There is something ethereal yet palpable about the power of the written word. It reaches far beyond a writer’s life span to romance another age.
I’ve lately been reminded of a quote concerning books—that they are a conversation between the reader and authors long since having died. In today’s transitory culture, though, you would think the conversation is over before the book exits The New York Times Best Seller list. The Internet’s version of niche marketing fractures that conversation and scatters it.
Though the publishing world leaves me behind in its reading dust, I find some rare gems, both antique and near-current, in my public library. Pity, though, that when my eyes cross the last page of a loaned treasure and my heart determines that I cannot live without my own copy, too late do I see that “back ordered” dissolve into “out of print.”
One library book, lately, claimed my heart only to meet with that very fate. Amy Hollingsworth’s Gifts of Passage offered a tender message skillfully interwoven with a narrative of her own experience in losing her father. It so resonated with me. I wanted to buy a copy for myself. And I wanted to have extra copies on hand to pass along to others who are finding themselves in the same place. Though Thomas Nelson published it only a short while back (2008), when I ordered several copies for myself, I was told it was no longer available.
A shame, too. Though I read Gifts of Passage after losing my own mother to the aftermath of a freak accident, the subsequent rapid succession of both my in-laws’ passing and a half-sister’s lost battle to cancer made this book the number one candidate to share with family members skimming dross from the painful message. The book spoke to me where I was, at that time, and gave me a pivot point, a “refresh” button, to focus on a more beneficial direction. Everyone passing through such pressure needs a touchstone. Amy Hollingsworth’s “conversation” provided that gift.
The loss of good books in these less-crossed streams of interest makes me more of a believer in print-on-demand options or even e-publishing. I know, I know—I’m a true believer in the wonder of the printed page, too, a connoisseur of the feel of the paper, the affect of font choices, the ambience of graphic handling. There is no virtual experience to compare with coupling text and texture. But there are so many parts of life moving at the speed of light that waiting to hear the roar of the presses dooms some conversations to obsolescence.
While exploring this brave new virtual world of e-publishing, it reminds me of one aspect the forward-thinking forget to consider: looking backward—backward to the many past volumes of the conversation. We’ve had a very, very long conversation, and we can still capture its content.
Wired’s Chris Anderson wrote The Long Tail to examine how technology enables movement away from mainstream products and markets (a few blockbusters at the “head” of the monolithic demand curve of the past) toward an economy able to serve many niches in the “tail.” Anderson focuses on case studies in the music and film industries, but the same is true for books. The conversation is not over before the book exits The New York Times Best Seller list. It isn’t over when the author gets the contract for the next book—not even when the writer passes on to a deeper recess of history. It shouldn’t be, because every book cries out to have a long tale.
With e-publishing, books can have that long tale. With print-on-demand, I can have that book even after it’s gone “out of print.” With e-publishing and print-on-demand, we can keep the conversation going.