There’s been much talk about e-books lately. Wherever you look, authors are publishing their out-of-print backlists and unplaced books on Kindle and other platforms. Agents and publishers, rowsed from their e-slumber, are trying to catch up, wondering what is a fair percentage for e-book rights - or what they can get away with (which is the same thing, so my free-market friends tell me). According to a powerful post written last month by Kristin Kathryn Rusch, we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift in the way that people think about publishing, and about books themselves. Who needs publishers when the internet lies trembling at our fingertips? In the age of the DIY download, need books ever go out of print again? On the other hand, with no quality control mechanism, some fear that e-literature is destined to be no more than a new recipe for spam.
These aren’t questions I feel qualified to answer, but they were in my mind when I visited Hay-on-Wye with my son the other day. As most UK readers of this blog will know, Hay is a small town on the border of Wales and England, just at the northern tip of the Black Mountains. It is also the home of more than twenty second-hand bookshops, the largest concentration in the UK by far. We were only making a day trip, nothing like long enough to plumb its treasures, but we still made some great discoveries, and it would be a poor soul who could visit Hay without doing so. To be tired of Hay is to be tired of life – or at least of reading.
All the same, when I find a wonderful book that’s been forgotten by all but the cognoscenti (who hug their enthusiasms to their chests like so many racing tips), and especially if that book is going cheap, I feel melancholy as well as triumphant. For Hay is, as well as a great shopping experience, a vast Necropolis. It is a graveyard for out-of-print books – and those of us who stalk its chambers, ripping the jewels from bony necks and fingers, cannot help but feel like tomb raiders – and not in a sexy, Lara Croft kind of way. If we are writers, a trip to Hay is also a plangent reminder of our own mortality, and – perhaps worse! – that of our books. Occasionally I meet one of my own offspring, staring back at me from the dusty shelves like a memento mori. “Buy me!” it seems to beg, in mute appeal. I generally oblige.
We all have our unjustly-forgotten writers, and Hay is a good place to find them. Whatever happened to Nina Beachcroft, for example? Her first three books, Well Met by Witchlight (1972), Cold Christmas and Under the Enchanter (both 1974) are a wonderful debut set, showing mastery of a variety of fantasy genres, from comic supernatural to traditional ghost story to occult tale of possession. But her footprint on the literary foreshore was soon obliterated, and although she produced half a dozen more books (many very good), it’s almost twenty years since a publisher put out an edition of any of them. I can see why they wouldn't do so now: to the omnipotent marketing departments Beachcroft's world of middle-class, largely rural childhood would seem dated. And, although I rate her highly, she's not quite good enough to face down such objections. All the same, I regret her absence from the shelves, and not just for sentimental reasons.
E-publishing may allow such neglect to be put right – and if it does, I’m all for it. I doubt whether Nina Beachcroft’s works will ever storm the bestseller lists, but they deserve a second life. It may be only a zombified half-life, subsisting on electronic downloads rather than good honest paper – but then, perhaps it's better to be a zombie than a corpse?