Out of Print, Out of Sight: Resurrecting the Dead in Digital

Is this the most literal book cover of all time?

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last month or so in London for the Unwin Fellowship. I spent my first two weeks with Pan Macmillan UK helping them out with their brand new imprint, Macmillan Bello, which has partnered with Curtis Brown UK to bring out-of-print titles back from the dead in digital and print-on-demand format.

The imprint joins other publishing ventures such as Bloomsbury Reader and others by agents such as Ereads, founded by prominent New York literary agent Richard Curtis way back in 1999, and Bedford Square Books, by agent Ed Victor.

Bello plans to launch several hundred titles over the next eighteen months, including those by author (and famous gardener, apparently) Vita Sackville-West, conservationist Gerald Durrell, Francis Durbridge and DJ Taylor. If you haven’t heard of any of these authors, I wouldn’t hold it against them (and you can check out a blurb about each of them below). Having now spent a fair bit of time fondling the curling, age-spotted covers of some of these books (knowing they were off to be euthanised), I can assure you that when they emerge blinking into their second lives they will be read fondly by many.

I confess to being a convert to this kind of ‘resurrectionist’ publishing. And it makes good sense for publishers to get on board with. Most big publishers have invested to some extent in digitising their own backlist titles – though some are better at it than others. The best of them can leverage this capability to digitise large numbers of these out-of-print titles. There are a lot of them to get through if we want to digitise it all (and we do). Few will do so many as Bello in such an ambitious time frame, but it’s a worthy goal. Seeing tottering piles of books that would otherwise have only been available to a handful of people who paid for second-hand copies is quite heartening. As much as it pains me to think of them all being shredded into tiny little pieces (not really) it’s nice to think that they will likely now be available for any reader for all time – not just digitally, but back in paper. How much more retro can you get?

There are those who argue that bringing back these titles adds to the flood of unfiltered information already available on ebook vendors’ stores, but it’s worth keeping in mind that all of these titles were vetted by publishers years ago. Many are sought after by current digital readers who can’t otherwise access them. And let’s face it, some of these books are only going to be available second-hand for a limited time before they disappear forever.

Vita Sackville-West: A famous author and gardener. Seriously, a gardener. Check this out. She’s the author of many books, including All Passion Spent (1931) and The Edwardians (1930). Aside from her gardening and writing, Ms Sackville-West is a famous bisexual, who had an affair with Virginia Woolf.

Gerald Durrell: Conservationist who founded the Jersey Zoo and spent his life trying to preserve rare wildlife. He wrote a number of portraits of his work and family, as well as a handful of fiction titles. For some reason his Wikipedia photo reminds me of Brian Cox. Do you see what I mean?

Francis Durbridge: Playwright, author and television writer. Created the character Paul Temple, who solved mysteries and wrote crime novels and spanned every entertainment medium imaginable between the years 1938 (when the character first appeared in a novel) until 1971 in a television series.

DJ Taylor: Critic, novelist and biographer. His latest novel, Derby Day, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he received the Whitbread Biography Prize for his biography of George Orwell.