There are two letters of the alphabet that every author hates to hear:
It means "out of print."
Though I'm not an expert on this issue, my understanding is that adult books have always gone in and out of print fairly quickly. Yet children's books were usually known for staying in print for years and years. At one time publishers maintained large backlists of children's titles which continuously needed to be replaced in bookstores and on library shelves as each new generation of kids came along. I first became aware that things were changing when I read a Publishers Weekly opinion piece by Barbara Corcoran, who wrote nearly seventy-five children's books between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. Corcoran was the epitome of a great midlist author. She never won any major awards, never had a big breakthrough book or huge bestseller, yet year after year she consistently published rock-solid novels under her own name (SASHA, MY FRIEND, 1969; A DANCE TO STILL MUSIC, 1974) as well as several pseudonyms; her best-known novel is probably the 1975 teen-facing-death novel MAY I CROSS YOUR GOLDEN RIVER? written under the pen name "Paige Dixon." Yet in her PW essay, the author bemoaned that her books were suddenly going out of print at an alarming rate. Not only was this impacting her income, but she felt bad that young readers were losing access to her work. Now, just a few years after her death, every single Barbara Corcoran book appears to be OP, and that's a shame because she created the kind of sympathetic characters and realistic plots that never really get dated. Next time you're at a bookstore, pick one up and see what I mean. Oh...you won't be able to. They're all out of print.
In the years since Corcoran wrote that article, children's books have begun to go out of print faster than ever. Some blame it on the "Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner" Supreme Court ruling of 1979 which, according to the Wikipedia, "changed the way companies are allowed to depreciate their unsold inventory." The Wikipedia continues: "An unforeseen side effect of this decision was that it became less profitable for publishers to keep slowly but regularly selling books in print (their backlist). Some argue that this has made it harder for midlist authors to make a living because books tend to be remaindered or pulped and go out of print more quickly."
explains how the ruling impacted the publishing industry but, since I'm a letter-guy instead of a numbers-person, I can't follow all the mathematical equations and charts in the piece. So I will leave that article to brighter minds and just spend my time here complaining about children's books that are released and, almost before they reach library shelves and start to find their audience, are declared OP and pulped. Pulped. It sounds like the name of a horror movie. And it is rather horrible, isn't it?
As for older books, only the classics seem to remain. Even some of the award winners of the past are no longer available. Newbery winners TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, WATERLESS MOUNTAIN, and one of my favorites, DOBRY -- OP! Caldecott winners MEI LI, SONG OF THE SWALLOWS, and NINE DAYS TO CHRISTMAS -- OP! Many of the others are available in paperback only. I haven't checked specific titles, but I think I can state with some certainty that MOST Newbery and Caldecott Honors of the past are now OP.
I've always heard that change is a good thing. I know that it's inevitable. And who am I to demand -- especially in these rough economic times -- that a publishing house keep a book in print if it's somehow losing money for the company? But it still makes me sad when books from the past -- even the very recent past -- are not available for kids to read today. I hate that a kid might be deprived of the one book that could change his or her life because the title is out of print. I feel like the dialogue between the past and the future is broken every time a book goes out of print. And it makes me realize once again why collecting books...preserving those connections between past, present, and future...is a worthy endeavor.