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?