Unless you're of a certain age, you have never heard the term "out of print." In the technological dark ages (twenty-five years ago or so), books were printed on paper. When a title stopped selling and reached the end of its shelf life, the publisher stopped printing it. It literally went out of print. At such times, the rights to the work reverted back to the author who was free to do with it as he pleased. Now, manuscripts are digital so they never go out of print. They are always available, either through print-on-demand or as an ebook.
This is a huge boon for dead authors. Read more about it here in a CNN article. As the anonymous agent said, dead authors never leave the marketplace. Their backlist is always available. That maintains name recognition and allows new work to be published under an old name. Ian Fleming died in 1964 but James Bond books bearing his name continue to appear. Same with Robert Ludlum who died in 2001. Another writer pens the Bourne novels but who can name him?
As we know, there is precious little opportunity for new writers to get picked up by the publishing establishment unless one is writing soft porn or the latest tell-all book about a celebrity. In the article, an agent laments that as long as old writers take up shelf space, there is no room for new ones. In the past, the old guard made way for the new. That is no longer the case. It makes getting noticed that much harder for newbies.
There is another side to this however. Some books are never printed on paper at all. I recently had to make that decision when the second edition of Dollars and Sense for Writers was released. Most of my sales in 2012 were ebooks. Therefore, did it make sense to publish the book on paper in 2013?
Ultimately my fans will decide. If they want a print version, they will tell me. In the meantime, Dollars and Sense is an ebook.
It is true that there is no room for me on a bookstore shelf. It is also true that there are fewer shelves available to me as bookstores continue to disappear. However, in this digital age, I, and others like me, are on the shelves that count. Our work is available to readers throughout the world. Doesn't that beat being on a local shelf?