More than 30 years ago, when watching Kind Hearts and Coronets for maybe the third of the dozen or more times I’ve seen it, I noticed in the small print of the credits that the film was based on a novel called Israel Rank by Roy Horniman. For more than 30 years I have checked periodically in second-hand bookshops and, since it became possible, online for the book. But never a hint of a copy. Even Amazon, which has a habit of listing any and every book that ever existed, didn’t seem to know of it.
Now I have a copy, courtesy of Faber Finds, the new publishing-on-demand imprint. The idea that it is possible to order a book that has yet to be printed and have it delivered three working days later is remarkable, almost as much as bringing such a long search to a successful conclusion. (The only downside is the astonishingly bad typography of the cover, especially as Faber is a publisher for whose design I have always had the highest regard.)
Of course, this acquisition has been done the easy way and an on-demand paperback is not the same as a dusty casebound original edition. On the other hand, I have spent all those years looking in secondhand bookshops and finding much else along the way. Sadly the serendipity of discovery in such circumstances has almost disappeared. In the 1970s I had a route through the centre of Brighton that took me past (actually in and out of) at least a dozen secondhand bookshops. All but two have gone, partially replaced by charity shops. Ironically, bookdealing has been in the forefront of online selling.
The news that Warner Bros is now offering the DVD equivalent—manufacturing on demand—raises expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. Not only is the website sufficiently obscure to make it difficult to find the titles on offer, when they are found they tend to be ones that are already available on DVD, often at budget prices. And pricing is an issue. Charging a premium price for a film that made its money years ago and now costs a few pennies to copy is out of tune with the times.
Maybe Warner Bros is not the best studio to launch the practice as it has been the most active in developing the video and DVD markets over the past 30 years (that same time-span again!) and has marketed its back catalogue in some depth. The idea still has some way to go.