Out-of-Print: The Vanishing of a Category Diane Greco Industry

domain Out-of-Print: The Vanishing of a Category

by Diane Greco

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

Remember Milli Vanilli? In 1990, after the group garnered the year’s “Best New Artist” award, the prize was revoked. To no one’s real surprise, it was discovered that the duo, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, had not performed the vocals on their album. Despite selling ten million records and producing five Top Five singles (including three Number One’s), the group’s putative misrepresentation of their own contributions to their music made them targets of a class-action suit. Purchasers of the band’s smash album, Girl You Know It’s True, were eventually offered a rebate.

Ten years later, here we are – boogying in the bitstream to ambient techno, downloading MP3s, and ripping custom CDs. Here we are – ordering long out-of-print books from e-commerce-enabled databases like bibliofind.com or even ordering perfectly bound reprints of these books with an Internet-based print-on-demand service. Questions of intellectual property are getting much nervous press, but the really astonishing fact is that before a federal judge pulled the plug, napster.com boasted a user-base of 22 million. A Volkswagen postcard that I found recently stations a guy at a turntable beside a bevy of attractive women and a VW; the caption reads: used is good. As physical objects like books and CDs funnel ever faster into the Web’s phantasmagoria, a static regime of property, based on absolute ownership of an original, seems poised to cede to one of circulation, recombination, access, and speed. Everyone is Milli Vanilli now.

With this in mind, what does it mean for a book to be “out-of-print” in a universe composed less of ink on paper than of bits in motion. Rooting around Bruce Sterling’s Master List of Dead Media, I was impressed by the sheer variety of message-bearing materials that humans have used over the course of millennia. From clay tablet to wax cylinder to string and yarn, we seem to have a talent for making records. But an out-of-print book is a very special kind of record: to be blunt, it’s a record that no one wants to buy. Should it be relegated to the dustbin? No, say the new print-on-demand entrepreneurs. Somebody, somewhere, might want to buy that book; he or she just doesn’t know it yet. Suddenly, out-of-print is pure marketing problem. The distribution and warehousing are all taken care of, thanks to the magic of – you guessed it – the Internet. Yet, this pretty picture – no book without a buyer, no pulping, a perfectly efficient book-publishing system – has a less charming flip-side: copyright.

I want to focus on the relationship between “out of print” and the question – ever more vexed – of intellectual property and especially copyright. Currently, the legal discourse on the status of intellectual property in a world of ubiquitous digitization is deeply intertwined with nervous chattering in the publishing industry over the fate of books in a digital world. One need only review Publishers’ Weekly‘s e-publishing coverage, which for the past year has veered wildly between anxiety and jubilation, to understand how much is at stake for publishers and writers now that everything and nothing are potentially “in print” – and how opposed, at bottom, those interests are.

The categories of “in print” and “under copyright” have long interlocked in the publishing’s history. In The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns’ monumental history of the book trade in early modern England, we learn that a manuscript with the author’s ink still wet was not yet a “copy.” When stationers (a catchall term designating all men and women associated with the book trade, including printers and booksellers) used the word “copy,” they meant not only the pile of handwritten sheaves in all its inkstained glory, but also everything that the work in question could be, once the volume was published. The word “copy” connoted futurity and investment, a stake in the work’s fate. Johns suggests that this concept formed the nugget of a system “capable of protecting the investment of time and money made by a Stationer in transforming the corrupt, singular manuscript into the printed title.” If Johns is right, modern copyright law insists on what has always been obvious from a publisher’s point of view: that the process of publication adds value to a manuscript. To abolish any residual doubts about this added value, one need only reflect of how much is spent on the publication process – from editing, proofing, and printing to marketing and promotion. When copyright reverts to an author, what becomes of this added value?


Say a book goes out of print, and the copyright reverts to the author. Obviously the author does not receive her original manuscript along with a polite letter wishing her the best of luck publishing it elsewhere. Rather, what comes back is the work along with the residue of the publisher’s investment, which may have been substantial. A well-edited out-of-print work still retains the additional value of the editing. Moreover, the very fact of publication may improve the fortunes of a hitherto unknown author, even if the work does not stay in print for long. Both real and symbolic benefits accrue to an author as a result of publication. Reversion of copyright means the author gets the work back along with these additional benefits. The situation is somewhat different for the publisher, to whom an out-of-print work whose rights have reverted to the author usually represents a loss that cannot be recouped.

For authors of out-of-print works, reversion of copyright once meant it was time to find a new publisher. With the advent of Internet-enabled self- and subsidy-publishing, it’s no longer necessary to shop an old book around. Betrayal’s sting is still there – how could you let My Masterpiece go out of print? – but now there’s Do-It-Yourself revenge. MJ Rose, e-publishing’s tireless exponent, made self-publishing look easy and even heroic – if you can’t find a sympathetic publisher, just print it yourself and spam away with email promotion until someone buys in. If I sound cynical, it’s only because the hype surrounding subsidy e-publishing and print-on-demand is hard to justify. All these services provide is inexpensive printing and perhaps a distribution channel for less well-known authors whose works might otherwise never have seen the light of day. All fine and good, but the focus is still on “getting published” or staying “in print” – two desires upon which the Web has made it possible to really cash in.

