Books and the Valley of the Unassignable

Posted April 22, 2015

Authors Alliance Co-Founder Tom Leonard

In our day of networked information, scholars in North America need not worry about finding a book that bears on a crucial issue. Interlibrary loan has never been more efficient and Amazon and similar sites display single used books for sale. But here the good news ends, for there is often no way to assign this reading. A single volume cannot serve even the smallest seminar, because it cannot be shared in time for the day or week when it is the center of attention. Classes are planned months in advance and without the certainty of a book being available, it will not make the common reading list.

At Authors Alliance we had the impression that many important books in the humanities and qualitative social sciences were falling into the Valley of the Unassignable. But proceeding by anecdote would only take us so far, and so we ran a survey to see if older books that we knew were in demand, could be ordered from a publisher or otherwise were available as an e-book.

The University Library at Berkeley (which holds more than 12 million volumes and has 65,000 borrower cards) gave us a list of the 500 titles that were most frequently checked out in 2013-2014. Circulation figures of this type are imperfect, since some titles are on reserve and have to be checked out or renewed more frequently. But by looking at such a large number, we have corrected for this distortion. We cast a close eye on the nearly 200 titles that were heavily requested and fell into the humanities and qualitative social science.

Much credit should be given to publishers who have largely kept these valued titles in print and to others who have seen that there is at least a pdf of works published in the 20th century. But we could also see that Berkeley borrowers were checking out books that could not be assigned in a class. Market forces and rights issues limit what can be done for groups of readers. If we look at 20th century imprints and, rely on, many titles are out of reach. Consider for example:

Vladimir Putin Book Group

  • Paul W. Schroeder, Austria, Great Britain, and the Crimean War: the destruction of the European Concert (1973) [$110 on Kindle, $116 if Amazon restocks]
  • Winfried Baumgart, Imperialism: the idea and reality of British and French Colonial Expansion, 1880-1914 (1982)
  • Norman Rich, Why the Crimean War? A Cautionary Tale (1985)
  • David Wetzel, The Crimean War: A Diplomatic History (1985)
  • Rosemary Foot, The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953 (1985)
  • James Cracraft, Major problems in the history of imperial Russia (1993-94) [some $100 paperbacks from Amazon]

Berkeley readers are checking these titles out, but Mr. Putin would struggle to put them on his reading list.

We can probably find a book group for you in our data, and that is unfortunate. Authors Alliance offers a way for many authors and their heirs to take works out of the Valley of the Unassignable. One path to higher ground was offered earlier this month, when we released a guide that helps authors regain rights to their books in order to make them more available.

Download Understanding Rights Reversions (PDF) from Authors Alliance
Download Understanding Rights Reversions from