Should you reissue old work?

Are you considering revising and reissuing an old piece of work? People may well advise you not to. Things have moved on, they may say. Books belong to moments. Never go back…

Well, maybe.

But maybe not. Sometimes old works can be constructively revisited and new editions prepared. Memoirs can be updated, even if only with a new chapter on what has happened to the author since (yes, it will be on Google, but it’s nice for it all to be in the book). For business books, the case for a new edition can be overwhelming. The author(s) will have learnt new tricks. The world of business will have moved on. The danger is that the business world will have moved on too far – if the book is too based round one, now aging technology this might be the case. But the basic principles of doing business are pretty fixed.

For some reason, I’ve been doing a lot of revisiting recently. Six months ago, Pearson decided to reissue The Beermat Entrepreneur, a book I co-authored in 2001.

The original was praised for the explanatory power of its models. I was concerned that they might not still be valid. Luckily, they turned out to be, though some needed to be reworked – my co-author and I had learnt a lot in 17 years.

There’s an interesting question about how much you complicate a model to fit reality. I’ve blogged about Thorngates’ Impostulate before, but it’s a model I love. Basically it says that there’s a tradeoff between clarity, accuracy and breadth of applicability in model building. If you tweak a model too much to fit too many circumstances, it loses its snappiness, which was one of the things people loved about the original Beermat Entrepreneur.

So the task was to tweak the models without making them overcomplicated and dull. One old, simple model had to be ditched as it really was too simple to fit complex reality. But in most cases, I found that adding the odd new concept kept the models simple and sharp, but made them more accurate. I also made the point more clearly that the material worked best in certain types of business (thus compromising on the third aspect of the Impostulate, breadth). So a win all round.

Fun came from adding new material that supported the old stuff. One of the nice things about revising old material is that, assuming it’s any good, there will be ‘fans’ out there who have used it and found that it works. I did some interviews with some of these people and was able to introduce new voices into the text.

Pearsons have responded brilliantly to the new book, pushing successfully for it to be ‘Book of the Month’ in WH Smith travel (the WHS branches in railway stations and airports) in september. So I must have done something right!

As a personal project, I have also reissued some crime fiction I wrote 20 years ago, using a fab online publisher, Corazon. Here I found the rewriting was simply a case of tightening up the style a bit. I’m glad to say I’ve become a better writer since the late 1990s (though also glad to say the original material still worked!)

I must also add that I have, in the past, dug old pieces of unpublished work out of the drawer, with the hope that they could be given a polish and sold over the internet, but have soon realized that they were unpublished back then for a very good reason. On a job like this, it’s not long before I start grimacing, shaking my head and muttering ‘That won’t work…’ ‘But she wouldn’t do that…’ (Plot and character are the killers – you can always rewrite in a better style. But sometimes it’s just not worth it.)

This realization tends to come quite quickly, which is fortunate, as it does take a while to rework material. Having decided reasonably quickly that the material is still strong enough, set aside a decent amount of time to do the rewriting. I took a month for the four crime novels, and a lot more than that for Beermat.

So my advice to anyone seeking to blow the dust off some old material and re-present it to the world is – do it! Your intuition will tell you if you are flogging a dead horse. My guess is that if it worked first time round, it will still have some magic. If you have to revitalize it a bit, it is work well worth doing. I am very proud of my new Beermat Entrepreneur and the return of Inspector Bao Zheng. You will, I suspect, feel the same about your revisited successes.


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