Michael Dirda on “Out of Print” books

Michael DirdaPatrick Kurp brought my attention to a posting in Michael Dirda’s column/blog on the website for The American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. In “Out of Print,” posted in early August, Dirda writes, “These days I gravitate increasingly to books almost no one else has heard of, let alone is interested in, books that are odd and quirky and usually out of print.” He also remarks that, “I’ve also come to feel that if I don’t write about a book—in a review or essay—then I haven’t actually read it”–a feeling I have come to share since starting this site. I encourage any fan of lost books to check out the post: mentions over 25 different titles, most of them obscure and hard to find, a few darned near impossible to find. Personally, I’m now on permanent lookout for the novels of Claude Farrère.

Dirda–like his former Washington Post colleague Jonathan Yardley–has long been an enthusiast for odd and little-known books. You can find more than a few overlooked gems in each of his collections of essays, particularly in Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, first published in 2000 and still in print. But, he notes, “Most literary publications don’t publish essays—no matter how enthusiastic—about fiction or nonfiction that is out of print or otherwise unavailable.” “What can you do?,” he asks?

Well, Mr. Dirda, you have a standing offer here. The pay is poor, the audience tiny, but the karma boost is to die for.

4 thoughts on “Michael Dirda on “Out of Print” books

  1. It’s odd you’d think publishers would capitalize on their back lists, in particular in this era of cheap digital editions, nothing should be hard to obtain. Further evidence of how broken Copyright is.

  2. I adore Dirda’s work, but I don’t exactly see what’s preventing him from writing about any book he wishes to – unless, of course, he expects to get paid for that writing. Quaint 20th century notion! The era of the professional critic, and for that matter the professional novelist, seems to be drawing to a close – nobody out here but us enthusiasts. Even teachers and professors are feeling the squeeze (which is why I left the U.S. for better teaching opportunities abroad).

    In the Internet era, the problem of venue is easily solved – create your own! (as you have done here). The problems of remuneration and sustenance are not so easily solved. But since the emerging generation of writers-on-the-arts will never get a chance to be Dirdas and Yardleys, because that model does not exist anymore (and soon the newspapers may not, either), perhaps they will not miss too badly what they never had.

  3. True … but also not entirely fair. Writing for pay IS Dirda’s day job, so he has a legitimate reason to look for paying outlets rather than posting for free as I and other hobbyist bloggers do. And as the Huffington Post, Salon.com and other paying web outlets have shown, people are willing to pay a little–directly or through occasional click-throughs of paid ads–to have a few places to find content they like rather than having to sift through the hundreds of thousands of websites that might or might not have something of interest on them. It’s not the same as having big newpapers that could pay salaries and benefits and at which one could make a home for decades or a whole career–but neither is it the wide open Internet where all transactions are driven down to the absolute lowest cost. Heck, I’d guess that a good half of Twitter consumers and a heck of a lot of blog consumers are just people relying on someone else to do the sifting for them.

  4. Well, you are right to some extent. Look up five titles on the Internet Archive and then search for them on Amazon. I guarantee you there are at least a half dozen direct-to-print/publish on demand publishers who will sell you a paperback version of the same books.

    The problem with backlists and publishers is simple: if the publisher still owns the publication rights, then they probably have to pay someone a share of each sale. And if they don’t have the publication rights because copyright has lapsed–no one else does, either, and the cheapskate print-on-demand houses are already offering it. A lot of the really choice stuff is in that limbo between what is clearly within some publisher’s rights and what is clearly public domain. A glance at the Kindle offerings will show that it’s ebooks, not print-on-demand, that will become the primary outlet for such material. Isabel Paterson’s three last novels, for example, are all available in Kindle format. I fear we will never see a new print version of them again.

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