Does “Cool” Still Mean What I Think It Means?


“Mrs. Eagle, wasn’t Paul McCartney in another band before he got into Wings?”

I’ll never be quite sure whether my 8th grade student was putting me on when she asked me that question.  Perfectly straight 8th grade face waiting for my perfectly straight-faced answer.  The year was 1981, maybe ‘82, and I think Wings had just broken up.  It was the first time I felt the slightest bit dated.  Fleetingly, to be sure—I hadn’t even reached my prime—but still I felt it.  Within a few years I would encounter young people who thought of the Vietnam War exactly the way I’d regarded World War II—my parents’ war—waaaay before my time.  History.  The Draft—a big deal when my generation came of age—wasn’t an issue for my sons unless it was the kind that came out of a keg.  But their boom boxes are laughable now, and Atari is a collectors’ item.  And don’t get too cocky about your Android, my friend.  It’ll be obsolete in the blink of an eye. 

But will this year’s contemporary novel?


While you think about that question—because I promise to get back to it after meandering a bit—take a look at today’s exhibit B.  The other night I caught a piece of a TV interview with somebody from Beloit College, which has been publishing its “Mindset List” since 1998.  The latest list reveals the “mindset” of the Class of 2015, most of whom were born around 1993.  Bill Clinton was their first president.  Think about what was going on when you were 18.  Now consider a few tidbits from The Mindset List, Class of 2015.

  • Ferris Bueller and Sloane Peterson could be their parents.
  • The only significant labor disputes in their lifetimes have been in major league sports.
  • There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway, and
  • Music has always been available via free downloads.
  • Sears has never sold anything out of a Big Book that could also serve as a doorstop.
  • They’ve always wanted to be like Shaq or Kobe: Michael Who?
  • They’ve always been able to dismiss boring old ideas with “been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt.”

Check out The Mindset List for 69 other factoids to make you feel old along with webcast, videos and more class lists.

But first, back to my cogitation for the day.  Writers who’ve been able to get the rights back to books that have gone out of print—some that might even (gasp) predate the Class of 2015—suddenly have access to a medium they can use to bring those books back.  Self-publication is no longer considered a form of vanity, and small press isn’t that small anymore.  The question is, should the author try to update these books?  

If you’re digitizing a previously published historical novel, there’s no problem.  But what about the contemporary novel with a 1993 copyright date?  Should you take out the phone booth and give all the characters cell phones?  Should you change Michael Jordan references to Kobe?  Should you try to update the slang?  What about the characters you’re writing right now?  Do the adults speak your language?  How do you handle teenage talk, which will literally be so last year by the time the book comes out?

One Brave Cowboy I’m dying to hear your thoughts, and since I have a book coming out soon (ONE BRAVE COWBOY, 9/20) I’ll send one randomly selected commenter (check back on Sunday) an autographed copy of one of the earlier books in the series–see the 4-pack in the sidebar and take your pick.

“…for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could walk backward.”   –Hamlet


About Kathleen Eagle

Kathleen Eagle is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of over forty novels.
This entry was posted in ebook publishing, language, slang, The Mindset List, updating books, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Does “Cool” Still Mean What I Think It Means?

  1. Cindy Gerard says:

    Congrats on the new release, Kathy! You’re cowboy looks yummy.
    And I’m with you on the ‘mindset’ list. I watch my grandkids and shake my head ad their adeptness on the computer, and the fact that they’ve never known life without cell phones and remote controls. The world changes so fast …

  2. Charlene says:

    Hi Kathy – I have been updating my old Kensington books to make them more current. I think there are those, who like the older versions of the books they read. I guess it depends on the type of person you are. My hubby loves reruns of old shows and listens to all oldies music and while I would watch or listen to them, I would rather stay in tune with the current times. Makes me feel more “with it” and I like learning about new trends.

  3. Mady Mitchell says:

    If you are changing the date in a contemporary, then you surely need to update the slang and other references. I think you also need to consider the age of your target audience and what will make sense to them. Obviously while there are virtually no pay phones today, and older woman (either reader or book character) will understand references to them.