It is true that places like iUniverse promise to be magnificent insofar as they make reprints of hard-to-find works available. And I’m thrilled by the idea that books might be printed in response to real demand rather than on hazy projections from publishers’ marketing departments. A pulpless world with no returns would make life much easier for authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers, too, as the latter would no longer have to suffer the effects of publishers’ miscalculations of demand (one such effect being the much-discussed lack of interesting reading material beyond bestseller-list mainstays). What troubles me is how easily one might capitalize on a writer’s desire to keep a book in print at any cost. Obviously, writers would be well-advised to ensure a subsidy publisher isn’t merely taking advantage of this desire; on a deeper level, I wonder if the success, so far, of these new publishing models doesn’t indicate a crying need for a critique of the desire to publish itself.

Use The Source, Luke

One model for intellectual property that’s received much press is the open source movement. The idea behind open source is simple: programmers working under the open source paradigm may adapt and redistribute other programmers’ source code, provided the original programmer also made the code available as “open source.” The hope is that, freed from the protection of secrecy guaranteed, in principle, by current intellectual property law, the code itself will improve according to a hacker’s version of natural selection, as others fix bugs and adapt the code to specific needs. At www.opensource.org, the authors explain that “[t]he basic idea behind open source is very simple. When programmers on the Internet can read, redistribute, and modify the source for a piece of software, it evolves.”

Open source supporters liken this freedom to modify source code to the kind of property ownership that makes it acceptable for car aficionados to rebore their engine blocks. According to Peter Wayner in the NY Times, “On the other side are the folks who think that they actually own what they purchase. […] They all want to get at the guts of the technology because that’s where the power is.” The idea that information is the property of the buyer, not the originator, also drives file-sharing systems like Napster, Gnutella, and Freenet. The distinction between ownership and licensing doesn’t quite apply either, because a license does not usually permit modification of the information and subsequent ownership of that modified code, data or structure.

It’s been clear since Gutenberg that owning a book doesn’t make the sequence of words between the covers yours. You own the copy; that’s all. But when digitization unbinds the book, making possible not only reading but also revision and subsequent redistribution, it’s hard to say precisely what belongs to whom. Books start to look a whole lot like software.

A problem – or promise, depending on your point of view – of ubiquitous digitization is that everything rendered in ones and zeros may be re-rendered so precisely one cannot tell copy from original. In “Copyleft and the Information Renaissance,” Michael Stutz argues that because copying data neither modifies nor destroys it, no disadvantage occurs when verbatim copies are made. According to Stutz, it doesn’t matter if you’re copying source code or the human genome or War and Peace: “[H]uman expression and communication across digital computing networks is actioned through referencing, copying, and sampling this weightless, non-physical data.” In a sense, this is the old story about how “information wants to be free”. Stutz’s point is reasonable, even compelling, particularly because the publishing industry has thus far failed to differentiate the value of books from their susceptibility to digitization. Nostalgic evocations of the feel of paper or the smell of ink are obviously not going to sway the 22 million users registered at Napster. The publishing industry must find a non-nostalgic way to distinguish books from information, or gracefully admit that it’s time to give up the ghost.

Manage Your E-mess

Digital artists on the Web are exploring the ideas behind movements like open source and the shifting literacies, including practices of citation, these movements reflect, assume and engage. On one hand, thanks to the Web, we discover the eighteenth century all over again: it’s a short step from Jean Paul’s footnoted fantasias of erudition such as The Dream Upon the All to Joel Weishaus’ hilarious, lavishly documented Reality Dreams, Scroll One. On the other hand, works like dane’s help and Vivian Selbo’s open_source already figure the outdatedness, now, of a certain kind of print-based literacy.

Consider Selbo’s open_source. The initial screen features a moving image of a twitchy tiger behind four solid panes, also moving, and an open book that slides away from your cursor until you slide away from it. Already there’s a sense of the perversity of trying to pin a citation or a sample to its source, as if that proved anything.

The section of open_source called “Return on investment?” is a multi-authored text thread in which a romance founders on the shoals of a specific economic incompatibility, which is just to say that although the protagonists can’t get enough of something, whatever it is, it’s certainly not each other. Clicking on the first contribution (by Carl Skelton) yields a letter addressed only to “Dear,” whose author jumps right into the fray by claiming “I understand your reasons.” He doesn’t, of course; it’s the first pose in a long series. Although the letter oscillates between a quiet puffery and an equally grandiose self-abnegation – the two ordinary poles of injured dignity – there’s something extraordinary about the narrator’s construal of his submission to his interlocutor as submission to some broader, equally implacable market force:

even gift economies must always be contests of will and fitness between their best individuals; the others only live to look on, and clean up… We live in a free and open market; I won’t stoop to appealing its judgement, even now.

