Thursday, March 17, 2011

Written in stone? Editing OP books for reissue as ebooks

A couple of years ago, I attended a (predictably hilarious) reading by David Sedaris. During the Q&A, an audience member asked him which of his books was his favorite. Sedaris looked both surprised and totally horrified by the question. “Once a book is published, I turn on it,” he said. “If I ever thought about what was between the covers, I’d never stop throwing up.”

This is precisely the reason I never read any of my own books once they’re published, at least, not if I can help it. I always second-guess myself, always wonder if there was a better way to begin the story. Or end it. Or jazz up all those bits in the middle.

“Once a book is published, I turn on it."

So, it was nerve-wracking to open the Word file of my OP middle-grade novel LILY’S GHOSTS in preparation for re-release as an ebook. I was tempted to put back my original ending and restore this or that scene. But, as I cleaned up the file, making various small edits here and there, I was happy to find that I didn’t want to revise, oh, everything. And I liked the ending. (My editor was very good at her job.)

But there was one scene I wanted to revisit. LILY'S GHOSTS is, no surprise, a ghost story, so it features quite a few characters who are, well, dead. Some died of natural causes, some by accident, and a few at the hands of others. There is one secondary ghost character, however, that died at his/her own hand. At the time I wrote the book, I felt it suited the story. But after looking at it again, I wondered about it. No kid ever complained about the scene, but a few adults, who tend to be a lot more sensitive, have.* And now that I'm more than a decade older than when I first wrote the story, I'm that much more sensitive, myself. I wanted to see if I could make this brief scene — just a page and a half — more powerful, even creepier, by changing the way this character died.

"You already made your choices."

I revised the scene, and brought both the old scene and the new one to my writer's group to see which they felt was more effective. Several members thought the revision was quirkier and more interesting than the old version. But one woman, a writer whose opinion I greatly respect, was adamant that I not revise the scene at all. She said I was censoring myself. And then she said, "This book was published. You already made your choices."


I've got a few worries about ebooks. One of them is that ebooks are necessarily more ephemeral and transitory than print books, especially when you take into account the fact that changing technology could render the ebooks you purchase today unreadable in a few years. I worry that editing files from one version of the book to the next contributes to the sense that stories are short-lived and fleeting, and because of this, not as valuable. And yet, I can't help but want to improve a story if I have the opportunity to do it.

I guess the questions here are a) am I censoring myself? and b) should I edit a book that has already been in print? The answer to that first question is no, I don't think I'm censoring myself. The things that might make the book a difficult choice for some — the ghosts, the light romance, mentions of the occult, the cheerfully creepy tone, etc. — all remain, as they are all central to the story. The manner of this particular ghost character's death? Not so much.

The answer to that second question, however, is fuzzy to me. Is it a bad idea to re-edit OP books? Have I already made my choices? What do you think?

-- Laura

*This book was a Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award Winner and an Edgar Award Nominee, but it was also challenged in a few Florida elementary schools after it won a Sunshine State Award. Though no one associated with the schools ever pointed to this scene as the reason — the administrators refused to give any reason why LILY'S GHOSTS and a few other authors' titles were challenged — a couple of people suggested that it might have been part of the problem. Me? I'm thinking it might have been the fact that the original illustrated cover skewed a bit younger than the story.


  1. What a tough question! Although my knee jerk reaction is that you shouldn't change a thing (except perhaps out-of-date references like 'palm pilot' or 'portable phone'). Especially where awards and reviews are concerned. They were assigned to THAT book. To change it invalidates the reactions to it. Not to mention, it sounds like Pandora's box. Where would it end? If you're like most writers, I imagine you could nit-pick and tweak a work forever, amen. I think you have to call some things 'done' so you can move on to the next. That baby was born. Whether or not it went on to achieve great things, you already did your part. My 2 cents.

  2. If in your opinion there are some deficiencies small or large, I say revise it. Then, make it clear in the ebook's description if it has been revised, and whether to a minor or major degree. As long as you communicate what you're doing, it's fine, IMHO. Look at all the "director’s cuts” and various other versions they do in the movie biz. And what about folk tales, where every author puts a different spin on a story... surely you own your story and can change it if you wish? Obviously revising could be taken to a silly extreme, but judicious changes to improve a book are fine, methinks.

    It’s a paradigm thing...some won't like it, some won't care, some will be intrigued. Maybe it will spark some controversy and get more press! : )

  3. It's one of my favorite ghost stories, so I vote for not changing it.

  4. It is a difficult decision, and I can appreciate the arguments for and against the changes.
    The main dilemma seems to be that this version is also seen as a 'book', much like the printed form, so is expected to reflect the original... if it were going to be a movie, all kinds of alterations and artistic license might be made to enhance the film version!

