When the old is new

Once upon a time, in trad pub, books that were perennial midlist sellers were re-issued every 10 years with new covers to keep up with the changing trends, but otherwise left alone to continue making money. Books that didn’t sell weren’t reprinted, and the rights were reverted. If another house wanted to make a stab at re-issuing them (say, on the anniversary of the Titanic, making sure old books you already had were available and fresh-looking)… then new cover, usually exact same print, unless there was fresh material to update the nonfiction, or the new editor/house had someone prestigious write a new foreword.

But if the author wanted to make major changes to a fiction book? Hah! Not happening. You wrote, you moved on.

Time moved on, and Thor Power Tools vs. Commissioner killed the ability to keep backstock without getting bled in taxes more than the eventual profit on the book. Finding the first in a series became an extreme challenge, as many series entered the midlist death spiral and were killed off on book three – which you could rarely if ever find, and if you did, book one was usually long out of print by then.

Which meant that we could only find an author’s early work by scouring used book stores – and there’s something pretty forgiving about holding a battered book with dog-eared pages starting to turn sepia, and going “He’s gotten better since then!”

(Random aside: I remember when Holly Lilsle actually dared speak up about the midlist series death spiral aka “ordering to the net”, and the storm of hatred and denial she endured for it. These days, indie has largely forgotten this is even a thing in trad, and those who work in trad now consider it standard… but I doubt many of the people who chewed her out ever came back and apologized when it became blindingly obvious that she’d only spoken the truth.

…wow. has it really been 14 years?)

And then indie happened, and with it, the idea of never being out of print again. But now, the question arises: do you go back and edit your old stuff, now that you can?

I’ve seen two schools of thought: those who say “Have you ever seen a webcomic that started cleaning up its early panels that managed to get back on track and regain momentum or production? Yeah, me neither. They get caught up in endless revisions and bogged down, and don’t restart, and often don’t start anything new after abandoning the old comic. Ever seen it happen with authors?”

Which is a fair point: almost all of us are likely to know at least one or two people who get caught in an endless revision loop before they ever get the first novel out the door, and the prospect of falling back into that seems rather akin to dinosaurs going wading at the La Brea Tar Flats.

On the other hand, yes, it has actually been done and done well by several successful romance authors. And they belong to the other school of thought, the one that says “readers will judge you by the first book they pick up – and with us promoting our backlist as brand new to them, they’ll judge us by our early work we’re promoting, with no idea it’s our earliest work. So, we’re cleaning it up to current standards, along with reformat, recover, and sometimes, even retitling it / opening the pen name.”

On the gripping hand, this has failed to work for many other authors – and not just because authors get trapped in revision instead of putting out new product. Structurally editing something that’s already been released, no matter how you feel it makes the story better, runs the risk of changing or destroying something the reader really liked about it.

Han shot first.

But copyediting something already released, and removing 55 reported typos, 220 exclamation points that could have been periods, making sure Clarence’s mysterious name change to Charlie in those three spots that somehow escaped the revision that included a name change are corrected? I can’t find anyone who’s against that. In fact, if you delay the print release, “wait until the typos are in” is one of the most common reasons.

…wait, no, I do know two successful authors who’ve spoken out against that, and that’s because it slows down their production speed on getting new stuff out. They write at pulp speed, and stay high on the Amazon algorithms by not slowing releases.

Where do you stand on the argument, if you have a position? Have you ever gone back and edited your old stuff, aside from new cover?
Have you even gone back and updated your covers?

23 comments

  1. Speaking as a reader, I would not support major rewrites … well, in most cases I wouldn’t … but I would definitely approve of going back and fixing the sort of mistakes you describe.

    In fact, in this age of the e-book, I would like it if there was some way that I as a reader could note typos for the author, and then when the author had time to do a re-edit, my e-copy would automatically update itself to the re-edited version.

  2. To start off: my commitment is to providing the reader with as close to a perfect book as I can produce. That’s part of why it takes me a year to complete a novel. However, I’ve noticed errors in books I issued years ago…and in some cases I’ve refrained from correcting and reissuing them.

    The criterion is volume of errors. If I can find only a handful — i.e., no more than five noticeable ones — I’l let them slide, especially if the book is long. But more than that will irk me until I’ve fixed them and reissued the volume, even if that takes time away from work on my current project.

    Margaret Ball, Linda Fox, and I have formed a mutual-proofreading alliance. Each of us sends his new MS to the other two, who promise to do their very best to seine out the faults. This has already aided me greatly in my desire to issue a near-perfect book. It’s an arrangement I heartily recommend to others — but with a caution: Keep your group small. It’s a bit like a critique circle: too many members will generate more noise than message.

  3. I got a new cover for my second book. When I next hit a drafting pause in the WIP, I plan to re-read for typos and three little nits I want to fix. Then I’ll format it for print and re-launch the ebook. I don’t plan major story changes.

    The great thing about this plan is that knowing I face re-reading a book I’ve already published is keeping the words flowing on the work in progress.

