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FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC: A Terrifying Tale of Backlists

March 15, 2011 by in category Blogs tagged as , , , with 1 and 0
Home > Writing > Blogs > FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC: A Terrifying Tale of Backlists

One of the strangest books ever written was Flowers in the Attic (V.C.Andrews). There is lots to talk about with this book (incest, misguided religiosity, family acceptance and love) but those are topics better left to a book group discussion.

What really terrified me was the premise of that book. A mother locks her kids in the attic and forgets about them. The children languish, nearly dying in that attic, until they rise up and confront her. They are no longer willing to be locked away. And that brings me to the topic of the day: books, backlists and half finished manuscripts locked in our creative attics.*

My friend and fellow author Brian Drake deals beautifully with the subject of discarded manuscripts and whether the are salvageable in his blog Bringing Back the Dead , so I would like to focus on the opportunities and challenges traditionally published authors face when dealing with their backlist.

My own career has been neatly split in two distinct genres: Romance/women’s fiction and legal thrillers/police procedurals. Over 26 years I had my rights reverted to all 23 of my novels as soon as I was contractually able. I had no idea then that rights reversion would turn out to be the smartest move I ever made. In control of my work, I was perfectly positioned to digitally publish, POD or self-publish my literary inventory. I chose to concentrate on digital publishing, taking advantage of the explosion of E-readers.It took a year to scan all my thrillers, create covers, edit for scanning errors, properly format and upload my 11 book backlist. The effort was worth it.

My faith in my thrillers has been rewarded by good sales, excellent reviews and a growing following. I realized, though, that I had the advantage of name recognition as my fan base moved from paper to IPads, Nooks and Kindles.Spurred on by this clear opportunity, it seemed logical to follow the same strategy with my early books (romance and single title contemporary women’s fiction). Yet when I went to my literary ‘attic’ and opened the door I didn’t exactly find my ‘flowers’ in full bloom.

The truth was that some of my work should not be resurrected. The very first book I wrote was creatively tentative, predictable and descriptively overwrought. This was a far cry from the intricately plotted books I penned later in my career. In short, it was clear I had learned a lot between the first book and the last. I tried to convince myself the craft didn’t matter. Books were books and someone would like these. But I also realized many more people would be put off by these early efforts. That would impact both my reputation and my sales. I might never be able to convince those readers to give me another chance. When I weighed the pros and cons it came down to this: would I be proud to have these first books in the hands of an avid reader? For three books, the answer was no.

I want to make it perfectly clear, I am not ashamed of anything I have written. All my books were published by respected New York publishers. Each represents my best effort at that stage of my career but some of those books are not representative of the author I have become. When a reader chooses to sample my early work, I want them to hear my unique voice (I had no POV in the three I will not re-publish). I want the reader to be engaged in a multi-layered story (my early work is linear). I want a reader to get to know well-drawn characters that live in a complete universe (my early characters were two dimensional and their universe limited).

In my memory, I believed my attic was full of fabulous books; in reality, I had stored away my building blocks. I am wise enough now to recognize that the reader’s experience is more important than my ego. Just because I wrote a book twenty years ago does not make the work viable today unless it clearly shows emerging strengths. If I republish my initial stumbling as I tried to find my literary feet, I run the risk of alienating a reader rather than piquing their curiosity. I want each book to show how I have grown as a writer. Bottom line, if any of my work might waste a reader’s time or money it should be set aside.

So, as much as it pains me to admit it, as hard as it is to close that door, there are some flowers that need to stay in my attic. I am ever so grateful that they are there to remind me of where I’ve been, how far I’ve come and that writing is hard work. I might visit them once in a while but, like V.C. Andrews has shown me, sometimes there are reasons you need to lock the door and walk away.

*These thoughts can be applied to any creative effort: painting to pottery, music to manufacturing.

1 Comment

  • Anonymous
    on March 17, 2011

    Rebecca, what a lovely blog. I like to think that 20 years from now, I'll (a) have a list of published novels where I own all the rights and (b) will be able to see such a clear line of learning through the body of my work. Good for you!

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