The Ones That Got Away
One of the great things about running Abandoned Bookshop, as you can probably imagine, is tracking down the authors of forgotten books and working with them to bring their work to a new audience. Sometimes, of course, the authors themselves are no longer with us and we end up collaborating with the author’s family, or whoever looks after their estate, but the end result is usually just as rewarding: creating a new edition of their work and getting it back out there.
Unfortunately, and inevitably, our discussions and negotiations are not always successful and some neglected books are destined to remain so despite our best efforts.
This can be for a variety of reasons. The most obvious one is financial; we don’t pay advances and even though our royalties are far higher than most publishers, sometimes people want paying upfront, and that is fair enough. On occasion, the deals have faltered because we are an ebook-only imprint and the author, or their estate, really want to hold out for print publication. Again, that doesn’t seem unreasonable, however frustrating we may find it.
Whatever the reasons, there are some books we would love to have published but have been unable to do so.
Here are a few lost classics that may remain lost for a bit longer yet.
Naoya Shiga is a Japanese author who died in 1971 at the age of 88. He was a novelist and short story writer who received considerable acclaim during his lifetime, including praise from Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, author of Rashōmon, but very little of his work has been translated into English and it can be hard to track down. Through some chance introductions we came across a translation of a Shiga novel named Reconciliation, about an estranged father and son, translated by Ted Goosen, who is perhaps best known for his work on recent books by Haruki Murakami.
Ted was very keen to work with us and for this novel, which has never been published in English, to finally see the light of day. Sadly, the Japanese agency that handles the Shiga estate did not share his enthusiasm. Despite the fact that no one has attempted to publish Reconciliation in English in the 100 years since it was written, the lack of advance was a deal-breaker and, for now, Ted’s wonderful translation will remain largely unread.
It isn’t always the advance that is the issue though. Early on in our existence we tried to secure the rights to Treatise on Style, a philosophical rant about art and literature by one of the leaders of the surrealist movement, Louis Aragon. Once again, the translator was very excited at the prospect of seeing the work available but the French publisher of the original was less keen. ‘We don’t do digital-only deals,’ they said. And if that is company policy then there is little we can do, although we couldn’t resist replying to point out that the book had been out of print for more than twenty years and that we might check in with them again in a decade or so, if the book was still out of print, to see if they had changed their mind.
Other times we discover that another publisher has the rights to a book, even if they don’t seem to be doing anything with it. Several years ago, before we were properly up and running, we looked into the rights situation with Melvyn Bragg’s biography of Richard Burton. The book had been out of print for some time and, even though a new edition was unlikely to trouble the bestseller charts, it seemed like the sort of book that should be available as an ebook, even if there wasn’t a print edition any more.
The response from the agent was polite but brief. ‘Hodder have the rights to this book’. Fine, but Hodder weren’t doing anything with them, we thought to ourselves. Perhaps our interest spurred the agent into action because a while later, albeit a fair while later, the book was back in print, accompanied by an ebook version.
And sometimes it is just a case of timing, or bad timing on our part to be precise. We were very interested in re-publishing Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company by Dutch author, Eduard Douwes Dekker, under the pen name of Multatuli. It is seen as the book that inspired the Fair Trade movement. When we first started looking at it there was a Penguin Classics print edition but no ebook, but by the time we were ready to progress things an ebook edition had appeared.
If our mission is to make sure great books are made available once more then we can’t grumble if someone else does that instead of us. Well, we can’t grumble too much.
Other books that we tried to get hold of but failed, for all sorts of reasons, include Marc Eliot's biography of folk singer and political activist, Phil Ochs, Patrick Hamilton's Gorse trilogy and Al, Keep Trying, a sequel to Birdy by William Wharton which has only ever been published in Poland. Some of these, we are pleased to say, even if through gritted teeth, have come back out through other channels, or will do soon, but some still languish out of print, with no ebook version in sight. We are sorry about that, but we did try our best.
They will, it seems, forever remain the ones that got away.