“Remember Huck Finn’s dad?”
That was me 10 years ago, hitting the NPR circuit and bookstore after bookstore to talk about “Finn,” my debut novel. I’d gotten a nice advance in the mid-six figures, expectations were high and promotional plans were cranking away. The most important critics had received advance copies packed along with bottles of moonshine.
The book got glowing coverage everywhere — from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly. It was named a best book of the year by The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor. The American Library Association called it a Notable Book. It was optioned for development as a feature film.
All great fun — but nothing lasts forever.
“Remember Huck Finn’s dad?”
That’s me today. A decade later, 100,000 copies of “Finn” have found their way into the world, but the novel’s stream has been running low. And so, a few weeks ago, I persuaded Random House to declare my novel “out of print” and return the rights to me.
Why would an author court that death sentence?
After all, “out of print” is the most terrifying phrase in the vocabulary of anyone who writes books. It’s so final. It’s also a little mysterious — because its definition varies from contract to contract. Sometimes, it means the book is no longer for sale in certain markets. In other situations, it means the book is “selling below a certain threshold.” Because the definition varies and nobody wants to look closely at it, many authors have a book or two that has gone the way of all flesh without their noticing. It’s easier to work on the next project and imagine that the old novel is still out there under the wing of its big publisher. There’s comfort in that, even though it’s often not true.
Consider the novelist Larry Brown, for example. Brown, who died in 2004, was the real deal: a magnificent stylist with a sharp eye for character, a sure sense of place and a love of humanity that was unmistakable. A year or so ago, I recommended his novel “Father and Son” (1996) to a friend who then tried to locate it through our neighborhood bookstore. He had to settle for a used copy. It wasn’t that the book was strictly out of print, but the wholesaler listed it as out of stock with no reprint date on the horizon. Which is the same thing, as far as any would-be reader is concerned.
Oh, “Father and Son” still exists as an ebook, but without paper copies, the novel won’t be taught in classrooms or discovered by book clubs.
There’s no good reason for great books to die like this — not these days, when they can be printed on demand and delivered overnight just as though they’ve been waiting in a warehouse. Publishers have been slow to embrace the technology, though, for reasons that folks in the supply end of the business describe as inertia. Publishers are forever claiming that they’re about to start pushing their backlists rather than simply letting those old books fade away, but that would require investment and attention, resources that are in short supply these days, particularly in New York publishing, where the impulse is always to focus on the new.
And that’s why I was willing to prod Random House to pull the plug on “Finn.” My writer friends were shocked; it felt like asking for my own child to be orphaned. But giving up the brand-name imprint allows me to pursue a do-it-yourself alternative that most writers still shun.
On my own, I can supply the investment and attention required to keep the book alive. It’s the 10th anniversary of “Finn,” and my expanded 10th-anniversary edition is now available — with a new short story, an essay about the creation of the novel and background material for book clubs.
Sure, it’s all still an experiment, and I can’t say how I’ll measure success. But one thing is for sure: This novel is not going quietly out of print. Here’s hoping we see more titles revived like this.
Jon Clinch is the author of “Kings of The Earth,” “The Thief of Auschwitz” and other novels.