Part 1 of 3
My favorite book is the one I’m writing, or even better, the one I plan to write after that. There is nothing more artfully conceived and less commercially sullied than the book that has existed only in one’s mind.
Given that I prefer to dwell on my future books, you might easily imagine how I feel about the books I’ve already published. Some people have a hard time letting go. I have a hard time looking back. This makes me resistant to the marketing of old titles and an unlikely person to take charge of converting an out-of-print work into ebook form, which is exactly what I just finished doing this month after two years of dragging my feet.
In a three-part, possibly overly candid series, I’d like to share what I’ve learned and also suggest “homework” you might consider assigning yourself if you’d like to follow suit.
FIRST, AN UNSCIENTIFIC SURVEY
I recently looked up three beloved, prolific Alaskan authors to see if all their books are in print or available as ebooks. The simple answer: No. In all three cases, the authors’ newest offering(s) are available in all formats, but their older books remain out of print and unavailable in digital format. Some of those older books are my all-time favorites!
It’s hard for me to judge the value of my work, but I have no problem judging others’. Lesson learned: there are some good books that missed the digitalization process. It just might be an easy problem to fix.
BEFORE YOU WRITE THAT COMMENT ABOUT PREFERRING PHYSICAL BOOKS…
We’re all thrilled that print’s not dead and that independent bookstores are surviving or thriving. Here’s the thing. I buy both print books and ebooks—often of the same title, and especially when I’m traveling, when I can’t find a book I stored in some box somewhere but which I need to consult now, or when I want a digital way to mark and organize notes, which is often. Ebooks also appeal to the impulse buyer in me. You wouldn’t believe the things I take a chance on, especially around midnight, in an airport, or when I am in a mad researcher phase.
Despite smug and mostly inaccurate reports about the ebook market slipping, the data is more complicated. (It’s also super interesting.) I am traditionally published. And yet in the case of my last book, I sold more ebooks than print books. Nearly a half-billion ebook units were sold in 2016, according to Author Earnings. Not a market to ignore.
But this blogpost is not about print versus ebook. Ideally, you and I should be available in both formats. This post is about the book you published ten or fifteen years ago that isn’t selling more than a couple used copies in a handful of bookstores or on Amazon.
Is it worth resuscitating?
NAVIGATING MEMORY LANE
Writers’ attitudes about their oldest—especially first—books vary, from “I would never read it again” (Colum McCann, Songdogs) to “as pure to me as anything I’ve written…I think of [it] as my first love” (Jami Attenberg, Instant Love) to “If I were to write that story now I’d go about it a completely different way, but was reassured upon rereading that I didn’t dislike it” (Emily St. John Mandel, Last Night in Montreal).
Emotions vary. But does anyone mention how much you simply forget?
My first creative book was a travelogue called Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez. Researched mostly in 2000, it was written in a matter of months, often with a toddler on my lap and another child nearby, coloring and eating goldfish crackers. It was published in 2002, and it meant the world to me at the time. In 2014, half-a-million published words later, I was hesitant to re-read and judge my apprentice effort, though I was certain I’d be the first to note its flaws.
And then again, what if imperfections are part of every book’s design?
Leonard Cohen’s take on the matter:
“Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/
There is a crack, a crack in everything…/
That’s how the light gets in.”
That’s the advice I’d lovingly share with any friend, book-coaching client or literary colleague. Rather than take my own advice, however, I simply put the project out of my mind.
Then our family moved to Mexico. An adventure had come full circle. My daughter, a diaper-wearing, sunburnt two-year-old during our 2000 Cortez expedition, had grown into a thoughtful young adult who wanted to read the book aloud as we drove several thousands of miles south along the Pacific and down Baja.
I objected, I squirmed, and finally I got over myself. Thanks only to familial encouragement, I was able to relax and—strangest of all—learn a whole lot, which isn’t something you expect to do while hearing your own book read out loud.
The travel narrative in question is an account of family misadventures by sailboat and sea kayak—an amazing trip, I appreciate even more in retrospect. The book also contains a substantial amount of information about John Steinbeck, who was greatly influenced by his 1940 expedition to the Sea of Cortez. On top of that, it’s brimming with cool facts about marine organisms and nosy interviews with Mexican officials. There wasn’t much written about Cortez ecology (or Baja politics) in 1940 or 2000, and there still isn’t. Soaring homicide rates and the narco epidemic have made it harder to wander back roads and ask impertinent questions in Mexico. I’m glad we did the trip when we did.
Aside from its quirky adventure story, I felt certain, upon hearing the book read aloud, that it still had biographical and journalistic merit.
I say that not to toot my own horn, but to help you toot yours. Have you given your own out-of-print work a generous enough reappraisal? (Some writers aren’t critical enough. Others are too self-critical. You probably know which side you were born on.)
Moving on, the first solid step in my ebook re-publication project was finding out who owned the rights. I contacted the publisher by phone and the answer was simple: rights had reverted to me. My ancient contract, if I could have located it, would have said the same, but picking up the phone allayed any doubts in my mind about my rights to proceed.
Your homework: Consider. Do you have an out-of-print book that you believe could generate a second-life readership? How much time and money are you willing to invest, and what do you expect to get back, in return? (Break-even? Earn a little money? Lose a little, but broaden your audience and strengthen your backlist?) Besides readers and royalties, what other benefits can you foresee?
To be continued…
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of over a dozen books, including the forthcoming sci-fi/historical novel PLUM RAINS (June 2018) and the re-issued SEARCHING FOR STEINBECK’S SEA OF CORTEZ. She’s also a demanding and supportive book coach. www.romanolax.com.