Permanence for the written word was a quest of authors and other lovers of books long before the rise of digital publishing, but the new publishing formats have exacerbated concerns about valuable works being lost or forgotten. For one thing, questions have been raised about the durability of the technology itself. Writing in The American Scientist, Brian Hayes said:
“One cause for worry among archivists is the impermanence of digital storage media. In this respect civilization has been going downhill ever since Mesopotamia. Paper documents cannot match the longevity of the Sumerians’ clay tablets, and magnetic media seem to be even more evanescent than paper. That’s disturbing news, and yet I suspect that relatively few disks or tapes have yet died of old age. Long before the disk wears out or succumbs to bit rot, the machine that reads the disk has become a museum piece. So the immediate challenge is not preserving the information but preserving the means to get at it.”
Important as these challenges of digital preservation may be, I suspect they do not number very high on the list of detractions many book lovers see in e-book-only publishing. It seems to me that what worries people most about the possible future dominance of e-books is their lack of a social dimension: the fact that you can’t pull them off a shelf to lend to a friend, or easily give them as gifts, or donate them to a library where they may either make their way onto the institution’s shelves or end up at a sale where they become the property of another reader, and the whole cycle begins again. Physical books make their way through the world, falling into unlikely hands, making connections, creating a trail—and that gives them durability in the public’s awareness.
The e-book, on the other hand, mostly stays in the possession of its original owner, archived for him (or her) by the retailer once a reading device has become overcrowded. Though there’s now some limited sharing allowed by Amazon—a book can be loaned one time, for up to fourteen days—this hardly gives an e-book-only title the life span it might have had in the form of physical copies making their journeys of many decades from hand to hand.
It’s worth considering, however, that a very similar downside perception has always attached to magazines as a publishing format, especially for fiction. A magazine generally has a shelf life—at least in stores—of a month at most. Most unsold copies are pulped, and though magazines such as EQMM and its sister publications all have a significant number of collectors, prior to the Internet it probably would not have been as easy to obtain a copy of a past issue of one of our magazines as it would have been to unearth a copy of most contemporaneous books of short stories. The Internet marketplace has changed that somewhat—you can find some very old issues of fiction magazines on the ’Net—but I am not interested in making a case for the life span afforded by our type of publishing on such grounds. I’d like to point to some of the other factors involved, the chief of which is the longevity of the magazines themselves.
In her February 13, 2013 post for this site, “Sifting Through EQMM Buried Treasures,” Sarah Weinman talked of finding a partial run of old EQMMs in a mystery bookstore and how the discoveries she made between those covers formed the basis for her anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. Included in the book are EQMM stories from more than a half-century ago. Although Sarah did not find the copies she perused through us, we were able to assist her with the book’s permissions—a job that is often a stumbling block for the inclusion of old material in new anthologies. And sometimes, our office, with its nearly complete archive of seventy-three years of publication, actually becomes the reading room and place of research for such projects.
I think every short-story writer hopes that, decades hence, a new anthology will pick up their long-unseen work. And I believe the likelihood of that happening is greater if the story first saw life in a periodical such as ours than if it originally appeared in an isolated book. Our magazines are a centralized source for a very large quantity of material, which makes the job of anthologists drawing from our titles less gargantuan than it would be if miscellaneous out-of-print books had to be mined for their projects. No doubt that’s why almost all of the early collections of one of the most prolific anthologists our genre has ever produced, Martin H. Greenberg, drew almost exclusively from our magazines. It may also be one of the reasons why today’s leading publisher of single-author mystery short story collections, Douglas Greene (who was recently honored with a collection of essays on his work: Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene) has relied so heavily on EQMM’s backlist of nearly 900 issues for his books’ selections.
I can’t count the number of times short-story writers have said to me that although they are thrilled to see their work in EQMM, they long for the permanence that a collection of their stories would provide. I understand that feeling, especially when I see the high quality of production provided by presses such as Doug Greene’s Crippen & Landru. (And by the way, if you haven’t yet come across any of those beautifully designed books, you should check them out!) But at the same time, I wonder if the sense of permanence so many of us attach to the printed book isn’t misplaced. From a purely aesthetic standpoint it’s easy to see why authors might prefer print-book publication to either magazine or e-book publication. But the determinants of how many lives a work of fiction ends up having are many. A few years ago, the print market for anthologies of reprinted stories narrowed drastically, and EQMM was only able to continue to put out anthologies of its older stories because of the birth of the e-book market—a case in which technology extended many stories’ longevity. Contractual issues prevent us from bringing back EQMM’s archive of back issues in electronic format (which I would love to do!), but 2015 will see the start of a reissue in electronic format of the twenty-volume hall-of-fame collections Masterpieces of Mystery, Selected by Ellery Queen. (Details to come on this site in 2015.)
Unlike most other fiction magazines on the market when ours was launched, EQMM began its long publishing adventure printed on very high quality paper, between stiff covers. It’s unfortunate that over the decades rising paper costs have made that kind of production impractical. But even high-caliber paper is subject to the ravages of time. As you’ll see from the attached photos, the more heavily thumbed issues in our archive are starting to crumble. We have the most delicate of them encased in acid-free plastic bags, but my hope is someday to have them all scanned and archived electronically (another case of digital technology being a potential lifesaver for the written word).
I love the look and feel of print and the complex social interactions that printed books and magazines inspire; I hope our magazines always maintain print editions. But I’m also very thankful for the advent of electronic publishing and new digital technologies, because when it comes to achieving greater longevity and permanence for the written word, the more options we have, the better.
Very well presented piece and quite thought provoking. In my own contribution to SOMETHING, I touched on a similar theme as to the importance of tangible, printed books and magazines. My fear has been future readers will be deprived of handed down, dusty treasures. But your observation is correct: the more options the better. Thanks for helping me see that.
I was actually thinking of your post when I wrote this. A father so lovingly providing those books for his son and thereby creating lifelong memories as well as encouraging a love of reading. Hard to see how those things could happen with e-books, and that’s one of the reasons I hope we always have print too!