Rebirth of a Nonfiction Success – The Revised Edition
Well, after a month-and-a-half of Book Production Hell, I finally sent the final files to the printer yesterday for the revised second edition of my book, Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955. And all I can say is, “WHEW!”
Compared to the initial 3 years of research, interviewing and writing for the first edition, this was nothing. Yet 45 days with no break — no days off, no weekends — is an endurance slog no matter how you look at it. This was a rather small update — I added 40 pages of new material including new stories, maps and photos — to an existing 456-page book. That brings this puppy in at just under 500 pages now, a hefty tome you wouldn’t want to drop on your head from a high shelf, for sure. Not to mention the additional shipping weight and larger mailers it will require.
Still, I opted to keep the retail price at $19.95 — that magic number for all TV product offers, for those who pay attention to such things. But my reasons are that in this day of a contracting print book market and shrinking leisure time in which to read them, I wanted to keep my book attractively priced. That, and I’m aware that most of my primary readership — people who live in the Delaware River Valley — are just like me: middle-class Americans struggling to maintain a decent quality of life on shrinking incomes in a crappy economy. Yet another reason not to raise the price.
But that’s really a publishing issue, not so much that of an author. What I want to talk about here are the concerns any author might have when considering updating a nonfiction work. What do you think about when you want to update an existing book, and how do you decide when it’s the right time to do an updated edition?
For me, and this work in particular, it was kind of a no-brainer. Devastation is a documentary treatment of an historic weather disaster. I first published it in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of the event. The entire first printing of 2,500 copies sold out in 42 days — probably a reflection of the fact that it came out just a month after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast of the US, and hurricane-caused flooding was on everyone’s mind. That was a serendipitous stroke of timing I couldn’t have planned, and as tragic as it was for the Gulf, it was absolutely awesome for this book’s sales.
It went on to sell another 2,500 copies over the next five years, giving it a sales average of 1,000 copies a year. Given that most small press books sell less than 1,000 copies total, I am of course pleased and flattered that so many people find my work interesting enough to fork over $20 for. Initially, the book was supposed to have been published by another publisher, and the estimate was to sell that many in the first year. Had that happened, it would have officially qualified as a bestseller in small, independent press parlance.
However, short of having taken off work for that entire year (after having already taken so much time off to write it) to do nothing but promote it, I’m not sure I could have done anything more than I did to make that happen. I spent nearly every evening and almost all my weekends either sending out promo messages or making appearances on behalf of the book for the first year, about 75% of that effort the second year, and leveled off at about 50% of that effort in the remaining few years until now, mostly because I had another new book of my own and a couple of our other authors’ works to promote, as well (The danger of being both author and publisher).
During that time, as the book sold and awareness of it grew, I was contacted by more and morepeople with their own stories and pictures of the flood to share. Always, my first reaction would be (to myself, of course), “Where the heck were you when I was desperately seeking information about this in the first place?” But that kind of attitude is unhelpful, so I simply listened and followed up with gratitude for these people who felt that what I was doing with the book was of value, and who wanted to add to that value.
As I reached the four-year mark after the original publication, I realized it was time for an update. Enough folks had written in to correct me — usually gently, but sometimes not so much — on errors I had made in the original manuscript. Nothing hideous, mostly embarrassing things like geographical errors due to my less-than-stellar ability to read maps or names that were close but not exact. But it was enough all together to make the responsible historian in me wish to correct the errors in the interest of making the book as accurate an historical document as possible. Plus, there were some clarifications and enhancements of existing stories, and a few new stories whose addition I felt would add to the narrative.
As for timing, I realized that August 18 of this year would be the 55th anniversary of the ’55 flood — in essence, a Golden Anniversary. What better PR hook to hang all our promotion on? So I set that as our pub date, and backtracked the production schedule off of it.
So, for the past year I have been gathering all the new material, clarifying stories, getting photo permissions and doing a few new phone interviews. And in mid-June, as I returned from a ten-day road trip that served to both give me some time away from this office and to allow me the relaxation necessary to face the endurance race ahead of me, I started in on the actual work of updating the manuscript. We also launched a cover contest to allow the public to vote on three possible designs, which was a fun and very informative exercise that — happily — ended up confirming our own choice by an overwhelming margin.
This is the cover for the new edition.
- By mid-July, we were ready to start into production on the new layout. My poor designer had to endure many changes, as her layout process ended up coinciding with my last-minute writing changes because our production timeline had been inadvertently telescoped by other work I had to do in order to keep paying the bills. But she was a real trouper and got ‘er done. Between the two of us, and a VERY professional and excellent indexer who produced incredible work and delivered EARLY, we managed to pull it off on time.
Of course, if I had only been the author and not the publisher as well, this schedule would have been very different. Automatically add at least 6 months to a year to the whole process. Just another reason to be glad to be an indy publisher/author. And this time, we’re going the POD (print on demand) route. After all, I’ve already saturated my primary market of local and regional readers with the first edition. Few of them will pop for the second edition, too, so I’ll have to seek new readers. It took me five years to empty our warehouse of the original edition’s 5,000 copies, so it stands to reason I don’t want to be sitting on that much inventory again. The higher per-unit price will even out in my not having to pay to warehouse, ship and inventory that large run, not to mention carrying the large debt for its printing.
So now, with writing and production behind me, it’s on to the third and most critical step of the publishing process: promotion. Thanks to a fast, talented and affordable web developer — Caryn Newton of Lantern Glow Design — I’ve been able to streamline this process to include both traditional and online elements, and I get better at its implementation with every new book we do.
Just thought a window into one author’s updated edition process might be enlightening.