And in this “free and open market,” in which information circulates without belonging to anyone, the only thing that matters is the stimulation of demand by paradoxical, occulted means. “We met as winners,” the narrator says, but, “I can’t be your beggar, any more than you can be my thief.” In other words, I won’t beg, but please take what isn’t yours.

In the next installment (by Nick Fisher) we find the reply. (The possibility of not replying is not encompassed by this exchange. It’s a potlatch.) Although the second narrator takes the high road, (“I would have agreed to compromise”), the utterance occurs in the subjunctive, a tense within which, as everyone knows, it is always possible to say anything. So, unsurprisingly, the conciliatory tone doesn’t last, and soon we arrive at the squabble’s proximate cause. There has been some fiscal hanky-panky; someone has done something inexcusably intimate with a third party’s offshore account (“gross”). At the same time, the narrator’s anger reflects a deeper dissatisfaction whose source, her or him, is open in a special sense: it’s fundamentally undecidable. “There’s a huge difference,” she writes, “between my needs and my desires.” Yet this problem is as much his as hers. “It’s a gap,” she says, “you could never finance. Think about it. Think about it a lot, you bastard.”

If desire is what fits, or fails to fit, in the space between a felt need and an articulated demand, the space is narrow indeed for these protagonists, who never cease to articulate demands within the constricted, yet oddly resonant, language of investment. I dwell on this, for although open_source is still in development, it already makes an important point. The first two installments are simulacral letters, which is perfectly apposite, for the form makes a kind of ventriloquy happen. To add to the voices-from-nowhere effect, chunks of lifted ad copy float over these letters, providing indirect commentary. (One such chunk – from amazon.com, no less – precisely captures the question of who is compelling whom to speak: “We’ll give you hundreds of reasons to just say it.”) Unlike speech, which happens in real time and may be interrupted or corrected on-the-fly, letters put words on pages and therefore they put them permanently into everyone’s mouth. (The problem, for our benighted protagonists, is that these words don’t feed anyone.) Insofar as open_source critiques the structure of assumptions about language, data and intellectual property behind slogans like “information wants to be free,” it makes a further point. Practices of citation start to look a bit suspicious on a level more fundamental than fights about intellectual property. All the threats and litigation obscure a more pervasive, and less well-acknowledged issue: in the absence of that comforting fetish, ink-on-paper, language itself may resist the imposition of familiar, print-based proprietary regimes. “Open source” is no source at all.

You Heard It Here First

At the moment, the last installment (by Snoo Wilson) in the open_source ROI log is not a letter but a meditation concerning the disappearance of UK-native red squirrels as a result of an invasion of American gray squirrels who, thanks to their less discriminating digestive systems, have overrun the narrator’s backyard and currently compete with him for the nuts from his walnut tree. This portrait of nature (read: American capitalism) red in tooth and claw obviously rehearses a familiar case against American cultural imperialism and hegemony. Less obviously, it suggests a vision of a post-copyright world in which copyleft and other free-information regimes have run amok. Only the “best” code survives; only the “best” books stay in print. No one knows what “best” means, except tautologically: whatever’s best is whatever’s still around because there’s a market for it. If we can no longer tell piracy from business as usual, this is only because we’ve bought into the idea that the existence of demand justifies anything. From this unrelenting marketing-department perspective, the only thing that matters is that there is a market somewhere that’s not being served. Which usually means it’s coming soon to a theater near you.

But this conclusion may be too pessimistic. When dsl.org’s Michael Stutz opened his article on “Copyleft and the Information Renaissance” with a quotation from none other than William S. Burroughs, Stutz used Burroughs to lend authority to the following paradoxical (and somewhat less than pristinely reproduced) quote: “All knowledge, all discoveries belong to everybody … All knowledge, all discoveries belong to you by right. It is time to demand what belongs to you.” I like the irony of this, and I imagine that Burroughs would have laughed to see his words so pressed into service at dsl.org. My invocation of the butchered quote has a further point. All citation, all copies, are manipulated and impure; there’s no such thing as “verbatim” anymore (if there ever was). If you’ve ever copied and pasted something from a friend’s email and then listened to complaints about “taking words out of context,” you already know how the practice of citation can generate new meanings – not all of which are under your control. This may be a condition of electronic literacy itself, and if that’s the case, we may be in for much more bickering, litigation, etc., as the whole system of intellectual property in the US recovers its footing. Or fails to.

As Burroughs said, LANGUAGE IS A VIRUS. Spread the word.

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After eight and a half years in Boston, Diane Greco has moved to Brooklyn. Her affection for the Red Sox is, however, undiminished.