By Donna Gillespie
When my first novel (The Light Bearer, Berkley/Putnam 1994) was teetering at the edge of the out-of-print abyss and my publisher didn’t seem interested in putting it out as an e-book, I realized that if I wanted to save my first-born child it was time to strike out on my own. I’d read the blogs of writers who had gotten the rights back to their backlist books and put them up on Kindle and Nook. All seemed giddy with delight at the new life they’d given their books, and it sounded like they were taking champagne baths with the monthly checks they were receiving from Amazon. It looked like a brave new world to me. I wanted in.
Everyone out there giving free advice on this matter said step one is: Get the rights back. So I dug out my old book contract, feeling confident I’d find no ugly surprises there about the publisher retaining the e-rights. Though Light Bearer came out in ’94, the contract dates all the way back to’89. Kindle was not yet a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye. Who was even thinking about this stuff way back then? But to my horror some enterprising person in the contracts department had typed in the margin of page two of an otherwise standard publishing contract something about the publisher retaining all rights pertaining “to any electronic technology that may come along in the future.”
I was crushed. The typed letters were faded; maybe I could rub them out. Later I would learn my publisher was alone in this errant spasm of forward-thinking behavior. My book had to get picked up by the one publisher that was psychic.
So I started a campaign to get my book back. My agent suggested I just write them, and ask for the e-rights.
Yeah, that’ll work, I thought. I’d heard publishers were raking in money right and left on e-books, even if the book had stumbled out of the gate first time around. Why would they turn away even the modest-but-steady trickle of income they were likely to get from mine?
My letter got no response. Months passed. My agent made a phone call to someone he knew in the contracts department. Still — crickets.
I had lots of time to ruminate on another odd thing: In 2006, when Light Bearer’s sequel Lady of the Light came out, my publisher had put this book up on Kindle and Nook right away. Why were they so willing to let book number one languish, un-Kindled and un-Nooked? And if they weren’t interested in converting it, why couldn’t I be given a chance to do it?
The mystery festered.
I sent off a second letter into the wormhole that was the contracts department. But this time, one day in the mail, a miracle: A letter granting me all rights to my book, including the e-rights. This letter was suddenly the most precious thing I owned. It was never out of my sight amid the paper avalanches on my writing desk. I opened it several times a day to make sure it was real. Score one for asking anyway, even if you’re sure the answer will be no.
It struck me that it was strange to be celebrating a letter like this, because in the pre-electronic days this would have meant the end of the road for this book. But in this shiny new age it meant rebirth — eternal life, even, as long there’s enough electricity in the world to recharge everyone’s batteries.
So it was time to advance to step two: Getting the book scanned. This book came out in the days when you submitted a pile of pages to the editor. I did have a computer back then, but the book was on thirty 400K floppies, created on a computer found only in Macintosh museums.
You must sacrifice a book to do this: its spine is ripped off, and you get it back as a tattered pile of pages. For some reason this bothered me. It seemed cruel to the book. Well, you gotta crack a few eggs…So off I was to the one printing place in San Francisco that had the right kind of scanner. I walked in there feeling otherworldly. Sacrificing a book to give it eternal life…my life was becoming mythic.
And soon I was on my way, with my scanned book compacted into one huge Word file. As luck would have it I had major surgery coming up, requiring me to pretty much go nowhere for three months. No noisome interruptions like, having to go to work. Rewrite time!
But then I was confronted with something that required the courage of Xena the Warrior Princess — rereading something I’d written 17 years ago. I was braced for outdated thoughts, outmoded writing strategies, outlandish lines of dialogue, any number of unnamable horrors. I couldn’t open up the file. I was terrified of my own book.
But after a week of circling the computer in frustration, I jumped in. And found, to my huge relief, the passing of years must have magnified these problems in my mind — or maybe I’d just been kidding myself about how much my writing had improved and changed through the years. After all, who wants to believe they’ve been writing forever and haven’t gotten any better?
It was eerily like reading someone else’s book. I’d forgotten how I’d extricated characters from their various predicaments, which, thankfully, kept the work from becoming boring. And, blessedly, my normally snarly internal critic gave the book a reluctant pass and deemed it mostly “o.k.” Whew.
I did what I think of as a mild rewrite — I found places where I didn’t think I’d taken enough advantage of the dramatic possibilities of a situation, a setting, or had missed an opportunity to create more atmosphere. But the most satisfying part was incorporating new research. The whole process illuminated yet another wonder of the e-publishing world: We can rewrite our books, really rewrite them — (assuming, of course, we’ve decided an old book is worth saving). This is big news. In the old days, once a book was frozen into print, that was it. Only the writing megastars got to do a rewrite beyond this point — writers so valued by their publisher that the house was forced to yield to their demands. John Fowles rewrote The Magus after it had been out for a decade or so. Stephen King did the same for The Stand. But now, any one of us with an old book out there can do this. And I predict that in twenty years, no one will be able to figure out why anyone would think this worth remarking on in a blog. It will just be normal.
