First they came for Roald Dahl’s books. Then they went after James Bond. Then everyone was reminded that R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of horror children’s books published by Scholastic had been altered without the author’s permission.
Scholastic has a bad reputation among writers for reportedly being extremely abusive of their authors. Thus it is not a complete surprise that they would change the Goosebumps books without Mr. Stine’s permission. Depending on the contract he signed with them, he may not be able to bring them to court about it, either. At the very least, since this happened in 2018 and Scholastic hasn’t been dragged kicking and screaming to court, it appears he cannot do anything about it.
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Now they are editing Agatha Christie mysteries and a Scrooge McDuck book to make them less offensive. To whom they are offensive remains up for debate, but it seems the most affronted people are those doing the editing, not those doing the reading.
In addition to this, a case against Internet Archive - which lets readers borrow or read for free books that have been scanned, some of them very rare and out of print (as well as copyright) - is currently in federal court facing down four big publishers who want to prevent it from offering readers this and other services. I haven’t used Archive the way I have Project Gutenberg, but I know others who do rely on it as a resource. As Vathara (a.k.a. Crossover Queen) pointed out, Internet Archive is a place where writers looking for books they cannot find anywhere else or where those who may be unable to buy an expensive book can read it. Rare books cost a pretty penny and while you can get lucky and find treasures at secondhand stores for a good price, that is hardly a guarantee.
More to the point, if they shut down Internet Archive, how long before they come for Project Gutenberg? “Oh, but Project Gutenberg only uploads books that aren’t under copyright.” And that protects them how, precisely? Internet Archive let you borrow books under copyright. The books that they would let you keep (and even reprint) were and are out of copyright. Yet these publishers are still dragging them to court over having their books online and free to read.
So, tell me again that Project Gutenberg, HathiTrust, FadedPage, JSTOR, and even fan fiction sites will be safe if Internet Archive loses this battle. Also be gracious enough to remember this is going on while said publishers are actively rewriting books that are under copyright, in at least one case without the living author’s permission. Christie is dead and beyond contact for an opinion on this matter, but it’s not hard to guess she would have some sharp words for those messing with her novels.
Before anyone throws out accusations of conspiracy theories, I am not saying this was planned. Congruent results occurring at the same time do not a conspiracy make. As someone I know says, the people doing this aren’t that smart. Their boss downstairs isn’t, either. But it certainly is interesting that most of this would occur now. The Author has let the plot thicken, it appears.
And to paraphrase the Bard, the state of Denmark is rotten indeed.
The forces of Mordor are on the march. So what are we going to do about it?
Well, for a beginning, we should collect as many original physical copies of our favorite books (and yes, even those we hate or which have serious errors and flaws) as we can. We ought to start saving them if we haven’t already. Maybe in double copies, if we can find space to do so.
That brings me to the next, and for some people, easiest option: Have your local libraries order copies of important books and DVDs, up to and including television series. Preferably, if you can find them, request that your library purchase republished books that are out of copyright. I have a post here that links to several history or resource books which have been republished because these books are out of print, and I reviewed a play that happens to be out of copyright and had been reprinted as well. My library bought a copy when I requested it, and in hardback no less! I have a paperback copy.
Is this a stopgap measure? Yes. This doesn’t fix much, it just slows it down. Will it work in every library everywhere? No, it will not. But in some places, at least, you might be able to keep original copies extant and/or in circulation for others (and yourself) to read.
This goes for independent books such as mine as well. Unless your library refuses to buy books with ISBNs, you should be able to request independent authors’ works and they will be bought by your library. Not all of them - it will depend on the library’s circulation and what they know will be of interest to their clientele. Libraries are businesses just like bookstores, so they always weigh what will be likely to circulate before buying a book or a DVD. Not all your requests will be accepted - I have had requests refused for these reasons at my library - but at least it will be a start.
Moreover, it will be good insurance for us. If the big publishers can edit their writers’ books like this, I don’t want to bet against Amazon or another POD (print on demand) company doing it. Get it in print and in your library, and if any of us die before the world rights itself, you’ve got a physical copy from which to reprint the book or which you may hand on to our designated heirs to do so. As a bonus, writers like me will get paid and know our work won’t all be gone if things get hard and/or tech companies get cute. We will have reached an audience, too, so that will buoy us up and help us move forward.
Third, and this may be difficult, if you have access to books and/or films at risk of being thrown away or lost forever and have the knowhow to copy them into a digital format, start copying them. NOW. Preferably do it with a backup hardcopy you can keep for yourself for future reading, as you are unfortunately likely to end up destroying the copy you are scanning. Cirsova Publishing and Michael Tierney ran into this when they republished “lost” pulp fiction by Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in the past. You will encounter it, too, so be prepared for this.
Buying Cirsova’s reprinted classics is another good thing to do, as it will bring these stories back into wider circulation AND help the company start publishing more pulp classics. They want to do this, but for it to work, they need funds. Even if you are not interested in their quarterly magazine, buying the books they reprinted is a very good idea at present. My library has a hardback copy of The Cosmic Courtship and I have a smaller paperback copy from the original print run as well.
