Readers were hardly ever aware of a book’s stages before the internet. But they were used to cover art changes and publisher changes. Two of my books have been re-published with new cover and interior art. The Swan Bonnet went through a cover and design change in its first six months of publication, being re-published by Couchgrass Books. It is now available again as a Kindle book, at Lulu.com as a paperback, and soon as a paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Ingram’s.
As a creative writer who began in journals and as a used books dealer, I’ve encountered many ironies in publishing. Short stories and poetry appearing in smaller publications are often lightly edited. Readers of literary journals encounter material that is closer to being in the raw than that in book form. Published books receive much more editing. Authors - creators of whole books and seen in a different light by the public - used to expect two years of editing and preparation before their book was released by a major publisher. Smaller publishers vary in these capabilities.
Still, a book coming out might not be finished. First editions are sometimes identified by their typos or formatting errors. One of my early investigations was Penrod by Booth Tarkington. Its first 1914 edition, what I found I had, was identified by the typo “sence” instead of “sense” on page 19. An imperfect book was more valuable than the corrected later printing. Of course, this occurs with books that garner fame.
The Chicago chef Charlie Trotter died recently. When working in a bookstore, I copied down a recipe for his chocolate brioche. Correct me if I’m wrong! I remember re-checking the recipe after baking it with the questionable amount of salt. I knew there was something wrong and changed the salt and the sugar amount for a great brioche. I wish I had bought that book because what might have been a typo in the recipe could eventually make that first edition valuable. Why this is interesting might have to do with the publishing process being mysterious before digital publishing.
In graduate school, I worked in a specialty children’s library, The Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. This library acquired original illustrations and also manuscripts. I was first directed to that library by the professor of my biography writing class. I could use letters there for my biography project. Working there later, I enjoyed looking at early and edited manuscripts and also the publisher letters.
The only way a reader could see their favorite author’s writing process used to be libraries like The Kerlan Collection. This was all pretty hidden just as literary journals have some invisibility to the general public. Sometimes a book such as Ulysses by James Joyce has a revised edition. These editions often include the notes where changes were made to the first edition. Usually this occurs with authors who have the aura of a Joyce or an F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Now the drafts of authors, their revisions, and the false starts in publishing are much more visible. Novels are a tremendous effort because, as John Gardner stated, the fictional dream can so easily be interrupted by clumsiness and even by a typo. Consistency can feel easy when actually it’s a labor.
FreeDigitalPhotos.net Stuart Miles
I guess I will always believe that a lasting author sets down their drafts better than I ever could. We used to never see the mistakes of authors, only the mistakes of publishers. In earlier centuries, authors often sat near a fire and, instead of stacking papers at the back of desk drawer or tossing them in a waste basket, they probably just burnt them. The only story they might have kept was their best effort.