About five years ago the depressing odds of mainstream publication were clearly explained to me (the following “facts and figures” are plucked from memory and this was just before the real advent of e-publishing). If your submission letter to a literary agent is one of the handful picked out of several thousand they receive each year, if your manuscript is considered worth taking on, if the agent manages to secure a publishing deal, then any advance you will receive from the publisher will be unlikely to run to more than a few grand (unless you’re the Next Big Thing!) Writing novels isn’t a get rich quick scheme. Don’t give up the day job (so say people who’ve read my books).
When a new title hits the shelves it has a few weeks to make an impact and a share of the sales proceeds will be offset against your advance. If the book stops selling before the advance is paid off then it will have failed to earn out and that’s the end of the road for that book. Bookshops will return unsold copies to the publisher. Publisher stock will be remaindered (sold for pennies to those cut-price bookstores) or pulped. End of the road, the title is effectively dead and you will have a hard sell pushing another title on that publisher as they probably didn’t make any money out of you. About 8% of books manage to avoid this ignominy.
So, if your book is one of the 8%, then when sales demand exceeds publisher stock there will be a reprint of the title. Otherwise the stock will lurk on the shelves, in a warehouse or with a wholesaler until the print run has dried up. At some point you will get the second part of your contracted payment, maybe a little extra, minus your agent’s cut. Then the title is, to all intents and purposes, dead. So it’s a big celebrated validation at the start, eighteen months of editing and proofing, launch party and then a year or two later your work has probably disappeared as if it never existed.
That’s the way it goes, traditionally. However, the times they are a changing.
One of my stablemates at Marble City publishing, Jim Williams, had his first novel published in 1983. Those were the days of typewriters, home computers with 2D alien invader games and the first digital watches. Jim had a good degree of success under two different author names, one writing prophetic thrillers and the other scribing historical literary explorations of the murder mystery. Jim’s Scherzo was nominated by his publisher for the Booker Prize. These titles did well in their time but, by the year 2013, were only available used e.g. from Amazon.com: Scherzo - Good clean copy with no missing pages, might be an ex library copy; may contain some notes and or highlighting.
Marble City is a micro-publisher that handles new titles and also breathes life into an author’s out-of-print backlist. They took an old paperback copy of Jim’s Scherzo and digitised it, copy edited and reformatted the text, had a new cover designed and re-released the title in paperback and e-book formats. A marketing plan was implemented (including paid advertising) and Scherzo now has forty-seven reviews on Amazon.com. The same process has been carried out for other previously out-of-print books on Jim’s backlist and his work (which was dormant) is now in the hands of tens of thousands of readers around the globe.
Marble City isn’t unique in this approach. The industry is busy with micro-publishers, author co-operatives and even literary agents applying their energy to the revitalisation of backlists. But this phenomenon leads me to question how well a book written twenty, thirty or more years ago will be received by today’s readers
Go to the classics section of your bookcase and pull out Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, first published in 1860. The time and place setting is obvious, no one blinks an eye at all those horse-drawn carriages and the threat of hanging pickpockets. But the original publication of Dickens’ work as a weekly feature in All The Year Round was a contemporary affair. Of course everyone knows the story as it has been continuously reproduced in print, film, TV and on stage throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but did Great Expectations slip into ignominy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century? Was it considered dated by the audience of that time?
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger relies heavily upon teenage colloquial speech from 1940s New York to convey the tone of the era. It was a risky strategy that paid off. Who would be confident of writing a classic today, using the current teenage vernacular? That is so last year.
Digital books (both e and print) allow a publisher and author to keep titles on sale in theoretical perpetuity. How, though, do we manage to ensure their content remains relevant to the continuously evolving readership? Historical novels are an obvious example. Scherzo is an 18th century Venetian murder mystery. As long as the author manages to avoid anachronisms they are on relatively safe ground. Contemporary novels are more of a challenge, particularly if world events or technology are involved. Nailing the bad guy through evidence on a VHS tape. Discovering the evil mastermind’s secret is a custom-designed program on a thing called a computer. Re-release of such novels can work if time-stamped elements are updated, but there are likely to be a lot of style components that will give the game away – slang, dialogue, changes in prose conventions etc.
Another approach is to give a novel the retro treatment. The Americans (2013) is a popular TV series set in 1980s U.S.A. The time and settings work well as they are consistently authentic and adequately differentiated from the modern day. People are using clunky electronics for surveillance, making calls on landlines, sending messages by telex and driving cars as big as a whale. Would it work so well if set in 2001 with the attendant technology, cars, clothes and hair details, or would it just look out of date? Retro suggests an element of vintage to the time setting. Happening trends and fashions can look very silly in the near future. Even time can’t save them in some instances. Try watching Saturday Night Fever without wondering if it’s a parody.
Digital publishing is a second chance. Do you have a favourite title that could be revived with a new breath of life? Can it stand the test of time?