Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Trick or Treat? (revisiting old books) – Katherine Roberts

Last night, trick-and-treaters braved the rain to knock at my door. They all want the same thing – treats, preferably in the form of sweet things that might look like skulls or snakes or eyeballs, but are actually mostly sugar and are bad for their teeth. They dress up as witches and skeletons and jump out from behind walls with blood-curdling yells. They carry pumpkin lanterns and things that glow in the dark. The smaller ones come with parents who wait at the gate to check they are safe. Since I don't have to pay their dentist bills, I give them exactly what they want:

As a less sugary Halloween treat, I have been running a Twitter campaign all this week to highlight my backlist e-book Spellfall, a fantasy thriller set over the week of Halloween ending with ‘the Opening’ at midnight on 31st October, when the boundary between worlds grows thin. In Spellfall, this boundary lies between our familiar world of supermarkets and trick-and-treaters and the enchanted world of Earthaven, where unicorns roam and spells grow on giant trees. My heroine Natalie is the child of an Earthaven mother and a human father, which means she belongs in neither world yet has power in both. When the evil Lord Hawk (an exiled Spell Lord) kidnaps her for her Earthaven powers, she is forced across the boundary with only her mother’s magehound and Hawk’s terrified son to help her.

originally published by Chicken House UK/Scholastic US

This was the first of my books to go out of print and it became my first e-book, reissued earlier this year. I priced it at under £2 ($2-99 in the US) as a “treat” for my readers, so that if you want to read it – out of nostalgia, out of interest after reading my other work, or maybe because you missed it first time round – you can do so without having to track down a second-hand copy, which are becoming increasingly rare and therefore expensive. I did this for the sake of the book itself and for the sake of my readers, not for the sake of my bank balance. The truth is a backlist title is never going to sell as many copies as when it was frontlist with the full might of a publisher's promotional team behind it. Let's hope not, anyway.

And yet… and yet… I get the feeling that some people see e-publication of this book and my other backlist titles as more of a "trick" than a "treat". How dare I, an ordinary author, consider my old work worth keeping in print? I can imagine my original publishers sniggering behind their hands at my tiny sales, saying “I told you so” and breathing a sigh of relief that they were sensible enough to let it go out of print in the first place. I can imagine my readers rolling their eyes and muttering (with various halloween curses) “Not that old stuff again… why doesn’t she stop wasting our time with ancient history and write something new...?”

Well, I am working on something new – if you want evidence, the first book of my new Pendragon Legacy series “Sword of Light” is due out as a beautiful hardcover in February. I’m only using time that would otherwise be wasted watching TV or cleaning the house to work on my e-books, so don’t worry!

Yet those imaginary readers and publishers do have a point. The e-book option for backlist titles is fairly new. Previously, only big selling and highly promoted authors would have their backlists kept in print, with the majority of books allowed to die a quick death for economic reasons, the market deciding what lived and what died. Now authors can decide whether their work should live on. I know you think we've all got egos the size of bankers' bonuses, but this is a difficult decision for an author to make, because even from a distance of many years an author’s view of their work is distorted. In my darker moments, I cringe at the thought of publishing a single word of mine, and my older books make me cringe all the more because I can now see all the things wrong with them that I didn't at the time.

Reissuing a title does offer a chance to revisit it, however, which is not an option if a publisher keeps it in print, so I’m taking the opportunity to rewrite some parts of my Seven Wonders series. But I’ve let Spellfall stand as it was originally published except for the removal of one four-letter word, which drew a lot of flak from American librarians and shows you how careful you have to be with words. (Yes, a single word in 70,000!) If you’re curious - young readers look away now - here is the offending passage, Redeye being a mouse:

Redeye soon put him right. How do you think Spell Lords recycle them, then? Eat ’em and shit ’em out the other end?

And here is the rewrite:

Redeye soon put him right. How do you think Spell Lords recycle them, then? Eat ’em and poop ’em out the other end?

If there are any librarians reading this, I hope you think this is now more acceptable and will forgive me (and my editors) for letting it slip through in the original text?

So the question for readers everywhere is this: Do you think I, and other authors whose books have gone out of print, should be republishing our older titles as e-books? Or should we let them die a quiet death, and move on to new and hopefully better things? Be honest, do you see our backlist books as "tricks" or "treats"?

More about my work (old and new) can be found on my website: http://www.katherineroberts.co.uk/
My unicorn muse blogs for younger readers here: http://reclusivemuse.blogspot.com/


Nicola Morgan said...

Definitely a treat! I can't see why anyone should think our earlier work less worthy or interesting. Books go out of print not because they're not good enough but because they aren't marketed any more and get squeezed out to make way for bright young things. Bright young things are not always as good.

Nicola Morgan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
catdownunder said...

Spellfall is a definitely a treat! I know books cannot stay in print forever - or remain on library shelves forever either - but there are far too many books which get "lost" before the next generation gets a chance to read them. (Which is one reason I am poor - I rescue older children's books.)

Elen C said...

I think treat! Children grow up so quickly (as great-aunts so wisely say). Which means that people who read this the first time are now reading university textbooks. There's a new generation of children who never got the benefit of the frontlist marketing who will get a chance to love it.

Nicola Morgan said...

In case you were wondering what the comment was that I deleted, it was a duplicate of my other one! Commenting from ipad is sometimes tricky and my finger gets carried away.

Rebecca Brown said...

I think it's a brilliant idea to revisit old books! There are lots of authors I'm discovering on twitter whose older books are out of print and therefore hard to find but are ones I'd love to read; if they're republished under the full control of the author, all the better!

Luisa Plaja said...

Definitely a treat!

Katherine Roberts said...

No tricks yet, then! Thanks everyone for your votes of confidence.

Catdownunder, you rescue old children's books? That sounds lovely (I am now imagining a sort of Follyfoot Farm downunder, where dog-eared books graze in green fields creaking a little at the spine...)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Definitely a treat. Definitely. Books don't go out of print because there's anything wrong with them. They go out of print because our publishers have financial imperatives that make them move on to the next thing, very quickly. (Why, nowadays, they can't do print on demand for some titles, I don't know, but that's a whole other can of worms!) My first eBook was a trio of short stories, two of which had been published before, one of them many years ago in a glossy magazine. I thought twice about publishing it again, but when I look at the reviews on Amazon now, I'm moved to the point of tears, because this work that meant a great deal to me when I wrote it, but that I had thought long 'out of date' still seems to speak to people. Even if only a few new readers get pleasure from a story or novel, it's worthwhile. I think we just have to change our way of thinking. Question all assumptions and do what seems right to us.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

ps, if artists thought that old work should die the death, they would burn all their old pictures! We have been reluctant to assert the value of our own work for far too long!

Katherine Roberts said...

Well Catherine, I did once have an old manuscript bonfire... but didn't get around to burning all the electronic copies!

Emma Barnes said...

Katherine - just wanted to say that your new Pendragon book looks fantastic!

As for trick or treat - why should people look down on backlist books? After all they have been through an editorial process, which a lot of self-published e-books haven't...not that I'm down on those either!

There are several books I own which are much-loved and now falling to pieces, and how I WISH somebody would bring out e-book versions of them!

Moira Munro said...

Who cares about the young, shiny new things? Consider your old stories CLASSICS. The older the better.

Katherine Roberts said...

Thanks Emma, yes I have a few old paerbacks I am clinging on to because I can't get a new copy anywhere, to say nothing of all the much-loved books I've lent to people over the years and never got back...

Mmm, Moira, classics... I reckon that status only happens after the author is dead, though!