfectly normally now? I imagine the sponsors assume that the only customers will be libraries, and they think it a good idea to give libraries this break. Much better would be to give some money to the libraries to subsidize their purchase of these books, rather than to make them free for all.

All academic publishers who have been in business for a long time have lots of out-of-print books lying around in their catalog which could (I’d say should) be made available again. If the world assumes they should be available free, these books are certainly unlikely ever to see the light of day. The cost of getting the book into the print-on-demand program is not high: the cost of checking the rights situation, if you have to use a method more “responsible” than mine, is astronomical. A friend just asked my help a couple of months ago in tracing the address of the next of kin of an author whose book had been published in 1991: thus far the publisher has been unable to locate any information. Records are liable to damage, loss, and non-updating. If you decide you have to trace the rights-holder, you would indeed need a Mellon grant. And especially if you plan to give the work away free of charge, permission would be essential. I can’t help thinking making the books available, as print-on-demand volumes, at a reasonable price would serve the community better: publishers would be incentivized to do it; authors or their heirs would get some income; readers would have access to books which someone needs. A smaller grant to finance a good-faith delimited effort to locate rights holders would be money better spent.


* I do accept that the cost of getting a file suitable for creating an e-book is higher. Given that any sale of an old out-of-print book is liable to be small, I see this as an argument in favor of making such books available as hard copy rather than as e-books!