Continued from part I
Assured, thanks to a simple phone call to my publisher, that the basic rights for my 2002 book, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, had reverted to me, I had other things to consider, like interior design or any other artwork. Unlike the text, I discovered, those weren’t mine to use.
I’ve heard of authors paying for edited files or permission to use a cover. I didn’t want to pay many hundreds of dollars so I didn’t pursue that route, though when you compute the cost of your labor, it may be worth considering. Instead, I started from scratch. (Keep in mind there are many ways to self-publish or re-publish a work. I’m only sharing one path among many.)
I no longer had the Word files from my manuscript. Because I was living on the road, with most of my belongings in storage, I didn’t even have a copy of my own book. I ordered a copy online, shipped directly to a book scanning service that would convert it into files for about $40.
So easy! In my enthusiasm, I not only wanted to republish my own book, but favorite old books by friends and even strangers, just for the pleasure of seeing them thrust back into circulation. A few months later, still waiting as my kind spouse volunteered in spare moments to correct literally thousands of minor errors created in the digital conversion process, we reconsidered this plan.
The errors created using OCR—optical character recognition—are subtle but significant. Certain characters or character pairs can be easily misread, resulting in extreme gibberish to barely noticeable typos. Even after several rounds of proofreading, my husband and I were still missing little gremlins that further evaded the spellchecker.
Here’s a typical page with minor errors (apologies it’s not sharper) which I’ve highlighted just to give you an idea of how many corrections were necessary. A spellchecker would have caught the yellow words, but the green highlighting shows words that would be missed, for example when OCR changed the letter “I” to the numeral “1”.
If there’s something that’s always made me wary of self-publishing, it is the near ubiquity of bad book covers. Granted, professional book covers frequently fail. They may be dull or engaging. But rarely are they embarrassing. If you’re not sure you can tell the difference, check out Kindle ebook covers that have earned snickers.
I decided to mimic my original cover’s design using my own background photo of the Sea of Cortez and the services of an international freelance designer, based in Turkey, hired from Upwork. I chose her based on her reviews and background. (FYI, you can narrow your search to U.S. or look worldwide; just out of curiosity, I was interested in working with a woman abroad, and this gave me that opportunity.) She gave me two options, worked lightning-fast, communicated with me in perfect English, and charged $125, or about $15 per hour.
At this point, I decided that if I’d gotten nothing else out of self-publishing, it had been worth it for getting a peek into the world of affordable freelance designers. Next time I wanted a website or logo designed, I knew where to turn.
STAGE THREE, FINISHING MANUSCRIPT PREPARATION: A FINAL CHANCE TO EDIT
Here, to be honest, is where I got stuck. So far, we’d spent about $165, and now had a great cover and a manuscript that was 95% finished—not bad. But after thirty combined hours of proofing and problem-solving, my husband and I both felt burned out, plus, we had an illness in the family, were living on the road, and moving from one country to another. (Supply your own life details here.)
Now, the project weighed on me.
Even after getting fully resettled, it took me another six months to get my butt in gear. I knew I had to do one more complete re-read. I didn’t realize I actually had to do two, since I made a few significant changes and would have to re-read and proofread all over again after those changes had been made. (Cumulative work hours: 40-50.)
Which brings me to a key topic: how much do you change or add to a new edition?
Two equally valid arguments can be made. One, a book is what it is: simply a portrait of who we were as writers when the book first went into print. Don’t change a thing, and no one can fault you. Two, a new edition is an opportunity. In addition to correcting overlooked typos or egregious errors—that part’s obvious—why not sand down a few rough edges, given the chance?
Consider the case of Louise Erdrich. In 2010, she told the Paris Review that she was rewriting an earlier published novel, The Antelope Wife. She now considers the ending “too self-consciously poetic, maybe sentimental.” She says, “I wouldn’t end it that way now. I am engaged these days in rewriting The Antelope Wife substantially—I always had a feeling it began well and got hijacked.”
If post-publication revision wasn’t verboten for Louise Erdrich, then it couldn’t be off the options list for me, either.
In my own case, I ended up making changes subtle enough that the average second-time reader wouldn’t note them. But they made me feel better. I deleted a few gratuitous remarks I’d made in the text; I pared a few phrases or chapter endings that were trying too hard. At one point during my final re-edit, I came dangerously close to bagging the whole project, because the temptation to keep revising seemed to have no end. But then I gave myself a firm talking-to and decided I’d done enough. (See, Leonard Cohen lyrics again.)
I also began to realize: this re-reading, re-proofing and subtle re-editing had had some real pedagogical value. With the distance of years, I was able to think deeply about my original narrative choices—thoughts that will surely inform my next works of nonfiction.
There’s a lot I don’t know about writing, but I do know this: it’s a life-long apprenticeship, and the more we engage in deliberate practice, the more we resist ruts and plateaus, the more we try to suck the marrow out of every experience—including something as commercially oriented as a re-publication effort—the more we learn and grow.
Your homework: Consider the time you’re willing to invest in digital conversion, proofing and editing; some of these duties can be outsourced, but in the end, you’ll surely log at least some hours on your final proofread. Research options for designing a book cover and—just my opinion—resist doing it yourself if you’re not a graphic designer. Remember that in ebook form, many people will see the cover in thumbnail form or on a small screen; the ideal digital cover may be different than the ideal physical cover. Decide also whether you are going to change your text or add something significant, like an updated prologue or author’s note. Consider, finally, the literary or pedagogical value of taking a good, hard look at an old text. Are you hoping to discover anything, and can the pleasure of that curiosity offset the labor involved?
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.