One for the Books
Publishing in a pandemic
I am seventy-three, but I’m no Luddite. I have written all of my books on the computer, though it is not always a trouble-free process. Paragraph settings mysteriously change. Entire sections disappear. Instead of inserting words, I find myself deleting them. Still, with the aid of memory sticks, the miracle of copying and pasting, and the help of a somewhat tech-savvy wife, I always somehow put together a finished manuscript.
My publisher, House of Anansi Press, has blessed me when it comes to editors. Janie Yoon worked with me on my first twelve Ava Lee books, and Doug Richmond has now done two, along with the first two instalments of my Uncle Chow Tung series. Both of them have tolerated my aversion to electronic editing — a dislike that comes not from principle but from the fact that I truly connect with my books only when I hold them. So the editors will do their line edits by hand, bundle up the printed manuscript, and ship the pages to me. Then I input every change myself and often do quite a bit of rewriting along the way. It can be a messy process, yes, but it is one I love. It’s when a new book comes alive. Except this wasn’t exactly the case with my latest.
The Diamond Queen of Singapore was scheduled for an early July publication, but in early March, I learned it wasn’t going to happen. There was a virus-related issue with the printer, and physical copies wouldn’t be ready until August at best. To compensate, Anansi decided to fast-track the ebook version and set a May 26 release date.
I was in favour of fast-tracking, but there would be challenges. Instead of paper proofs, I received an electronic advance reading copy — with just two weeks to submit any changes. My first draft had been more than 500 pages, and we had edited it down to 360. I wasn’t completely sure we had taken out everything that we should have. Perhaps we had even taken out too much.
And the changes wouldn’t all be mine. Over the years, I have put together a crew of incredible first readers: a former spy, a former Toronto Star editor, a lawyer, a retired Hong Kong businessman, and three others — originally from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China — who live in Burlington, Toronto, and New York. They help keep my books authentic, particularly when it comes to names, terms, and cultural references.
I emailed the crew immediately. To my delight, all of them were available and comfortable working with the electronic file, which left me as the sole paper holdout in a world where my regular print shop was closed. I couldn’t find another, but my son-in-law’s business had been deemed essential. And, luckily, he had a printer. We all went to work, and we beat Anansi’s deadline by several days. In total we made about 100 changes — some of them quite important.
While this was going on, my promotional schedule started to fall apart. One by one, the twelve events I had scheduled for the spring went by the wayside, forcing me to confront yet another technology. I have done literally hundreds of events over the last five years, and I’ve grown so comfortable in front of an audience that I really enjoy the experience. With live events gone and maybe not coming back any time soon, my publicist pitched the idea of virtual promotions.
Like many families, mine has started to hold weekly Zoom meetings during the crisis. My wife and kids always tell me that I am sitting either too close or too far away from my screen, that I’m speaking too loudly or too softly. (My grandkids tend to be kinder.) Even with my family, I feel incredibly self-conscious and uncomfortable. But I eventually committed to a pre-recorded video event with the Oakville Public Library.
The librarians surveyed their members and gave me eight questions to answer. I opened my laptop and filmed myself talking about my books. I stumbled and bumbled my way through, certain they’d ask me to redo it. They didn’t — although they said they’d have to do some “light editing.” I doubt I’ll watch the final version when they get around to posting it to their website; I’ll be too busy fretting about a live-streaming event the National Arts Centre has also convinced me to do.
So no, I’m not a Luddite. I just want bookstores and libraries and print shops and festivals to reopen, so that technology’s role in my life can go back to the bare minimum.