This is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
I recently was told of a family society that invested thousands of dollars in publishing a book that is valuable to family members. Due to a shift in technology, however, the society may lose its “investment.” I decided to share the story with others to hopefully prevent repetition by others.
Thousands of family genealogy books were published from the late 1800s through the 1900s. These books vary widely in quality, but many of them are exhaustive reference sources, containing information about thousands of individuals born with the same surname. The most common format is a book that contains information about all the known descendants of an original immigrant or some other individual. Some of these books contain hundreds, or even thousands, of pages of information.
For years, many family societies have been republishing these books and offering them for sale. All books published prior to 1927 are now considered to be public domain, and many books published after that date did not have the copyrights renewed. Republishing out-of-copyright books is legal, and it also provides a great service for extended family members who wish to get a quick start on researching their own family trees.
The recent story involves a particular family society that has been publishing books about their progenitors for more than fifty years. I don’t want to embarrass anyone, so I am going to refer to this group as the “Smith Family Society.” That isn’t their real name. In fact, this story could apply to most any family society, so perhaps you will want to insert your surname of interest in place of the word “Smith” throughout the rest of this story.
The original “Smith Family History” book was published in the early 1900s and sold well at the time. Starting in the 1970s, the Smith Family Society has been republishing the same book over and over, making it available to newer generations. I don’t know how many copies have been sold over the years, but the number apparently is in the thousands of copies. In recent years, the Smith Family Society has been charging $79.95 for the thick book and has had many satisfied customers.
Indeed, republishing this old reference book has been a great service, and most of the people who purchased it have appreciated the republishing service. Of course, reprinting a book, even republishing an old book, is never cheap. The book in question is nearly 1,000 pages. In order to obtain a quantity discount, the Smith Family Society has always printed 1,000 copies at a time, placed the books in storage, and then sold them one-at-a-time. Once the inventory has been exhausted, the Smith Family Society has always ordered another 1,000 copies to be printed, and the cycle repeats itself. This method has worked well for years.
Of course, the printer expects to be paid when the books are printed, not when they are sold. Each time a new order has been sent to the printers, the Smith Family Society has always written a check for many thousands of dollars, then planned to regain that money from sales of the books over the following years. Throughout the 1900s and even the very first few years of the new century, that plan worked well. However, the same time-tested plan recently failed, and now the society may lose thousands of dollars as a result.
The reason for the failure is simple: both Google Books and Archives.org have now made digital copies of the same book available online, free of charge.
Anyone can download the free images of the book and store the digital version on their own hard drive. The free digital images are word-for-word the same as the printed copies that the society has been selling for $79.95. The online versions have the same text, the same table of contents, the same index, and even the same illustrations. Sales of the printed book have dropped dramatically and now are approaching zero copies sold per year.
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