I found myself on Yonge St. yesterday with some time to kill, so I went into Eliot’s Bookshop. There’s something comforting about being three floors up with the press of books around you, looking at the lost, the abandoned, and the obsolete. Used bookstores are one of the places where the millions of books never quite made the bestseller lists come to rest, finding comfort and companionship alongside their fellow bookish travelers.
Most books will never change the world, become internet phenomena, or make a million dollars for their authors. All they can do is get themselves used, change a few lives, and hope to find a comfortable retirement on some shelves in a place where the climate isn’t too rough on their complexions. The lucky ones will make it to the shelves of some public or research library, where they will be lovingly cataloged and – with any luck – read from time to time.
Today, the chances of getting to do that become slimmer every day. Library budgets don’t extend to keeping an ever-growing collection of rarely-used books. The lucky ones go to off-site storage centers where they can be recalled from time to time. The unlucky ones just disappear.
The law demands that used books live quiet lives. Many of the books at Eliot’s Bookshop, or on nearby library shelves, are orphans abandoned by their rightsholders. Without a rightsholder, the books can’t be electronically archived, reprinted, excerpted, or mashed-up. They can be perused, but not re-used – even if the original author has no further interest in trying to make money off the work, or has no idea that the rights even belong to them.
They are the orphaned books of the world, and their plight is an international shame.
Authors, give your books a chance. Don’t let them become orphans.