Monday, April 23, 2012

Margaret J. Anderson on publishing out of print books as e-books

It’s a delight to visit with Margaret J Anderson today! It is really cool to talk with one of my favorite childhood authors! I discovered her books when I was in middle school, and I loved reading them over and over again. Her historical fiction books swept me away on adventures to foreign lands and earlier times. (Searching for Shona is a book I still vividly remember today.) I particularly loved her fantasy time travel books.

[This interview is also simultaneously posted on Through the Tollbooth, a group blog by VCFA alumni.]

Margaret J Anderson has been writing for publication for over thirty-five years and has published 12 novels. Her nonfiction books include biographies and science books. Her most recent books are Carl Linnaeus: Father of Classification and Bugged-Out Insects (2011).

Her out-of-print novel, In the Keep of Time, was recently released as an e-book.

[Sarah] Did your rights revert back to you or did you work with your publisher to regain your rights to your books?

[Margaret] Years ago, after my early fiction books had been out of print for a while, I asked my publisher (Knopf) for the rights back. I had the idea of getting a regional press interested in publishing some of them as paperbacks that I could sell when I was giving school presentations, but I was too involved with new projects to follow through. This was before the era of Nooks and Kindles, so I had no thought of issuing electronic versions of the books – and neither did Knopf. I’ve heard that publishers aren’t so quick to relinquish rights these days.

[Sarah] Could you explain the process you went through as you prepared In the Keep of Time to be published as an e-book?

[Margaret] Six years ago, I wrote a historical novel called Olla Piska about the botanist David Douglas (of the Douglas fir). A couple of months after it was published by the Oregon Historical Society, they went out of the publishing business, leaving Olla-Piska as an orphan child. They returned all the rights, so with the help of Ellen Beier, who had done the cover, I began to look into publishing it as an e-book. We learned the names of companies like Smashwords and BookBaby, but the big question of how you let people know the book is out there hung over us. In the end, I decided to get my feet wet by publishing a book that already had potential readers. I get quite a number of e-mails from people who read In the Keep of Time and my other early books as children and are sad that they can’t find copies to read to their children.

When I decided to start with In the Keep of Time, I was faced with a problem. The book was published in 1977 before I owned a computer, so I had no digital version. I would have to retype the entire book into Microsoft Word. Somewhere I’d read that scanning the pages could introduce mistakes that are hard to fix. Besides, I’d have to tear one of my few copies apart to scan it and I wasn’t sure my scanner was up to the task. On the upside, retyping meant I could avoid the five most common formatting mistakes cited in the Smashwords style guide. (Don’t use the tab key to indent a new paragraph, etc.) By the time I was finished, I had a new admiration for my younger self – hammering out all those long-ago books on a typewriter and correcting mistakes with whiteout!

[Sarah] Which e-books formats did you choose? Why?

[Margaret] I chose to go with BookBaby, though I can’t claim this was the result of extensive research. It was mostly based on their response to an email I sent them asking (among other things) what was the advantage of using BookBaby rather than one of the other companies out there. Someone named Meghan wrote back saying, “I believe that the best part about using BookBaby is that if you need help, you can pick up the phone and dial us and a real live human being will answer you!”  That’s very reassuring when you’re dealing with all this uncanny stuff like an entire book arriving on your Kindle with the click of a mouse! I’ve already talked to Meghan a couple of times. Also, BookBaby is located in Portland, so it feels local. As well as formatting the manuscript for all the popular reading devices: Kindle, i-Pad, Nook, Kobo, etc., they handle the financial dealings, collecting royalties and sending them on to the author.

[Sarah] Why did you choose to release In the Keep of Time first?

[Margaret] As I mentioned earlier, In the Keep of Time has loyal followers—if  I can find a way to reach them. Although the book was written years ago I think it will connect with today’s children.  It is a time-slip adventure in which the key to Smailholm Tower unlocks the past, taking four children back to 15th century Scotland, where border raiding was a common practice. The next time they use the key, the children find themselves in the 22nd century in a post climate-change world—a world without technology. Today’s kids are aware of climate change, but it wasn’t on many people’s radar back when the book was published 35 years ago.

[Sarah] You chose a photograph you took of the tower for your new cover. Where did you take the photo? Did the photo require any editing or photoshopping?

[Margaret] The photograph on the cover is of Smailholm Tower, a Scottish border keep near Kelso where my parents lived after I’d emigrated to Oregon. It’s the setting that inspired my story, and I worked in some legends associated with the tower. We always visited the tower when we went back to see my parents, and I’ve taken dozens of pictures over the years. Laszlo Kubinyi, who did the original cover, based his artwork on a photo I sent him. I couldn’t use his cover for the e-book edition because of copyright restrictions, but I did choose a similar view of the tower.

