Kristine Kathryn Rusch is compiling an anthology for Baen of classic SF stories by women, and as part of the project has started a website about women in science fiction. Along the way, one of her readers wrote to her about Andre Norton, bringing up an important point—over the last couple decades of the 20th century, the availability of classic SF writers (and, for that matter, classic writers of other genres) to the general public plummeted. In this blog post, Rusch examines the reasons why.

The post is long, but makes some great reading. To summarize: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, inflation and the recession caused a sharp drop in federal and state library funding. Tax law changes made it less desirable for publishers to keep large stocks of backlist in their warehouses. (Camille LaGuire goes into detail about this in a similar post she wrote about the mystery genre back in January.)

Meanwhile, chain bookstores arose in malls. Later, super-bookstore chains expanded to the other parts of town where independent bookstores could be found, and started driving them out of business. Driven by the rapid cycling of books through chain bookstores, publishers stopped keeping books in print for as long, meaning there weren’t as many copies to make their way into used-book stores.

Grocery chains consolidated into national chains, who no longer wanted to do business with the regional book distributors who used to be responsible for putting books into every grocery store, drugstore, and other places with room for a stack of books. This killed off the regionals, who used to have an encyclopedic knowledge of exactly what kind of book sold where, and replaced them with soulless distributors who just threw bestsellers into every shelf because they knew those sold overall. This in turn led publishers to focus on bestsellers at the expense of the midlist. And limited library shelf space meant that they couldn’t keep older books for very long either.

Combined with publisher and estate rights issues keeping a lot of older stuff out of print, this was enough to remove many classic older works of SF from availability, and hence from the awareness of several generations of readers. If you didn’t see it on the shelves, how would you know about it? Even if you read about it somewhere else, where would you be able to get your hands on it?

It wasn’t until the rise of Amazon that this began to turn around. Amazon was able to keep effectively every book still in print in stock, which meant customers no longer had to depend on just what might be found in any given bookstore or library. It began to act as a clearing house for used books, which meant customers were no longer limited to the shelves of one or two second-hand shops in their areas. The combination of Amazon’s huge warehouses and e-books requiring no warehouses meant that older books could be universally available and more books could come back into print and be available new once more. New readers might again be able to stumble upon older works. (It’s not a perfect solution, of course, given that they still can’t run across them by browsing physical shelves, but it’s better than what we did have.)

It’s become fashionable lately to dogpile onto Amazon for “threatening” the publishing industry, but Amazon is actually the best thing to happen to classic SF literature in decades. Andre Norton, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison…these and other writers are getting their back catalogs into e-books that readers can buy and read at a whim. Even for those works not yet (and possibly never to be) in e-book form, Amazon usually lists plenty of used paper versions, often for as little as a penny plus shipping. For the availability of classic and obscure works, this is a new golden age, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in decades.

So, next time you’re looking for something to read, consider some classic SF literature, such as Andre Norton. Who knows, you might just like it.


  1. It’s ironic that the early ebook pirates were helping to keep old sci fi alive by scanning, cleaning up and converting those out-of-print books. Their attention to detail was often a loving community effort as one person scanned and uploaded and then a bunch of people would clean up. Before ebooks were readily available commercially, I read a bunch of pirated old sci fi and fantasy books on my Handspring Visor.

    Now that so many books are available as ebooks, the pirates have been able to get lazy, and I’m guessing the community element is less. I don’t hang out on those message boards anymore so I don’t know what they are like, but I miss the days of searching for an updated version of an old classic and being so happy when I could find a version 5.0 (considered perfect) of a book I really wanted to read. It was like finding buried treasure!

  2. Andre Norton is one of those authors who have most of their books available in paper and ebooks. Baen brought out many of her sf novels in hardcover primarily aimed at the library market, and many of her early works are now public domain and can be found in collections.

    @Juli I went to a local sf convention for many years, and it had a massive amount of the major Golden Age and later writers. Because of Usenet, etc., they totally despised ebooks, refused to agree to ebook conversion, and one major writer told me that publishers refused to publish his backlist because it was on Usenet. So no one was doing publishing and authors any favors by putting books on the pirate sites.

    Science fiction publishing was one of the last genres to convert to ebooks because of that massive mistrust. Numerous small presses and ebook publishers offering romance and mysteries were available for years before Double Dragon finally dipped its toes into the sf/f/horror market as a straight to digital publisher.

  3. @Marilyn, so it’s a chicken/egg thing. If they had embraced ebooks earlier, the pirates might not have had a reason to scan and upload as many books. I wasn’t an author or a convention goer in those days, so my only easy access to the books was Usenet. I was completely willing to pay for legally available ebooks, and as soon as they became readily available, I stopped pirating. Haven’t downloaded a pirate book in more than a decade. Would have stopped earlier if I could have just bought the things.

  4. I don’t know about the pirate ebooks before the mid-2000’s but the few that I looked at from the Usenet pirate ebook feeds, were generally straight from OCR crap that had no proofreading, and wasn’t worth the bother. I know that there were a few SF authors who self-published their backlist starting from the pirate ebook feeds a couple years ago, but not all bothered to proofread their work. I submitted a bad review on Amazon for one such work, and several years later, it appears that the author has still not fixed it.

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