If you ever need an example of how unhelpful and badly designed our current publishing system is, the existence (or rather, lack of existence) of out-of-print books is ready-made.
Now there was a time when not publishing a book could make serious economic sense. Publishers couldn’t afford to publish runs of books below a certain number, and the demand for some books can become so small that there was no way to profitably print them. It’s a shame but an understandable economic reality.
This is simply no longer the case. Print-on-demand services (for example, lulu.com) can now print books as people order them for a cost considerably lower than the list price of any math textbook. All a publisher needs to do is put PDFs of their books on such a website, put a $30 markup on them (or more, considering how much math books cost), and let the money roll in. If they don’t have PDFs, I bet Google Books would make them for free. In short, publishers are leaving money they could be making on their back catalogue on the table, and hurting the mathematical community at the same time. Thanks, guys.
This rant was engendered by a post of Timothy Chow’s at What’s New (a.k.a. Terry Tao) about a new website, where one can express one’s desire for a old math books to be brought back into print. The website’s a good idea but ultimately getting specific books that are particularly popular back into print is a short-term fix. The real problem is that publishers’ mindset still hasn’t caught up to the advances in technology. When are they going to enter the 21st century?
[Ed. – last paragraph edited a bit in response to comments]