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April 8, 2016

Edition and Subtraction

The Amazon review went something like this:

I am outraged, and I am never going to buy from Felony & Mayhem Press again! They had the nerve to edit Ngaio Marsh, one of the most beloved writers in the history of mystery fiction, and actually remove entire blocks of text! Avoid this publishing house.

Not surprisingly, our hearts hit the floor. We knew we had not deliberately changed a word, not an apostrophe, of Dame Ngaio’s prose. But maybe gremlins had snuck in during the night? And, ummmm…deleted stuff? This is publishing: Stranger things have happened.

Quick like bunnies, we checked the digital edition against the tattered pages of the book from which we had taken the text. And they were…identical. Was the reviewer crazy? Were we crazy?

No. We were American. And so was the edition from which we had taken our text. But that American edition, we soon realized, was in fact somewhat different from the earlier, British edition. And it was that British edition to which the Amazon reviewer was referring. She was hollering at us, but it was actually some long-gone publisher from the 1940s to whom her anger was really directed.

Was her anger justified? The truth is, when a book goes into a new edition, text is often changed. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of correcting proofreading errors that weren’t caught on the first go-round.Then there’s the fact that “vintage” novels (written prior to the 1960s, say) frequently contain language that contemporary readers would find offensive in the extreme. That might be ok if the speaker is a villain, but what happens when the protagonist, a character you’re supposed to like, casually mentions that he was talking to a ________ earlier in the day, or that he bought something from a __________, or that the butler is a ______ _______ _______? What do you do then?

If you’re us, you change the language. To our mind, the sanctity of Ngaio Marsh’s prose – or Margery Allingham’s, or Elizabeth Daly’s, or any of the old-school writers we publish – is not worth stopping a reader dead in her tracks, unable to enjoy the rest of the book. We work hard to come up with phrasing that preserves the meaning of the original and the sense of period, but is less likely to cause the reader to throw the book across the room. (There is, of course, an argument that the original, repellent language should be preserved, as a sort of museum-exhibit of the bad old days. To our mind, this argument has some merit, but is outweighed by our belief that few readers pick up our books as historical documents; they are seeking entertainment, and we seek to provide it with as few impediments as possible.)

The switch from a British to an American edition often gives rise to editorial changes – U.S. publishers routinely dump lifts and lorries in favor of elevators and trucks, for instance, or clarify slang. I can’t swear to it, but I suspect a similar system prevails in the other direction.

And then we come to the world of more subjective changes. We made a big one, when Felony was still wearing training wheels. We published a book called Missing, by Karin Alvtegen, in a translation (from the original Swedish) that had first been published in the UK. But before we went to press, I emailed the author. As published, the book opened with a crazed religious rant in the mind of a serial killer, followed by a scene in which the novel’s protagonist, a homeless woman, pulls an intriguing scam in the dining room of a fancy hotel.

I wanted to change the order of those two scenes.

At first, Ms. Alvtegen was very distressed: Why did I ask for such a change? Well, I thought the hotel-scene was a much stronger opener. Additionally, the success of The Da Vinci Code had flooded the market with Vatican thrillers, many of them featuring crazed religious serial killers. I didn’t want this subtle, quirky Swedish mystery lumped in with the Catholic Conspiracy brigade.

With some reluctance, Ms. Alvtegen agreed to the change. And a few months later, the book was shortlisted for an Edgar award for Best Mystery of the Year. Coincidence? I couldn’t possibly comment.

At the moment, we’re dealing with a challenge that requires us to make almost all the sorts of changes I’ve discussed – or at least consider them. We’re getting ready to print the last four novels in the Marsh line-up, and in one of them the differences between the various editions are the most significant we’ve come across. Our default decision is to use the earliest edition (which is typically, though not always, the British), but in this instance, we felt that the editors of the first American editions had made some very worthwhile changes. Some scenes had been made clearer, some transitions smoother. Did we really want to discard these worthwhile changes? We did not. So we made the unusual decision to go with the American edition.

And that’s when things got interesting.

As we went through the book, we discovered that the original American editors hadn’t only made additions: They had deleted text as well. And after going through both versions with a couple of fine-tooth combs, we determined that, really, we liked some of the deleted scenes, thank you very much. So we restored some of the British text.

The result is essentially a first: A Ngiao Marsh novel that, we believe, combines the best of the original British and the original American edits. Is this the definitive version? Absolutely not, but it is our stab at it.

We would like nothing more than for you to take your own stabs (hey, we publish murder mysteries; we’re all about the stabbing). Compare our version to the crumbling paperbacks that we know are on your shelves, and tell us which text you like better and why. One of the cool things about the new publishing technology is that it is now relatively simple to make changes, even after a book has been printed. So give us some great changes – with some great reasoning to back things up – and we’ll not only make them, we’ll acknowledge your contribution.

Which book exactly are we talking about? We’ll dribble some clues out in the next few weeks. But if you want the answer, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. We think you might have a knack for that.

 

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