‘Most of Australia’s literary heritage is out of print’: the fight to rescue a nation’s lost books

Consider the life cycle of the average book. It begins with acclaim, if the author’s very lucky. Readings and publisher parties. General hobnobbing. Canapés are often involved. There are whispers of a film adaptation starring Eric Bana. Then time passes. The book stops selling and drifts out of print, getting sucked away from the shore and out into the dark, empty ocean of forgotten literature. Copies of it trickle down from bookstores to secondhand bookstores, and from there to op-shops and neighbourhood garage sales, before finally they get pulped or chucked into landfill. In rare cases, it will come to rest on the dusty shelves of antiquarian booksellers, where it will, in all likelihood, live forever as a graveyard for lost flies.

This is the unfortunate fate of most books, even literary prize-winners. In fact, of the 62 books that won Australia’s Miles Franklin Award between 1957 and 2019, 23 are currently not available as ebooks, 40 are not available as audiobooks, and 10 are not available anywhere, in any format whatsoever. They’re officially out of print. This is something that Untapped: The Australian Literary Heritage Project is trying to rectify.

“Untapped is a collaboration between authors, libraries and researchers, and it came about because most of Australia’s literary heritage is out of print. You can’t find it anywhere,” says project lead, Associate Professor Rebecca Giblin from Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne. “Think about it. If so many Miles Franklin winners are out of print, you can imagine how bad availability must be for memoir, and histories, and other local stories.”

Untapped’s mission is to digitise 200 of Australia’s most important lost books, preserving them for future generations and making them available through a national network of libraries. They include books such as Anita Heiss’s I’m Not Racist, But … (2007) and Frank Hardy’s The Unlucky Australians (1968). “One exciting thing is that all these books will now be part of the National E-deposit scheme,” Giblin says, referring to the legal requirement for all publishers to provide copies of published works to libraries – a framework only recently extended to electronic publishing. “This means they’ll be preserved forever. These books will now be around as long as we have libraries.”

To find these books, the Untapped team appealed to Australian booklovers to nominate “culturally significant” works that were out of print but still in copyright, leaving them stuck, floating in book purgatory. A panel of library collections experts winnowed the list down to about 200 titles, then the project team started the painstaking work of contacting each individual author and negotiating rights. Matt Rubinstein of Ligature Press was brought on to break down and scan the physical books.

“It’s bigger than the whole Text Classics list, all in one go,” Giblin says. “It’s huge! And it ranges from really beautiful children’s books to historical books and literary fiction. Each one costs about $700 to digitise, including proofreading, to get them to a library standard. It’s expensive, time-consuming work.”

Visitors to the National Library of Australia, Canberra. The legal deposit scheme requires publishers to send a copy of every book to the NLA.
Visitors to the National Library of Australia, Canberra. The legal deposit scheme requires publishers to send a copy of every book to the NLA. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

Untapped has shone a light on another big problem facing Australian writers: reversion rights. Most publishing contracts last for the entire term of the copyright (in Australia, that’s the life of the author plus 70 years), but publishers rarely make a book available for that whole duration. They own the rights, but they don’t necessarily exploit them.

Many countries deal with this by giving authors some baseline legal protections that let them reclaim their rights – allowing rights to “revert” to the author – when they’re no longer being used, but in Australia, authors’ rights are governed entirely by publishing contracts. Giblin says these contracts don’t always protect authors the way they should. “We spent 18 months studying half a century of publishing contracts from the archive of the Australian Society of Authors. What we found was a dog’s breakfast: poor drafting, a failure to keep up with technological change, and important protections missing altogether.”

Untapped’s researchers want to figure out the economic value of rights reversion, to see whether there’s a case for authors getting new protections here in Australia. They’re also investigating the relationship between library lending and book sales.

“Amazon has been telling publishers they shouldn’t license their ebooks to libraries because it’s bad for business,” Giblin explains. “But they’ve obviously got a vested interest in taking libraries out of the picture so they can dominate the book market, and there hasn’t been data available to test whether those claims are actually true. Untapped will change that.”

The books digitised by Untapped will appear in public and state libraries across Australia later this year. But the ultimate goal is to expand the project and keep it running long term, cataloguing and promoting Australia’s forgotten books for future generations. It’s also about building a literary infrastructure that doesn’t really exist yet: helping authors reclaim their out-of-print titles, get them licensed, digitised and into public libraries, where they’ll be marketed and promoted on a national scale.

“We desperately need to find new ways to get creatives paid,” Giblin says. “The tragic reality of indie publishing in Australia is that almost no one’s making money. We have to find new markets and new pots of money if we want our stories to continue being told.”

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