Digital imprints rescue writers from the hole of history
Classic children’s novel: a scene from the stage adaptation of Carrie’s War, by Nina Bawden, many of whose novels have been reissued in digital format
If you were to look at sales charts, it would be easy to conclude that only two types of ebook are available: popular fiction and interactive adaptations of classics. There are, of course, myriad genres to browse through if you know what you are looking for but limited sources of inspiration if you don’t.
So where do you go to find offbeat or unusual titles in a marketplace seemingly dominated by frivolous trends? I have spent the past few months browsing the catalogue of three new digital imprints dedicated to reviving out-of-print work by (occasionally) well-known and (more frequently) forgotten writers. In most cases no reader reviews or rankings are available, so I have been acting on instinct, using nothing more than the publisher’s summary and my own (often embarrassingly limited) context to choose my next read. It has involved ignoring personal taste and leaping into the unknown. It has yielded many surprises, and a few disappointments, but it has been mostly a refreshing, exciting experience.
Bedford Square Books is the smallest of the publishing houses delivering out-of-print books to digital readers. Established by the literary agent Ed Victor, it has fewer than 20 titles, which are drawn from some of Victor’s clients, including Edna O’Brien. It has reissued her 1986 book Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Stories (£3.69), a children’s curiosity with several folk tales I had never come across before, including Paddy the Piper and The Magic Apples. It served as a surprisingly prescient introduction to O’Brien’s greatest-hits collection, The Love Object: Selected Stories, just published by Faber (hardback, £20; Kindle edition, £9.89) – and reviewed on page 10 of today’s Weekend Review.
Another title that piqued my interest was the forthcoming Good Opera Guide, an irreverent introduction to opera by Denis Forman (£7.72). Bedford Square also offers a print-on-demand service for those who find themselves seduced by its titles. The Forman might be one to take advantage of: first editions go for more than £100.
Bloomsbury and Pan Macmillan have launched similar out-of-print digital reissues. Bloomsbury’s back catalogue, branded under the Bloomsbury Reader umbrella, is broader reaching, particularly in nonfiction.
Janet Todd, a scholar of early women’s writing, was a particular discovery for me. Todd introduced the Restoration spy and playwright Aphra Behn to popular consciousness, and her Secret Life of Aphra Behn (£6.99) is a thorough, readable account of a life dominated by secrecy and literary success that bucks all social and gender expectations. Todd’s Lady Susan Plays the Game (£6.99) is probably the earliest piece of Austen-inspired fiction. As one of the most important 20th-century Austen scholars, Todd takes up with the eponymous heroine as she attempts to avoid a life of doomed widowhood in the English countryside. The style is Austenian, and the character just as unsympathetic as Austen intended, though the risks Todd bestows on Susan in her manipulations are perhaps more than Austen might have imagined. It is less fun than Seth Graham-Smyth’s infamous Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Kindle edition, £4.98), perhaps, but it is certainly more intellectually and emotionally satisfying.