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[This post is authored by Timothy Chow.]
I recently had a frustrating experience with a certain out-of-print mathematics text that I was interested in. A couple of used copies were listed at over $150 a pop on Bookfinder.com, but that was more than I was willing to pay. I wrote to the American Mathematical Society asking if they were interested in bringing the book back into print. To their credit, they took my request seriously, and solicited the opinions of some other mathematicians.
Unfortunately, these referees all said that the field in question was not active, and in any case there was a more recent text that was a better reference. So the AMS rejected my proposal. I have to say that I was surprised, because the referees did not back up their opinions with any facts, and I knew that in addition to the high price that the book commanded on the used-book market, there was some circumstantial evidence that it was in demand. A MathSciNet search confirmed my belief that, contrary to what the referees had said, the field was most definitely active. Plus, another text on the same subject that Dover had recently brought back into print had a fine Amazon sales rank (much higher than that of the recent text cited by the referees).
A colleague then suggested that maybe I should instead contact the author directly, asking him to regain the copyright from the publisher. The author could then make the book available on his website or pursue print-on-demand options, if conventional publishers were not interested. I tried this, but was again surprised to discover that the author thought it was not worth the trouble to get the copyright back, let alone to make the text available. Again the argument was that, allegedly, nobody was interested in the book.
In both cases I was frustrated because I did not know how to find other people who were interested in the same book, to prove to the AMS or the author that there were in fact many of us who wanted to see the book back in print.
Now for the good news. After hearing my story, Klaus Schmid promptly set up a prototype website at
Anyone can go to this site and suggest a book, or vote for books that others have suggested. This is precisely the kind of information that I believe would have greatly helped me argue my case. Of course, the site works only if people know about it, so if you like the idea, please spread the word to your friends and colleagues.
It might be that a better long-term solution than Schmid’s site is to convince a bookselling website to tally votes of this sort, because such a site will catch users “red-handed” searching for an out-of-print book. I have tried to contact some sites with this suggestion; so far, Booksprice.com and Fetchbook.info have said that they like the idea and may eventually implement it. In the meantime, hopefully Schmid’s site will become a useful tool in its own right.
Let me conclude with a question. What else can we be doing to increase the availability of out-of-print books, especially those that are still copyrighted? Several people have told me that the solution is for authors to regain the copyrights to their out-of-print books and make their books available themselves, but authors are often too busy (if they are not deceased!). What can we do to help in such situations?
I’ve added some new pages to this blog. Firstly, I’ve moved my old page on my books to a new page on this blog, so that each book now has its own page for publication information, errata, etc., as well as its own comments section for feedback (including the inevitable reports of future errata).
Finally, I added some links on the sidebar of this blog to some of the more popular of my older posts and articles, and reorganised the categories slightly. In particular, my expository articles were moved out of the “short story” category (they didn’t fit particularly well with the other wordpress articles in this category) and into the “expository” category. (Now that there are a number of wordpress blogs in research mathematics, it might eventually be worth trying to establish some standards for use of mathematical tags, but this is hardly an urgent concern.)