    I have illustrated a few stories which were changed from their original direction by publishers wishing to please a certain target audience. If I ever get to work on those for a digital version, I will certainly consider the opportunity of returning them to the storyline we originally intended.
    If the changes you wish to make enhance the work and do not alter the main direction of the book too much to allow it to compare favourably with the printed version, why not? But only make changes for the right reasons.

    So, I guess in the end it is entirely up to you... it is your story to tell. Make it one that you are happiest to share.

  5. Hmmm. If it's okay to change out of date terns like "Palm Pilot," why is it unacceptable to clean up other things, like, say, a sloppy transition? I don't think the awards or reviews were based on such small details. (I don't think the awards/reviews were based on this single one and a half page scene, either, which I'm still undecided about.)

    But it's true I could probably nit and tweak forever. I won't, because I will be handing in the file for formatting this weekend, and that will be that (unless someone alerts me to a typo or whatever). Still, DVDs are produced with alternate endings, singers release remixes of hit songs. How is this different?

    Oh, and sruble: thanks!!

    -- Laura

  6. One more thing: the reviews were based on ARCs, which are uncorrected. We made changes after those were produced. So an argument could be made that the reviews don't reflect what ended up in the printed book

    June, thanks for the comment. If I'm going to make changes, I would like to make them for the right reasons, but I'm not quite sure what the right reasons are. : )

    -- Laura

  7. Interesting point about reviews being based on the ARC (advanced review copy), hadn’t thought about that. Kind of a side point, but my revised version of The Edible Pyramid was re-reviewed because there had been so many changes (the USDA pyramid graphic was changed which affected almost every page, plus there were many updates.)

  8. Ohmygosh -- do WHATEVER you want. For heavens sake, this is a new landscape. Suddenly, we authors CAN change all those things we didn't like. Do it. I'm positive you won't edit it to death. We can no longer to respond to the way books used to be -- printed once, set in stone -- this is a new world and it's a freedom being offered to authors. Take it. Run with it. Feel it. The book is YOURS. You can choose a new cover. You can give it a new title. You can do whatever you want.

    And I'm sure Charles Dickins did the same when he went from being published -- yes, published -- serially and then published the same material in book form.

    What is this "you made your choices?" This isn't your family we're talking about here. It's a book. A BOOK. And now you own it. That's lovely. Remodel, renovate, or tidy up. It's YOURS.

    Okay, that felt good to say.

  9. It's your book, do whatever you want. : )

    That being said when I rereleased draugr and Dust, I did change a few niggling things (err, like misspelled Icelandic words). Generally I decided a total rewrite wasn't necessary since I still wanted these books to represent a certain part of my career. For Dust I released the American version of the book. It had been released 2 years after the Canuck version, and so I'd had a chance to rewrite it,

    Ebooks do allow you to make changes whenever you want. If someone catches a mistake you can fix it right away. Which is kind of nice...

  10. TOTALLY change it if you think it's better for the story now. Why not? You're re-publishing it in a new format, why NOT shine it up a bit? The cool thing is it's all yours now, so you get to choose. I LOVE the silhouette cover and always was confounded by the cartoony young cover, which, I agree with you, seemed wrong for the story.

  11. Here's the term, y'all:
    (...drum roll please...)

    Author’s Cut

    Don't you love it?

  12. I say - go with your gut. Change it if you feel it would make it better. I have disagreed on many changes editors made, that I wish I could change. I always disagreed with a title of one of my books (What a Pest). I recently changed it in one ebook version as an experiment. I always thought the title was too negative, an impacted sales.
    Good luck with your ebook. I do agree that the original cover would attract young readers, if that wasn't your intention, that could have been a big reason it went OP. Now it will sell BIG!

  13. Author's cut! Funny!

    You know, I have to say I thought I would be tempted to do a whole lot more revising than I did. And I was SO sure I'd restore the original ending. But no. My editor had been right about that, and about a lot of other things. (I'd hate to be like one of those poor directors who releases a "Director's Cut" DVD with an alternate ending that sucks.)

    Katie & Maryann -- glad you like the new cover (designed by Janie Bynum). I did like the original cover, too, and the book did well with it. When I wrote this book, I had my 12-year-old self in mind. I'm hoping a slightly less whimsical cover might attract more middle schoolers.

  14. Hi,
    I'm so curious about what you decide to do. Big changes as opposed to minor ones, I mean.
    Sometimes words have to cook, but the process can become endless when you feel you should be moving on to NEW stuff. Let us know the end of this revision story! I agree with Loreen that the process itself and the changes you make could be part of your "PR."