And I solved right away the riddle of why publishers can’t be bothered with Kindling and Nooking books written before manuscripts were submitted electronically — scanner errors. There are constellations of them and they are fiendishly hard to spot. The letter “I” becomes the number “1”; r’s are turned into n’s. Punctuation is added in odd places, or lines are omitted altogether. It was close, exhausting work. I could easily imagine that a publisher would not have the time or the personnel to devote to a project that, from their perspective, would not yield that much in financial returns.
All this was the work of four months. Then, once again, I had to let the old book go, feeling again that wretchedness that’s like losing a beloved home — you realize that never again will you be able to inhabit those comfortable, familiar scenes. It was time to advance to steps three and four:
3) Finding a graphic artist to design a new cover. You can’t use the publisher’s cover; it belongs to the artist.
4) Finding the right e-book conversion service amidst the sea of services I turned up on a Google search.
But the hardest part was over … wasn’t it?
More to come!
I’m the author of two novels set in ancient Rome, The Light Bearer (Berkley/Putnam, 1994) and Lady of the Light (Berkley/Putnam, 2006). Light Bearer has been translated into German, Dutch, Russian and Italian, and is available in the UK. In 2001 it was optioned by Hallmark Entertainment for a miniseries that has never been produced (but hope never dies!). Lady of the Light has been translated into German and Italian. I have also published articles and book reviews, and have edited manuscripts for online services. Recently I was asked to write the foreward for the re-release of Pauline Gedge’s novel of Boudicca’s revolt, The Eagle and the Raven, which thrilled and amazed me because she, along with Mary Renault and Robert Graves, had always been one of my idols. Currently I live in San Francisco — I came here from Florida back in 1971 and decided to stay. Right now I’m working as a teacher’s aide at a San Francisco middle school and I’m the copyeditor and occasional contributor to my neighborhood newspaper, The New Fillmore, where the best part of the job is that they let me write the crime reports. And I’m working on the third book in the series that began with The Light Bearer.
I was a student of Leonard Bishop’s for seven years, from 1976 to 1983, part of an ongoing writer’s workshop that had grown out of his novel writing class at UC Berkeley Extension. I don’t think I ever would have made the leap from short stories to a novel without Leonard’s constant carping and encouragement. Those Monday night meetings were like revival meetings for writers — even if you’d been languishing in the depths of writing despair throughout the week, on Monday nights you walked out of his class knowing without question that writing was the most necessary thing you could be doing for the planet. Sell the house, sell the kids. Lose the boyfriend, lose the job. Just write. It was a holy mission. He told us that all time you spent writing mattered, even if you eventually threw the whole scene away. “Writing begets writing,” I remember him saying again and again.
His theories on craft and techniques of maintaining suspense dazzled me. They seemed to come from a fathomless well — I don’t think I ever heard him explain anything the same way twice. So if you didn’t get it the first time you were bound to eventually. That is, as long as you kept submitting chapters to the group.
For four years I gave him short stories because I couldn’t get a novel started. All my stories broke off after 30 pages. They just refused to become novels. Leonard was nice about it; he never mentioned the fact that perhaps I shouldn’t be there. (It was, after all, a novel writing workshop, and in a class of 30 I was the only one who wasn’t turning in chapters.) But while my back was turned and I was hardly aware of it, he was convincing me I was capable of writing a novel.
Then another thing happened — the catalyst, I guess. I discovered Rome. I’d had this idea all along that the novel had to be contemporary. (I have no idea why.) Then I saw the miniseries based on Robert Graves’ I Claudius on PBS. And first century Rome took over my life. I was going back and forth to the San Francisco Library, snatching up eight books at a time — the limit allowed — anything with Rome in the title. I finally started what I knew was going to be a novel, and presented Leonard with a small stack of pages with “Chapter One” at the top — a miracle. Of course it was set in Rome. And soon I burst past that 30-page limit hardly knowing it was there.
When Berkley/Putnam bought the book, I had a whole additional draft to do. By this time Leonard had left San Francisco and was teaching in Kansas, but I continued to submit chapters to him through the mail. His critiques, blistering, concise, sometimes typed so enthusiastically that he punched a hole in the paper when he typed the letter “o”, continued to come. He was loud, even on the page. I still hear him barking in my ear from time to time. The book I began in Leonard’s class was The Light Bearer, and it’s Leonard’s book as much as mine. He always got mad when I tried to tell him that. But it was true.