As I have aged, I’ve found that my perspective on the publishing field has changed dramatically. When I was a teenager, my only goal was to get into print professionally. (Thanks to Isaac Asimov, John F. Carr, and Martin H. Greenberg, I made my first professional sale—”Vernon’s Dragon”—at age 16, to their anthology, 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories. Being in a hardcover Doubleday anthology with Isaac Asimov’s name on the cover was very cool. Of course, I didn’t sell anything else professionally until I was 19, though I racked up a number of small press publications.)
These days—40 books and more than 100 short stories later—I have largely stopped writing. (I do still tell people that Star Trek novels bought our first house, though.) Instead, I concentrate on preserving the works of other writers through my small publishing company, Wildside Press. It’s a fulfilling niche: rescuing “lost” works by old-time authors who might otherwise be forgotten. Many of these authors published books I loved as a teenager (and sometimes as a pre-teen) which have now been out of print for 40+ years or more. Sometimes a lot more. Am I dating myself? I’m 51 and often bought used books as a teenager, since they were cheaper. So my favorites were often years or decades old when I first encountered them.
In the science fiction field, Lester del Rey. Mack Reynolds. William Tenn. Clifford D. Simak. Reginald Bretnor. In the mystery field, Talmage Powell, Fletcher Flora, William Holding. And so many, many others.
As traditional “corporate” publishing increasingly focuses on blockbusters and movie tie-ins, the last 80 years of published books is being lost. If you’re in your 40s or older, think about a favorite childhood book that isn’t by someone who became a household name. Chances are it’s been out of print for at least 20 years or more. If the author passed away, chances are high that everything he or she wrote is out of print.
Consider the 15-volume Danny Dunn series of middle-grade books, published from the late 1950s through the early 1970s by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrakshian. These books—with titles like Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint and Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, were pro-science, fun, and featured 3 kids (Danny and his best friends, Joe and Irene—yes, a girl featured prominently). They were school library staples when I was young. I loved them. When I looked them up two years ago on the used book market, I found plenty of copies…all at collector prices. Nothing new. Nothing in print.
Then and there, I decided to try to track down the authors’ estates. An online mention of a decade-old pending reprint (by a Canadian company that went out of business before a single book could be published) led me to a U.K. literary agency that had once represented both authors. Unfortunately, the agency had “lost” both authors’ estates. Couldn’t find them, despite years of trying. They did, however, supply a slim lead—they thought Jay Williams had had a daughter in New England.
I tried, using whitepages.com and Google searches. Nothing. I gave up, came back to it six months later, and this time tried creating family trees for both authors on ancestry.com — and bingo! Suddenly I had a daughter’s name. Alas, “Williams” is a fairly common name…do you know how many “Williams” families there are in the United States? Easily forty or fifty million, it seemed. Maybe more. Billions. A White Pages search turned up hundreds of potential listings. A Google search turned up tens of thousands of pages.
I tried the state where her father had lived, found what might have been an old address for her, with a non-working phone number. Another dead end. Ultimately, I had to give up. But I still couldn’t forget about Danny Dunn.
After another six months, I went back at it again, trying to trace the daughter…she had helped start a New Age community…had worked in spas that specialized in things like yoga and meditation…and did personal counselling.
And this time, I found her. And she remembered that Raymond Abrashkin had had a son, as well as the town where the son lived. Talk about a shortcut!
Two days later, I had a deal to reprint the entire Danny Dunn series. The first two books are now out (sample chapters and reminiscences by both children can be downloaded – “click” here) with more on the way. And I’m considering an audiobook offer from a large audio producer. So Danny and Joe and Irene have a second life…and this time, they’re going to stay in print.
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In all my searching for the Jay Williams/Raymond Abrashkin estates, I discovered I had a knack for locating author estates. In the last two years, I have tracked down about 50 lost and forgotten authors. (And I’m still looking for more than 100 estates.) Sometimes the estates have passed to siblings, cousins, or in-laws. One marriage and the family name changes. One marriage and two cross-country moves, and the estate has effectively vanished. And sometimes the families have just died out.
Often the stories are sad. Several estates were being managed by a literary agent, who was holding all the money received “in escrow” while claiming the estates were “lost”. One estate went to the writer’s son, who died thinking his father had been completely forgotten. And sometimes families don’t even know their grandparents had published books or stories in the 1940s or 1950s.
I’ve made lots of new friends —the children and/or grandchildren of these authors are now around my age, and we often have much in common (like our own kids in college!) I assist Bud Webster with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Estates Committee, which has begun tracking the estates of writers—whether SFWA members of not. (You can find more info on the SFWA Estates project – “click” here). And I get to introduce new readers to writers I loved growing up. Life is good!