  15. Good points all! And truly, the reviews being based on ARCs does make a strong argument. Whereas my opinion came across sounding rather strong, I do think it's OKAY to change it if you want. I'm just more with Arthur in that it represents a stage in your writing career. I tend to not look backwards too much, always wanting to move forward. But like Amy said, "The book is YOURS." This new writing landscape is uncharted territory. :) e

  16. No, I'm glad you expressed a strong opinion, Elizabeth. I was telling my husband about this and he said, "But what if you bought an ebook version of a book, and your favorite scene was gone? Wouldn't you be angry?" And I would be. I also believe that the writer isn't necessarily her own best editor, so there's that to take into consideration as well.

  17. First of all, I must say I LOVE the new cover by Janie Bynum. Wow! And second of all, after reading all these thoughtful comments, I think the "author's cut" idea is brilliant. My biggest concern had to do with censorship. If you were changing this scene as a reaction to the book being challenged, I would tell you to be brave and stick to your guns. But since you said that really had nothing to do with it, and it was more that you wanted to change it for your own reasons, I say go for it.

  18. Well, here's a case in point about authors endlessly tweaking: I just asked Janie to tweak the cover. : )

    But point taken about censorship, and not caving to it. I do believe that the challenges in Florida had more to do with the overall story than any specific bit within the story. (At least, that was the impression I got from some FL librarians I spoke with.) And my impulse to adjust this single scene has more to do with me and the writer I am now vs. the one I was a decade ago.

    But then we circle right back to the issue of allowing a book to represent a certain part of one's career. I'm trying to decide if this is more important to me than making changes I feel will improve the story. Right now, I don't know.

  19. All I have to say is that cover is GREAT. Janie, you might have a whole new business making covers for folks. I think you may be talking to me too . . . I love Laura's cover! And isn't it GREAT being able to change the cover if you want . . . Oh man oh man, I am a kid in a candy shop!

    Who is Janie? Here's a little advertisement for her:

  20. Geez. I forgot to link to Janie! Thanks for posting that, Amy.

  21. I was in a hurry yesterday and didn’t properly credit the post where the “author’s cut” term popped up. So here it is, in a post on TeleRead: Diane Duane on e-book self-publishing and quality

    Diane Duane is the author of the Young Wizards series, which pre-dated you-know-who Potter.

    Also, TeleRead wrote about this very post here:
    Editing out-of-print book for reissue as ebooks makes the author uneasy

  22. I rarely read my published work because I always see things I would like to sharpen, places where I would turn up the spotlights, etc. But my reluctance has always been rooted in my helplessness to fix anything.

    If I can get my rights reverted, I will absolutely consider making changes. I am a better writer now than I was then, the world has changed, readers' tastes and sophistications have changed, and I hope to add embellishments. So: I will be changing some things...Author's Remix?

  23. I see no reason why an author shouldn't feel free to re-issue as many different editions as strike the fancy. All I ask is that they be clearly labeled. For authors I love I'd probably go all completist and read every one to decide which is my favorite. But if I'm recommending to someone else, I'd like to be able to specify which version. So I'd suggest going with the idea of editions and adding a note at the back indicating what kinds of changes were made. The important thing for me with ebooks is that nothing be lost. So, if you decide to make major changes such as deleting or adding a scene, I'd want the original version in an appendix, so I could compare. And how cool would that be for would-be writers, huh?

  24. By the way Elizabeth -- had no problem with your opinion (FYI). I actually thought it was a slightly different take on things than the opinion I wanted to make.

    Also, authors could put a note at the front of the book, like they do when books are re-issued -- guidebooks, new translations, etc. But if they don't want to -- fine too. Seriously. The book is the authors. I don't think there should be any hard and fast rules!

  25. Kaethe, interesting idea about including an author's note designating what has changed about the manuscript and/or including deleted or edited scenes. Hadn't thought of that.

    I did decide to make a few edits in the manuscript including the edit I described in the above post, but I don't consider these big edits as much as clean up edits. In the front matter, I indicated that the book had been slightly updated from the edition originally published in 2003.

    -- Laura

  26. Laura I loved Lily's Ghosts--it's such a quirky, funny story, with kids and adults and ghosts all in the universe together in a wonderfully believable way. But I also think that publication is an arbitrary point in the life of a story. So IF you changed anything because it was banned, then yes, you're censoring yourself. But if you're rewriting because you want to see how your present writing self can push the work beyond what it was several years ago, and if you work up the courage to face the work in this way, then more power to you!

  27. Thanks for this, Uma. Loved this bit: "Publication is an arbitrary point in the life of story." I didn't finish this book as much as I -- and my editor, too -- reached a point of exhaustion and could do no more. Now that I'm "resurrecting" the book, so to speak, I feel like I have a second wind.

    That said, I don't believe I could revise the challenging bits out of the story even if I wanted to.

    -- Laura