I practice what I preach, to the best of my ability, readers.
You may note that I am treating this far more seriously than might seem necessary, especially given the ubiquity of the internet. I do not trust the internet; the world got along just fine without it before, it can do so again now. Anything online and online ALONE is subject to disappearance. If a solar flare or EMP doesn’t knock out the internet, there remains no guarantee that it cannot simply be cut off or restricted, if only in certain areas.
Books. Physical - paperback or hardcover. They can be burned, torn up, and otherwise destroyed, but they can’t be rewritten on a whim. They most certainly won’t go up in ‘ethery’ smoke with a quiet ping if the electricity goes out. (Whee, I just made a word!)
Furthermore, we are talking about nothing less than the loss and/or obliteration of our culture and the culture built up over 2,000 years of history. It is what happened to Rome, and it is, as the meme says, happening before our eyes via Wi-Fi connections right now.
Since our institutions will not save these things, we have to step up and do so. Which leads me to the next and perhaps hardest request: If you have access to something - book, pamphlet, play, recipe, research, what-have-you - that is out of copyright, republish it. NOW.
Cirsova has done this. David Breitenbeck has done this. The company which reprinted The Joyous Season has done this - and they are doing it with drab covers and no blurb beyond this unhelpful spiel:
This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.
This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.
Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been proofread and republished using a format that seamlessly blends the original graphical elements with text in an easy-to-read typeface.
We appreciate your support of the preservation process, and thank you for being an important part of keeping this knowledge alive and relevant.
Stupendously helpful, right? Now you know why I had so much trouble writing a review of this book. I knew the play just fine, it was condensing it down into something interesting without a blurb to launch from that was an issue. I’m glad my library managed to make or find a proper blurb for their online archives for this book; otherwise, it might be up a creek without a paddle.
You will, if you have the capacity to self-publish, I hope, do better than this for a blurb in reprinting an out-of-print-and-copyright book. And something a little better than this for a cover, too:
I suggest anyone not into graphic design lean on AI art wherever possible and with as much humility as they can find. You are going to need it.
Fifth, remember you are not alone. There are other publishers and authors out there picking up the slack where they can, like Hassell Street Press, the people who republished The Joyous Season. There is also Leopold Classic Library, if you’re interested in that one. Like Mr. Breitenbeck, Cirsova, and Michael Tierney, there are authors and small publishers doing this work. There is also Bethlehem Books, which reprints classic children’s literature and which I recommend supporting. The owner of H.E.L.P. Miami is working on reprinting and saving old school books for children, which means if you are in her area or want to look into the H.E.L.P. Project, you might be able to find a job or an opportunity to offer a hand there. Heck, if you are part of the American Legion, see if they have useful programs that might prove interested. If you are part of a book club, rotary club, or other local group, maybe you can start a program to help with this matter. Think local, not nationwide.
Recall, too, that I’m not asking you to save the world. Think local, no coast-to-coast. Coast-to-coast is too big for us right now. Break it down into smaller chunks and do what you can there.
This is ALL I am suggesting you do: Save a piece of culture and history. No matter how small or insignificant a piece, if you can find it, save it. And while I have focused on books, remember this goes for movies, tv shows, video games, pamphlets, research books, and other forms of entertainment as well. Plays, music, records, sheet music - whatever you can get your hands on, save it. If you cannot reprint or preserve it yourself, find someone who can. Maybe you will have to pay them. Maybe they have originals they can donate to this cause. Maybe they are willing to turn it into a passion project with your help. I don’t know. I’m not you. I’m doing the best I can with what I have and I’m tossing out suggestions trying to get you to think of something which you might be able to do.
Heck, if all you can do right now is write fanfic then do it. Maybe it will serve as good training for future writing or give you the opportunity to build a platform from which to sell your own fiction, like it did Vathara. If you publish it online and give people something to look forward to during the day, the way that she does, kudos. You are helping, even though it might not seem like it. You are still doing something that helps. Thank you.
Finally and most importantly, pray. Pray we make it through this Dark Night of the Cultural Soul. Pray that is all it is.
Sarah Hoyt is also right to say, “Be not afraid.” You know why? Fear makes you stop thinking.
None of us can afford that right now. We need to be on our toes all the time, thinking and acting where we can for the good of others and ourselves. The last thing we need is to either give up or be a “deer in the headlights” - and given the way I’ve seen those animals run out in front of cars to essentially commit suicide, I’m not exactly in favor of imitating deer period.
It’s time to start working. We have let things go too far already. Even though we can’t stop them from changing these books, we can - God willing and the creek don’t rise - re-issue them as they were originally released at some point in the future if we save the original copies right now.
Enough chatter. Let’s move.
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Questions that haven't been answered are: 1. Has a suit even Thnere are been filed. The contract might not allow it, or the author may not have bothered.
2. Discovery, particularly if the publisher stalls on it, can take six or seven years, mediation might happen, with continuations during that time period as well. The wheels of earthly justice are slow.
As an aside, "Groupthink" is the problem not "A Conspiracy".
Of course, "Groupthink" is harder to fight than "A Conspiracy".