Let's cover the news first: As you may recall from our last exciting episode, Adopt an Indie is no more. However, there's good news! The program has morphed into a website/blog called The Indie Exchange, which you can find here: http://theindieexchange.com/. The idea is to link up readers with great indie authors (like Yours Truly). You don't have to be a blogger or an author to participate. We've also got a Facebook page and a group on Goodreads. Anyhow, stop by any or all, and check them out.
Now then. I saw this question come up in a Goodreads forum: Why isn't [my favorite book] available as an e-book? The favorite book in question is usually something that's too recent to be in the public domain, but not recent enough to have been published after the advent of e-books. And so the short answer to the question is: copyright.
American copyright law has morphed into a monster over the years. In 1790, when the law was first enacted, an author held copyright on his works for a period of 14 years, renewable for a single additional 14-year term. Subsequent legislation has extended those periods several times. Currently, for works published in 1978 or later, authors hold copyright to their work for 70 years past their death. That's right -- even if your favorite author dies, his or her work is still under copyright for another 70 years. Works published before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. Works published in the United States before 1923 are considered to be in the public domain -- that is, you may do with them what you will. (From Wikipedia.)
As you can see, chances are pretty good that your favorite book is still under copyright protection. So a publisher cannot simply take that book from its backlist and produce it as an e-book; it must negotiate terms with the author, who owns the copyright on the work.
Now we must fight our way through another thicket. Publishers buy from authors the right to publish their works. The publisher's contract with the author will specify which rights the publisher is buying -- hardcover, trade paperback, mass market, and so on -- as well as payment for the rights, and the length of time before the rights revert to the author. Back before Al Gore invented the Internet,* of course, electronic rights didn't exist, and so publishers didn't know to lock them up in their contracts -- unless they put in a tricky clause that said they were buying all possible rights, now and forever, amen. Authors whose contracts don't have that tricky clause can do whatever they want with their backlists, including publishing them as e-books themselves -- and some authors are doing exactly that. Authors with the tricky clause in their contracts have a couple of options: they can either convince the publisher to allow the e-book rights to revert to the author (which might have worked a few years ago, before e-book sales began to take off, but may be more unlikely now), or they can negotiate with their publisher to agree on a fair price for the publisher to produce an e-book.
At best, the process takes time. At worst.... Well. I will offer a cautionary tale about bestselling author Stephen R. Donaldson and the problems he's had in getting his backlist published in e-editions.
Donaldson -- who has talked about all of this on his website, http://www.stephenrdonaldson.com/, and in public -- authorized the e-book publication of his (lesser-known, sadly) GAP Cycle sci-fi series first. Instead of taking a clean Word document from Donaldson for the text, however, the publisher decided it would be cheaper to send the hard-copy books to India and have them scanned and proofread there. If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of correcting an OCR document, you have an idea what the result was. To compound the problem, Indian English is not standard American English (or even standard British English). Donaldson found whole chunks of text missing from one book, and he submitted 15 pages of corrections for another one.
For his best-known work, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Donaldson has prevailed upon the publisher to scrap the OCR idea and accept Word documents from him. The first Covenant e-book is due out this spring. This series is my favorite fantasy work ever, and I can't wait to own my own e-book versions. But it's been a long, hard road to get there. And perhaps now you can understand why it might be awhile before your favorite book is available for the Nook.**
*Oh, leave me alone. I know Al Gore didn't invent the Internet.
** Shameless plug for Barnes & Noble, my daughter's employer.