  4. I will go back and fix errors (need to do that. Have the catches, just . . . Life.) When the Familiars books go out in print, one thing on my to-do list is cleaning up errors, typos, and (IIRC) one continuity quirk within a very, very minor episode that only bothers me.

    I’d say that if you are going to do a new print release, it’s a good time to tidy the e-books. Rework/rewrite? No. I’ve considered it for the Cat books, but no. They were the best I could do at the time. I have moved on, and I’d probably ruin the series by trying to improve it.

  5. It depends. I just re-read ‘Emergence’ by David Palmer- he did a rewrite, and the only thing I noticed was adding USB cabling to a computer sequence, and it was still a great book. I’ve seen others, however who failed miserably. Mostly I’d rather get a new book.

  6. I didn’t do structural edits, but I “fixed” a lot of clumsy dialog tags as well as catching typos on my first book. I keep meaning to do that on the second one as well, but the new stories keep calling . . . I want to do Omnibuses and a bit of polish is on my list of things to do before I release them . . . which will happen someday.

    1. Pam, I’ve enjoyed your Wine of the Gods books as they appear and if you’d like, I’d be happy to re-read them from the beginning some day to catch whatever typos there may be.

      1. I’ve got _lists_ of typos from a current Beta reader, who when back to the start and started sending me lists (have not lost them, Mike!) I just need to _do_ it. And new covers. I’ve replaced the worst cover, but I need to do them all.

        And I would much rather write.

  7. I have updated both my first and second book covers. They weren’t completely redone. In the case of the first book, I revamped one of the characters and changed the text to something more legible. I did the same thing with the text on the second book, but didn’t alter the image. Now that I’ve learned more about the art of cover design, I’m tempted to go back and make more changes. That will have to wait, though. I have one more novella I want to get out before the end of the year.

    And then, after quite a bit of feedback, I rewrote the prologue and first chapter of the first book. I did a heavy edit on the second chapter as well. The biggest change was getting rid of a rooky mistake. I’d plopped a big ol’ flashback about two paragraphs into the first chapter. It’s a much less confusing read now that I’ve eradicated that mess.

    I would like to go through and do a once over on the second book as well. Not so much a rewrite but a chance to fill in the missing words that my editor, several beta readers, and I managed to miss. I swear gnomes sneak in and yank out random articles in sentences scattered throughout the books.

  8. Schlock Mercenary *did* go back and clean up early comics for publication, BUT.. Howard Tayler kept the ‘current’ (at the time… the comic has ended, after many years without a single truly missed day) queue up and going so it wasn’t a pause, but an increase in workload.

    1. Pete Abrams seems to have left the old Sluggy Freelance strips alone, though his artwork is orders of magnitude better now. OTOH, the guy managed to plant plot seeds early on that developed 10-15 years later. IIRC, it wasn’t until 2014 that the term “Sluggy Freelance” finally made sense, considering that the strip started in 1997.

  9. And while I appreciate the effort to clean things up before release (and fix the obvious/known issues for re-release) nothing is as productive as production. Trying to hunt down the “very last typo” is likely anti-productive.

    1. — Trying to hunt down the “very last typo” is likely anti-productive. —

      Matter of priorities, Orvan. My priority is the highest possible quality of product. The pulpists prioritize productivity over all else. Most writers fall somewhere between those two poles. There is no “right” balance.

      (I was about to say “Which should have supreme priority, food or sex?” Then I got this image of a community of 500-pound virgins, and backed away. I suppose what resolves decisions between those two is whether you’ve been without one or the other for so long that the lack has become hazardous to your health. But we all have different thresholds for those things, too.)

      1. It certainly makes sense to make more than a single pass to detect errors, but I suspect “last typo” is like “last bug” – there is ‘always’ one more (though some things [e.g. medical devices] deserve as much scrutiny as can be brought to bear, to at least attempt ‘perfection’).

        1. (chuckle) I am put in mind of a slogan a friend who once worked for IBM told me was commonplace there:

          “You never get the last THOUSAND bugs out.”

          Of course, given the size of the systems IBM’s software people work on, that’s probably an understatement.

          1. Related saying from a semiconductor division at Hewlett-Packard 25+ years ago: “No projects are *finished*. They are *shipped*.”

  10. We collect errors and then, if enough accumulate, fix them and release version 1.1. We don’t rewrite. Too many other books are waiting in the wings to spend that kind of time.

    My oldest title (nonfiction) got a new cover and title. It wasn’t finding its audience. We’re better at the marketing than we were way back when (moving up from paramecium level to amoeba) so this title should do better.

    We’ll see.

  11. I have a few published stories. One or two of them might receive a bit of light editing when I get the rights back and republish them in a collection.

  12. Unless your names is J.R.R.Toklien, don’t spend a decade revising your latest WIP. Remember that JRRT had a day job.
    Many years ago, Arthur C. Clarke rewrote his early novel, Against the Fall of Night, as The City and The Stars. He was bemused that the former refused to go out of print — indeed you can still find both version available in new copies from Amazon to this day.
    Heinlein’s dictum, “revise only for a paying customer,” still holds a lot of merit.

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