A New Breath of Life by Ruby Barnes

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?


Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Ruby, how well I understand the dilemma. At the moment I'm mainly in the business of reissuing 'dead' books. But how hard it is. I used to use time-slip a lot. This was OK when I was writing in the 80s but now I'm faced with what to do about a book set in contemporary society as I wrote but with a slip to the 40s? When I reissued the book as a PoD ten years ago I presented it as a doubly historical novel so 1984 became as historical as 1943. I was marginally satisfied. I couldn't update it because that would have made the ages of the main characters impossible. My necessarily 16 year-old protagonist would now be 44. A satisfactory solution? I doubt it. And I think the invention of the mobile phone was a body-blow to writers. It's made so many old plots unviable. You can't go on putting characters in places where they can't get a signal.
Louise Wise said…
I think it would be a shame to bring old novels into the present day. Being set in the days before mobile phones etc is part of their charm, besides, technology moves so fast today's novels may seem outdated next year.
CallyPhillips said…
'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?'

Ah, yes Ruby. Early days with The Galloway Collection reveal that the same rules of publishing apply - get people to see it for 30 secs on Tv and they rush to buy... rest of the time struggle to shake off the invisibility cloak. Or should we say that if you stand around in the right places shouting loud enough and waving your knickers in the air you get noticed. The rest of the time, less so. I don't think that's cynical, just realist. It's the world we live in. God is economics.

In my case the breathing of new life into S.R.Crockett's Galloway novels has had many strange, interesting and unexpected turns - I have certainly found there is a 'community of readers' out there but 'finding' these like minded people is as hard as it ever was. With the membership site for 'fans' and prospective 'fans' keeping an ongoing presence available I think the effort is validated.

Fashion in fiction changes but we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that 'the classics' are the only books that 'should' survive - it's just a question of making work available and trying to get it into the awareness of the kind of readers who might like it (target market I guess!!) I'm not sure whether the more micro publishers start doing this the better or worse, feeling optimistic today I'll say better, because the more people become aware that there is 'much more in the heaven and earth of books' than is dreamt of in the fashion of bestsellers and award winners, the more chance there is they will start LOOKING for something they want to read rather than responding to what they are told they want to read. But of course the downside of not being IN YER FACE shoving your great work down the throats of people who won't like it, is exactly that it doesn't build the kind of 'momentum' that throws off the invisibility cloak.

In conclusion. I think it's a thing very worth doing. I don't think it's a way to make a living. But then we all knew that all along anyway, didn't we? It's about opening people's eyes to CHOICE and that has to be a good thing. Lots of people won't like Crockett's work, but lots of people now do who hadn't heard of him 6 months ago. If I had more money or more 'media exposure' even MORE people would. There are a lot of people in the world. All tastes can be catered for, but those aren't algorithms we can expect either mainstream publishers or distributors to work on developing - that's up to us. If we can.

as a ps... I certainly find it easier to 'sell' S.R.Crockett 100 years on that my own work. That may be a reflection of our relative writing merits or of my own personal shortcomings (as writer or self marketer) Who can tell? And who really cares? I'm just happy to be offering 'alternatives' to those who wish them.
@Ruby_Barnes said…
Dennis, Louise, I agree, the perils of technology. My teenage daughter harrumphs at every mention I make of any technology, at any attempt to stay current and cool. Always been the way, of course, but even more so with the pace of change these days. I think we're going to have to start all our novels "Once upon a time..."

Cally, I know what you mean about it being easier to promote the work of others. Less fear of rejection, less concern that people might not love our babies.
madwippitt said…
Yes indeedy ... am helping Caroline Akrill get her OOP books turned into digital ones. I asked her if she wanted references to things like typewriters updated and changed to computers, and thought about all the work to be done in bringing them up to date. Wisely, she said "Let's just leave them set in the 80's" Well of course. Whyever not? They worked perfectly well in their own era, and still do.
Lydia Bennet said…
I don't see a problem with books seeing out of date if they are of their time, we are all used to it, of course Steampunk writers create their own worlds where technology is whatever they want it to be! it might be easier to write retro or vintage novels
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