Ellen Beier helped me design the cover.  Yes, we did do some photoshopping. The first step was to straighten the tower. Ellen pointed out that my photo had a slight leaning-tower-of-Pisa slant to it that I hadn’t noticed! Then we changed the background colors to give the picture a more interesting science-fiction look. Finally we picked the font for the title, which was hard because there are so many choices.  I’m excited about what finally emerged.

[Sarah] What other books do you plan to release as e-books? When?

[Margaret] That depends on how long my enthusiasm for typing lasts! And also how the current project fares. I feel as if I’m climbing a fairly steep learning curve! But I’m already more than halfway  through typing In the Circle of Time, a sequel to In the Keep of Time, which focuses on the future people.  There’s a third book, The Mists of Time, but before I do that one I want to do my earliest novel, To Nowhere and Back. It has also generated a lot of letters and was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1975.  After that, I may do Journey of the Shadow Bairns, which is based on my husband’s family history in northern Saskatchewan. Next in line is Searching for Shona, a World War II story that draws heavily on my own background.  And somewhere in between I’ll do Olla-Piska.

[Sarah] What advantages do you see with using e-books?

[Margaret] It will be interesting to see how this technology evolves, but I do think it’s a great way to make books that might have a limited audience available to readers. It’s hard for publishers to justify the production and storage costs for a physical book that isn’t going to jump off the shelves. E-books don’t take up space in warehouses or on bookshelves. They can also be sold at a much lower price. I’ll receive a 70% royalty for In the Keep of  Time from most reading devices, so I can price it as low as $2.99, which will give me $2.00 per book, the equivalent of a 10% royalty on a $20 book. The buyer benefits from the cheaper price as well.

Like most authors, I’ve always been in love with books and have a whole wall of them behind me as I write. But when I look at my grandchildren I see the writing on that wall! They like their electronic devices!  It used to be that the paperback edition was the poor relative of the hardbound book. Then readers wanted the lighter, cheaper paperbacks. Pretty soon they’ll all be turning pages on their Nooks and Kindles with their busy thumbs.  Personally, I still love the look and feel of a book, but I do like being able to adjust the font size on my Kindle!

[Sarah] Do any of the e-book formats allow a reader to order a print copy of the book? In other words, is there a way for a reader to buy a paper copy of the book?

[Margaret] There are ways to publish your book in a format that allows the reader to buy a print copy, but I didn’t go that route, partly because there still are a few physical copies of my early books out there through Amazon etc. Though the prices can be crazy! I just checked Amazon and a used hardback edition of To Nowhere and Back sells for anywhere from $39-$319! In 1975 it sold for $5.50.

[Sarah] When you were retyping the story, did you ever have the urge to change anything?

[Margaret] I have found myself doing some tweaking and editing! I’ve had 35 years of writing experience since I wrote In the Keep of Time.  I was a bit too fond of run-on sentences in those days, so I have eliminated some “ands.” I’m making a few bigger changes while re-typing In the Circle of Time, where Robert and Jennifer find themselves two hundred years in the future. The present time in the book is around 1979, the year I wrote the book, and I haven’t changed that. There is, however, mention of something that happened in 2010, which must have seemed quite far into the future back then. Seeing it didn’t happen in 2010, I’m jumping the event forward to 2050!

[Sarah] How does it feel to work with this book again?

[Margaret] Re-reading a book I wrote all those years ago is a bit like a time-slip adventure! It takes me back! Some of the incidents in the story were triggered by real events. One evening, when we went into the tower with our four young children, a black bird fluttered down from somewhere up near the roof and fell dead at our feet. I used this incident in the opening chapter of In the Keep of Time. The characters in the book weren’t based on my own children, but they do bring back happy memories of those visits to Scotland. And the book also brings back memories of children’s eager questions in response to the many slideshow presentations I’ve given over the years.

I really am enjoying re-visiting these old books. It’s a dark day when you get word from your publisher that your precious book is going out of print. I started this project thinking that turning my books into e-books would confer some sort of immortality on them! It turns out that isn’t the case. I have to pay BookBaby $20 per year to keep a book alive!  And the real truth is that a book is only alive when someone reads it. So I hope my old titles will spring to life again when today’s kids reach for their Sony or iPad, their Copia, Kobo, Nook or Kindle.  I love those names!

[Sarah] Thank you, Margaret, for visiting with me today. Now I have a great reason to buy an e-reader.

You can find out more about Margaret and her book on her website.
In the Keep of Time is available on Kobo, Kindle, Nook and other ebook formats.

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