In discussions of the pros and cons of e-books, supporters of the growing shift toward electronic readers cite the convenience of e-readers and tablets, the ability to instantly download a new book when browsing an online store, and the cost-free virtual (and virtually unlimited) shelf space. Personally, the ability to accumulate more books without reaching the point of needing to add another room to the house in order to store them is a fantastic development.
But, to my mind, by far the largest boon of the e-book revolution is the way it has made available previously out-of-print backlists of a large number of authors that would have been unlikely to make it back into print as physical books, due to the economics of books publishing, and publishers’ increasing unwillingness to keep marginally profitable “midlist” writers works’ in print. Major publishers have slowly gotten into the act with digital reprints of the books they have rights to, but there also an increasing number of authors (or authors’ estates), the rights to whose backlists have reverted to them, who have taken the opportunity to arrange for digital reissues. Back catalogues that have appeared for the first time or been added to in the last few months include:
Alan Dean Foster may be better known for his novelizations of films like Alien and Star Trek, but he has been writing original science fiction and fantasy since the early ‘70s, at which time I became addicted to his series of novels set in the Humanx Commonwealth, a galactic federation of humans and the insect-alien Thranx, which provided adventure in a wide variety of galactic settings, from jungle planets (Midworld) to ice worlds (Icerigger), many featuring the adventures of Flinx and his miniature dragon Pip. There are close to three dozen novels set in the Commonwealth universe, and Foster has still had time to write the popular Spellsinger fantasy series, various media tie-ins, and additional standalone works. A few were already available as e-books, but Open Road Media, the publisher that recently released Octavia Butler’s works electronically, has recently added several of Foster’s early Commonwealth and Spellsinger books, with more on the way.
Newest Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Gene Wolfe has also had a prolific career, but most of his books, including the acclaimed Book of the New Sun, have been unavailable digitally until now. Adding to what they already had available, Tor has just announced the release of nineteen new digital editions, including New Sun, several collections, and the fantasy classic Peace. (The Book of the New Sun, by the way, was just voted twenty-fourth in the Locus All-Centuries poll of the best science fiction novels of the twentieth century, and as number eighteen in the best fantasy novel poll!)
Finally, Rosetta Books, another e-book specialty publisher that has already published works by Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Matheson, and John Wyndham, has just released thirty-five books by Grand Master Arthur C. Clarke. Short story collections, classics like Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (all three of which made the top thirty in that Locus All-Centuries poll), along with early works like The Sands of Mars, and the Rama sequels, are now available for e-readers from the usual e-book retailers, as are the Foster and Wolfe titles mentioned above.
For some, digital books are not a close substitute for the real thing, but considering the vagaries of publishing, it’s heartening to realize that recognized classics by writers like Clarke and Wolfe, and even lesser-known genre favorites like Foster’s Commonwealth series, can now remain “in print” indefinitely. Once the book files are created, it’s nearly costless to keep them available, providing continual revenue for writers, and making it increasingly possible, as the digitization process continues, for fans to easily find books that may never again be run through a printing press. I look forward to future announcements heralding the availability of still more science fiction and fantasy. If any e-book publishers are taking requests, how about bringing back the works of Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, or C. J. Cherryh, to name just a few of the many excellent genre writers many of whose works are now available only as aging used paperbacks. While more is becoming available all the time thanks to the digital book revolution, much of the history of the genre is still ripe for rediscovery. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time…