There are some very important abbreviations in the print publishing industry that I have learned in the past few years. These are OS, OSI, and OP. The terms are related, with OS often leading to OSI, and OSI often a harbinger of OP. In booksellers parlance, these abbreviations stand for “out of stock,” “out of stock indefinitely,” and “out of print.” They chronicle the slow death to which print books are subject as time dampens interest in them.
Sometimes, just sometimes, there is another state for a book to be in. We have all encountered this state while standing at the help desk at Barnes and Noble or Borders when we are told by the associate, “That book isn’t in the store, but we can order it for you, have it here next week.” The book is simply “unavailable,” at least in any terms that are meaningful to me when I want to read it. OS, OSI, OP, and “unavailable” are extremely reader-unfriendly statuses. They each tell a reader that he/she won’t be reading the desired material, at least any time soon. (Maybe the publisher will reprint–check back in six months. Or, the publisher is considering a reprint–check back in a year. Or, there are no plans to reprint–try Google Books or the public library.)
OK, well, that’s what happened to me recently. The conversation turned to Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. My wife had heard Ravitch interviewed on the radio, and the commentator mentioned that the new book was so popular that it was widely unavailable, even after a couple of printintgs. No way! I thought. A relatively niche book on the history of education, unavailable? Impossible. But a quick check of Amazon told the story. Ravitch’s book, the Amazon page told me, “Usually ships within 10 to 12 days.” (Please note: The publication date for the book is March 2, 2010.)
I thought for a moment about where the demand for this niche title was coming from, and then I did the only thing that I could do in order to cut through the systemic inefficiencies that had rendered this title momentarily “unavailable.” I scolled down the page and ordered the Kindle edition of the book. I was reading the first chapter a few minutes later.
(Epilog: The notice about the book being available in 10-12 days stayed on the Amazon page for just about two weeks and, oddly, never changed. As of this writing, a truck full of books must have hit the Amazon warehouse, so the book now ships, once more, within 24 hours.)
What’s the moral of this little tale? That innovations which close massive inefficiencies in production and delivery systems transform the industries in which they occur. So, all the controversy over the price of ebooks? Tempest in a teapot. The battle of competing mobile reading platforms? Preliminary rounds. The fate of publishers who fight to lock in profit by propping up inefficient systems? The scrapheap of history.
This takes me back to the first few orders I ever placed with Amazon. Once I decided that I would take the risk with my credit card on the web and the delivery service, it occurred to me that I could order books that I wanted but had never found in book stores. It is hard to imagine, but in those days, ten or fifteen years ago, I had a list of books in my head that I always checked for in book stores I visited. It was a lucky day when I found one. In fact, I tended to hoard the books I found because I really didn’t know when I would have a chance to get them again. Never thought of ordering a book. Wasn’t really sure how to do it, back in the old days. So my first few orders from Amazon contained books that I had been carrying around on my mental checklist; what a mindbender it was to finally be relieved of that list and of the whole issue of how I could get the books that I wanted.
Furthermore, I tended to know only about those books that I had physically seen somewhere or read about in a magazine or newspaper; there really wasn’t a very efficient way to spread the word about books before the advent of the internet. After that first order from Amazon, the company started making book suggestions based on the books I had already ordered. What I preferred had cognates in other peoples’ experience, and the Amazon database just had to match like with like. I now had a hyper-efficient way of finding out about other books that might interest me, on top of the hyper-efficient book distribution system created by Amazon in the first place.
My experience with the Ravitch book is just another milestone a bit further down the same road. Publishers just don’t run out of digital copies of a book. A digital copy is never in the wrong bookstore or the wrong city. A digital copy is never OS, OSI, or OP. And with the Google book project, books that have been OP for years will never be OP again. Pretty soon, “out-of-print” won’t mean much, except in the history books. Does it really seem like something worth preserving?