20140318_190042_HDRA few days ago, I recalled a short story, called Early Bird, by Theodore R. Cogswell and Theodore L. Thomas. I wanted to share that story with a couple of friends and co-writers on a shared Internet fiction setting that uses a number of the same tropes. So I went to see where I might find it. And the answer was…nowhere.

Well, not completely nowhere. It was published in one single place: a 1973 anthology honoring the late John W. Campbell. I couldn’t find it online anywhere else—not for sale via Smashwords, not published in a magazine I could find from a library database, not even on the Pirate Bay. It couldn’t be found. I finally ended up ordering the book used from Amazon, scanning the story into a PDF, and linking it to them to read that way.

Yes, sure, you can argue that it was “piracy.” But what alternative did I have? Even if I’d ordered a hard copy of the book from Amazon to be mailed to them, since it’s no longer in print the authors or their estates wouldn’t have seen a penny of it anyway. I’d just have enriched Amazon, the post office, and whoever was selling it (but given that it was selling for a penny plus shipping, mostly Amazon and the post office).

And there’s basically no possibility of getting the book as a whole in e-book format, either, even if I clicked the “Tell the publisher you want it” button. It’s an anthology. And anthologies are special beasties. Each short story is basically purchased for as long as it takes to keep the anthology in print, then it goes away forever. Republishing the anthology isn’t just a question of negotiating the rights to one book from one author. Using this anthology as an example, it’s negotiating the rights to 15 works from 14 authors (or their estates). For the sake of one book? No publisher will find it worth the trouble.

I wanted to do the right thing. I looked everywhere to see where I could buy it. If it had been available on Smashwords, for example, with their “pay for extra copies and gift it to your friends” policy, I’d happily have done so. But when it’s a question of doing it or not, and the authors not getting any money either way—well, why not?

(I’d be happy to kick in a few bucks directly to the estates of Cogswell and Thomas, who are both deceased, if they want it. If representatives from those estates are out there, please let me know if you take PayPal.)

So what can be done about works like this? They may or may not be “orphan” in terms of being able to contact their rights holders…but if nobody gives enough of a damn to want to bother contacting those rights holders to republish them in the first place, they’re not going to be available until Disney finally gives up its lock on the public domain. If that ever happens.


  1. I know the dilemna well. My rule of thumb is, if I do something like this and the book subsequently becomes available, I snap it up in electronic form. I don`t think I`ve done anything remotely wrong, since essentially I have purchased the same book twice….

    Sadly, this doesn`t seem to happen very often. There are many fine old books that are just not being distributed electronically, and their authors are poorly represented in the e-bookstores.

    I`m thinking of you, Clifford D. Simak, Wilson Tucker, Curt Siodmak, D.F. Jones, Edgar Pangborn, and SO VERY MANY OTHERS….

  2. I know what you mean. Around 1980, Francis L. and Roberta B. Fugate published “Secrets of the World’s Best-selling Writer,” a book on Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing method. It’s a fabulous book showing how he turned himself into a writing machine, based on his archived papers. The book went through one edition and there are five copies for sale on abebooks (lowest about fifty bucks, the rest start at $100+). It seems like a press such as Writer’s Digest could market this, but tracking down the estate is probably more work than it deserves.

  3. @Alain C, and let me add Stephen Brust to your list. I got the urge to re-read Jhereg, opened up my Kindle app to buy and discovered it wasn’t available. We got rid of all our old paperbacks years ago, and I refuse to re buy it in paper. Talk about a lost sale.

  4. I have always believed that all copyright laws should contain a ‘use it or lose it’ provision.

    If a work was published in the past, but has not been republished in some reasonable period of time, then that work should be available to be republished by anyone who wants to do so, with a percentage of revenues set by the copyright law to be provided as royalties to the rights holder(s).

  5. How did you link to it? Did you put it in a public place? Did you email copies to your collaborators?

    There is a big difference between sending someone an out of print story and publishing it for all to download via web, p2p or file locker. To NOT make that distinction is disingenuous and only works to harm both authors and readers. Even the most ardent anti-piracy proponent understands the difference, no publisher or author fails to make the distinction between sharing a piece with friends and publishig without permission, but most on the pro-piracy side of the debate do not – or they pretend not to in order to advance an agenda.

    At the end of the day, the story was readily available – in print form. The only work you did was the work you did trying to find it in a different format, You could have just bought the book in the first place and sent the pages to your friends. If you want to republish it, contact the author’s estates, I’m sure they’d be glad to hear from you.

    Disney had little to do with extended copyright terms (the so called ‘strangle hold’), by the way, that’s a silly myth – the term was extended to meet German demands in trade negotiations, They did it first, because they value their writers.

  6. The alternative is to accept that nothing lasts forever. In the case of literature, I would argue that it would quickly stifle creativity if everything ever published still existed. Art would cease to evolve and new works would find it ever harder to make their mark.

    Of course, the other answer is that you only wanted the one story, not the whole anthology, so you could have contacted the copyright holders to see if there was a chance it could be released in some way. Single short stories make good ebooks.

  7. @borax99: unfortunately most if not all of the authors you listed are dead, so it’s the executor of the estate who is at fault. In the case of Pangborn, that’s the fault of Peter S. Beagle, and he hasn’t been all that good about getting his own work available as ebooks either. In general, getting an older anthology republished is a lost cause because of the difficulties in tracking down the authors’ estates. I think it’s odd because it’s my impression that one of the things the oft maligned Science Fiction Writers of America does is maintain a directory of literary estate representatives

  8. Yes, SFWA does maintain a database in estates and I’ve used it. There are gaps, but the folks working in it are motivated and are constantly working on updating it.

    One alternative would have been to contact the author’s estate and see if they had a copy they could send you for your research. I’ve had positive results when asking for similar research materials.

  9. Over in the UK we have made a lot of backlist ebooks available at our site (www.sfgateway.com). These include a lot of Pangborn and Simak, with more to come, and will include Wilson Tucker once the contracts are signed — just from the names mentioned in the comments.

    Individual short stories present an immense task, which we hope to start tackling once we have published all the novels and collections which we have under contract.

  10. Thanks Malcolm,

    I was aware of the SF Gateways web site, and hopefully titles that appear there can eventually end up here in North America. I wasn *not* aware of just how many books they have that I’ve been looking for in e-format for years. *sigh* A Mirror for Observers, Davy, Still I Persist in Wondering …. Good grief, looks like they have republished all, or nearly all of Simak’s backlist ! Fingers crossed some of this stuff will come to the Canadian e-stores.

  11. Libraries have what is called interlibrary loans. Your friends can get to read these out-of-print works this way. Or, god forbid, they might have to go to a library and read the work that can not be checked out. I realize this goes contrary to the instant gratification of the digital era, but as a published author I can’t get to sad abt publishers that don’t want to make an honest effort to figure out who owns a copyright. They just want to publish and profit from someone elses work.

  12. Well, there’s always those things called libraries. . . .

    Seriously, that’s the first place I look for out-of-print books. Here in Maryland, I can get an astounding number of out-of-print books through the state’s interlibrary loan system, ansolutely free.

    Moreover, Maryland is hooked in with Open Library’s e-book lending scheme. I can find even more out-of-print books that way. (In a case like this, though, you have to multiple searches on variations of the titles and authors to find all the editions.)

    Alas, I was only able to locate one digital edition of the anthology at Open Library, in DAISY format, so unless any of your friends has a reading disability, they’re out of luck. But the book entry links to WorldCat (showing which libraries own the book) and any used copies of the book.


    Google Books often has similarly helpful info.

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