A few days ago, John Scalzi wrote an interesting essay on his blog in response to a podcaster’s contention that Heinlein would be more popular if he were in the public domain. I think Scalzi makes some pretty good points.

The main reason Heinlein isn’t so popular anymore, Scalzi contends, is not that it’s hard to find his books. It’s actually pretty easy even now; they’re practically guaranteed to be in every public library, used bookstore, possibly garage sale, and of course they’re all still in print and available at reasonable prices, especially in ebook format.

The real problem, Scalzi says, is that

Heinlein’s work and the work of many of his contemporaries are at an awkward age: enough decades after publication that the underlying cultural assumptions of the work and the author are no longer consonant with contemporary times, but not enough decades out that the work can comfortably be considered a “period piece,” which means that consonance is no longer expected.

So, people have a harder time getting into it because it’s recent enough to be recognizable as sort of modern, but not yet old enough to be quaint, like Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs. And, really, a lot of older media have this problem. You see it in all the people who won’t watch black and white movies, or even older color movies, because they’re old. Just being more widely available for free wouldn’t overcome this.

Also, just because an author is in the public domain doesn’t automatically make them popular. As Scalzi notes, Heinlein contemporary H. Beam Piper is mostly in the public domain, but his books aren’t exactly burning up the modern reading charts. For that matter, every classic author of the 19th century and earlier is in the public domain, but do their books regularly outsell modern writers? (Well, I suppose the Bible does, but that’s an exception that proves the rule.)

What would make Heinlein’s works sell better, Scalzi notes, would be if more of them could be adapted into other media, like the upcoming Foundation TV series will do for Isaac Asimov. (Though Scalzi doesn’t mention it, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle would be a similar example for Philip K. Dick.)

In a comment, Scalzi adds that it is true being in the public domain could lead to more adaptations of Heinlein’s work—but even that’s not necessarily a guarantee, because there are still plenty of public domain works that don’t get adapted. He also notes that the comment was part of a discussion about what works should be considered part of the “canon” of great works of science fiction, which is an interesting discussion on its own but not necessarily strictly related to the public domain.

Scalzi does agree that the public domain is “an unmitigated public good,” and that the length of copyright as it stands is currently too long. And Heinlein’s works will be in the public domain sooner or later (barring further changes in copyright law.) But public good doesn’t equate to popularity.

The notion that putting books into the public domain could increase their popularity seems to have some similarities to the long-held idea that ebook piracy helps sell more books, by removing the financial risk to trying something new. But anyone willing to put a mask on and leave their home to visit a public library won’t have any trouble finding Heinlein for free these days.

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