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.