“Sitting on rights with no intention to make use of them is little short of criminal, not to mention business-stupid.”

While this short essay, based on a report in the Guardian this week, is specifically about Australia, the lessons to be learned will apply to most countries.

Per The Guardian,

62 books that won Australia’s Miles Franklin Award between 1957 and 2019, 23 are currently not available as ebooks, 40 are not available as audiobooks, and 10 are not available anywhere, in any format whatsoever. They’re officially out of print.

As Australia’s copyright law extends 70 years after the authors’ death this means every single one of these books is still under publisher control, and said publishers have sat on the rights, depriving the author/author’s estate and the publisher the opportunity to reap revenue from these works, while depriving the reading public at home and globally the chance to enjoy these works.

Yes, we all understand audiobooks are expensive to produce and priority is given to works likely to resonate most with the buying public, not long-forgotten backlist titles. And yes, there is limited shelf-space in bookstores such that many of these backlist books might not find many booksellers willing to stock them.

But what, exactly is the rationale for publishers sitting on these rights rather than making these books available as ebooks and as paperbacks through Print-On-Demand, where the production costs are, in publisher terms, negligible, the shelf-space infinite and the audience potentially global?

The same, of course, applies to publishers around the world who hold rights to books they have long since let fade into deep-backlist oblivion.

In countries where digital has yet to become a meaningful reality in the publishing industry and where online retail is still nascent once can perhaps forgive the trade for not rising to this opportunity.

But for countries like Australia… and the US and UK and countless other vibrant book markets, sitting on rights with no intention to make use of them is little short of criminal, not to mention business-stupid.

Head over to the Guardian OP to find out how an organization called Untapped is looking to digitise 200 lost literary treasures.