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When out-of-print books become just memories

28 Sep 2015

There are so many books we now hold on to as memories. We excitedly talk about them as titles we remember from school or university.

Sometimes book titles are peppered into phrases to show off. Most of these books no longer exist in physical form. Bookshops do not have them in stock. School syllabi have changed, for better or worse.

A book going out of print is not a peculiar Zimbabwean problem. The lifecycle for books is the same: a book is written, it is published, many people buy and enjoy it, the book slowly and quietly disappears and publishers stop printing copies. This happens to exceptional books, average books and books that perhaps should never have seen the light of day in the first place. This lifecycle has remained the same from the days Gutenberg walked the earth.

A book out of print means that it is dead. Once a book is dead the only way you can read a copy is to steal, find someone to borrow, give or sell it to you, or convince a publisher that issuing a new pressing is going to be financially viable. Most fiction titles published in Zimbabwe never surpass 1 000 copies unless they are selected as set books. That is a shocking figure considering that we are a country of more than 12 million people.

Who reads books? Who buys books? Before social media appropriated the concept of “sharing” that is how so many of us read books. We exchanged dog-eared copies and thumbed them until they disintegrated. As a teenager, I read a lot and was willing to read most things I could lay my hands on. The favourite in those days were local Shona novels, Pacesetters, the African Writers Series, and of course novels by James Hadley Chase, Sidney Sheldon and Stephen King.

Things have greatly changed. Fewer books are published locally every year. The popular African writers series is gone. Economic hardship caused by some government skewed policies and the economic decline of the noughts forced many people to concentrate only on the basics. People became more pragmatic and read only books that either offered them salvation and hope like religious literature or books allowed them to dream like the get-rich-quick books.

Strangely, not all books are out of print. As unbelievable as it may sound, some publishers and booksellers keep books locked in their warehouses. The only time they dust them is when they are preparing for their annual stand exhibitions at the moribund Book Fair held in the Harare Gardens every July-August. Publishers have no interest in these books because they are not school set books and only sell in dribs and drabs.

A few years ago, I visited Mambo Press with a list of books they published in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t want to use second-hand quotations from Flora Veit-Wild’s Teachers, Preachers, Non-Believers. I was shocked to discover that Mambo Press did not even have some of their books in its own library. The explanation was that “some of these books have been out of print for a very long time and unless a school or college want them in large volumes we just forget they exist.”

When I first met Julius Chingono I knew him as an accomplished poet in both English and Shona. The more we talked and travelled together as fellow writers, I discovered that he had published a Shona novel, Chipo Changu, in the late 70s but he didn’t have a copy of his own book. Some people he lent copies of the book disappeared with them.

I don’t know how much local writers know about their power and rights. Traditionally, if a book falls out of print, authors are contractually allowed to ask their publishers for their rights back so that the author can try to have the book republished somewhere else. Zimbabwean authors should take back the rights of out-of-print books so they can place them with new publishers and give their work new life.

Technology has disrupted the monopoly-hold publishers had on authors. We now have print-on-demand — a printing technology and business process in which copies of a book are not printed until an order has been received, allowing books to be printed singly, or in small quantities. In other words, books should be available on demand as and when requested.

The problem in Zimbabwe could just be that most of these old books have never been digitilised and local publishing companies have not invested in finding out how to convert them. If Shakespeare or Dickens are easily available at the click of a button, why not Solomon Mutsvairo or Stanlake Samkange? We are denying ourselves access to our past and rich literary heritage-The Standard