Once upon a time, I had the crazy idea that if a book was good, it would stay in print. I also figured that a “best-of” volume would probably have all the good stories from an author, and I was actually naive enough to think that if a work by a favorite author was out of print, it probably wasn’t as good as the work that was still on shelves.
I had a lot to learn.
Sure, it’s true that a lot of the classics never go out of print. And in my own experience, Sturgeon’s Law seems to hold pretty true — at least 90% of all art is pretty bad, which partly explains why things go out of print. That’s why, when I used to wander through a used bookstore past ranks of shelves holding books with titles and authors I’ve never heard of, I was pretty sure I wasn’t missing much.
The problem is, though, that sometimes I am. Sometimes there are fantastic works that slip past our attention. Maybe they were ahead of their time. Perhaps they were badly marketed, or poorly distributed, or had a lousy cover. Maybe readers were all distracted by the second installment of the next big thing and word just never got out about this author or title.
I learned a couple of lessons while uncovering Harold Lamb texts. In the mid-to late ’60s, a number of Lamb’s great Cossack stories had been collected in anthologies. As much as I loved those stories — and I truly did, ranking them up there with Leiber’s Lankhmar tales — I didn’t bother trying to track down Harold Lamb’s other fiction for years. I had mistakenly assumed that editors would properly have taken care of his work. They hadn’t, of course, and I still remember the delight of finding fantastic Lamb novels and short stories unreprinted for almost a century and wondering to myself how I could bring them to the wider audience they deserved. I found a way, but most neglected authors aren’t lucky enough to have a crazed fan with editorial training promote their work.
I then made another mistake: I incorrectly concluded that the old pulp historicals where Lamb had been printed were probably brimming with great fiction. A few years of research showed me that Sturgeon’s Law held up for fiction published in old Adventure magazine as well. At least ninety percent of it was crap. A handful of authors were as good as Harold Lamb, but none were as consistently excellent. Lamb blew the curve — the exception, not the rule. I didn’t come out of that research with a big list of authors who needed the same kind of care, but I did turn up a number of fine stories that deserve not to be forgotten. Unfortunately for them, it will have to be some other crazed fan who rescues them, because I am low on spare time.
Now that I’m published myself, I’ve met authors with hard luck stories. There are a lot of them, and it is all too easy to dismiss the complaints and say, ah, that author didn’t play it smart, she shouldn’t have made that choice, how could he have thought that idea would sell, and so on. You know the questions. I guess the unspoken assumption by a lot of us is that if a book doesn’t sell well, the author must be making excuses and the real issue is that the book is no good. Keeping in mind that Sturgeon’s Law really does seem to hold true, nine out of ten of those books probably aren‘t that good. But that means that some of them are. And some of them might be very good.
I recently read an overlooked book that was excellent, Peadar O’Guilliln’s The Inferior. Peadar wrote about his own experience with the book and the series just last month. Now that I can personally vouch for how compelling The Inferior was, I can point to it and say hey, this is a LOT better than many books that have sold exponentially better. That doesn’t really help Peadar, though.
What to do? I wish I could tell you. I wish I could offer advice to other writers about how to not experience the nightmare of having your work sucked into limbo… yet I’m not sure what can be said, because I’m always a little worried that the same thing might happen to me. Maybe all authors are.
Now when I walk past those rows of dusty books in used bookstores, I can’t help wondering not only how many great books there are, unknown to me, but how many of those authors meant to launch a career with those books, only to have something go wrong and have the dream yanked away. It can take a long, long time to get your writing over the editorial desk and into book covers. How must it feel to have worked for so long, to come so close, only to have it snatched away?
I hope that I never find out. All I can do, personally, is to remember to have a little humility the next time I hear a hard luck story. The nightmare CAN happen to any of us.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and the Paizo Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and keep up with him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.