Word for Word: everything old is newly reissued again

Boutique publishers are digging up all kinds of buried treasures

 

With so many new books jostling for attention, it might seem strange that some publishers opt to reissue out- of-print titles. Shouldn’t any book worth its salt always be in demand and, therefore, always in print? Not necessarily. Books, like people, are subject to the vagaries of fortune and some fall on hard times.

You might think the bigger publishers would have more resources to go in search of forgotten gems, but in fact its most often smaller and/or artisan presses that provide this worthwhile service. It’s frequently a labour of love: someone discovers a book and is so taken with it they are shocked by its abandonment and inspired to share it with others.

Last year James Doyle wrote on the Culture Northern Ireland website (culturenorthernireland. org) about setting up Turnpike Books, using his own money, in order to reprint the little-known Fermanagh writer Shan Bullock’s final novel, The Loughsiders, and other “lost” Northern Ireland authors. Doyle discovered Bullock through several very old editions of his works. In 1901, the New York Times described Bullock as “one of the leaders in the modern Celtic literary movement”, but his work had disappeared from view long before he died in 1935.

Back in the late 1970s, when it was still a marginal company, Virago did sterling work in rescuing forgotten books by women. I still treasure my teenage copies of Miles Franklin’s Australian novel My Brilliant Career, plus A Life of One’s Own and An Experiment in Leisure by Joanna Field (aka Marion Milner), none of which I would have heard of had they not been resuscitated.

In its Modern Classics series, Virago published works by, among others, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Mae West, Willa Cather and our own MJ Farrell (aka Molly Keane). In 2008, Virago celebrated 30 years of Modern Classics with the launch of the Hardback Designer Classics series, with beautiful, old-style fabric covers, and the publisher continues to champion forgotten or neglected female writers, most recently, Elizabeth Taylor.

Here at home, Tramp Press has just reissued Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame, first published more than a century ago and long lost in the mists of time. Lilliput Press recently reissued Rosita Sweetman’s middle-class coming- of-age novel Fathers Come First, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first publication in 1974.

Lilliput has also brought out a new edition of The Strangled Impulse (1997), William King’s first novel, about a young priest, transferred from a comfortable middle-class parish to serve the pastoral needs of those who are on the edge in 1990s Ireland.

In a way, online is the obvious place to stash neglected works – and, indeed, Amazon’s Book Surge print-on-demand service has been available since 2007 with books from the collections of selected universities and public libraries, including Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It is Not, from 1860.

But for James Doyle, despite the trouble and expense, it was important to publish Bullock’s work as a traditional, printed, hard-copy book, as it showed his commitment to the project. You can see his point.

As Doyle wrote, he started up Turnpike in the hope that “if a writer has something of value to say, even if they have fallen out of print, then that is reason enough to publish their work afresh”.

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