  4. Whitney says:

    I think you have to update the things that won’t make sense to your current readers. For example, I recently read a re-released book where there was constant turmoil with the characters not knowing where the other one was (story was set on a large horse ranch) and in one part of the book they were separated by 1000s of miles and had to wait for letters from each other. In the 80s when this was written I’m sure it made sense and was suspenseful. As I was reading it in 2011 all I could think was how dated it was because now they would have cellphones, text messaging and email. As a reader, I found it distracting.

    • And it took your head out of the story. That’s a killer. Of course, getting the signal on those big ranches out West can still be a problem. But what if that’s akey plot point?

  5. Leanne Banks says:

    I have never been cool.:) Missed it in my teens, was too busy raising my kids in 20s & 30s to be cool… and so on.:) I love old shows, but also love the new ones. I have a harder time with newer music. I have to work at that. I’m just a Motown Mama. 🙂

    Reissuing books from the 80s & 90s is going to be tricky because of technology, etc… I haven’t tried to reread one of my older books — kinda dreading it. I do use cell phones & limited texting in my current books, but the truth is cell phone service is still not perfect. Especially with the new smart phones, your battery life is not much over a day, two max. If you’re stranded without electricity for too long — no cell. Coverage is still not perfect either. I frequent a grocery story where my cell phone cuts off every time! FYI, no cell service the other day when we had that earthquake. Other changes that have occurred since 9/11 have had a huge impact too, but do you realize it’s almost been a decade since that terrible day? You’re right. We’re changing all the time!

    Great blog, Kathleen! Congrats on your new book!!!:)

  6. michelehauf says:

    Much to think about when re-releasing backlist titles. I have historicals, so when I read through them it’s just for an editorial polish since I know my writing has improved over the years. But if I were re-releasing a contemporary I might be inclined to keep most of it as is, unless it seems glaringly odd, like the hero lugging his big boxy 80s-version of a cell phone (remember those chunks?) around with both hands. I might be tempted to alter references to historical figures who may no longer be alive, such as if the story mentioned something Princess Diana had done last week, but otherwise, I think the story should remain as is. It’s just that editing polish that I think is very necessary to any book that needs the dust shaken from it before giving it new light.

    • I found a reference to Michael Jackson in one of mine that I’m re-reading. But the thing is, the copyright date won’t change. If I change Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber…well, with any luck, my book will outlast the Bieber. (Can you tell I’m not crazy about my 7-yr-old granddaughter’s new t-shirt?)

  7. Laney4 says:

    I say, “Let it hang!” Leave it. People understand it was written during a different time. But that’s just me….

  8. Quilt Lady says:

    I think you would be better off leaving it as it. I like the older books myself and I wouldn’t expect an older book to have cell phones and things. It just wouldn’t seem right to me.

  9. Kathleen O says:

    I only have onen comment to say about bringing back older books.. That the publisher say somewhere on the bookcover that this is a re-issued book..Not that I don’t mind books being brought back out, but I think the reader has a right to know this is a book they have already read and may now want to buy again. Even if it has been say 10 or 20 yrs since they read it..

    • Giving the book a new cover might seem misleading in this regard, but when you move the book to a new publisher or publish it yourself you can’t use the old cover. But the copyright date is the key. I always check it.

  10. Helen Brenna says:

    Since I’ll probably never own my backlist, Kathy, I hadn’t even considered this. Interesting.

    My first reaction was, update. But then I started thinking about a suspense book. If you start updating language isn’t the reader going to expect it’s a current book? Cell phones and the Internet changed everything with regard to suspense books. Lots to think about.

  11. Summer says:

    I’m torn about updating books. I read somewhere that Judy Blume was doing that and on the one hand I thought, well, that means young girls will be reading some really great books that maybe they would have just dismissed as old and out of date, but on the other hand, they were books I grew up loving, it feels like a shame to mess with them.

    • I agree, Summer. The setting should be a key element, and time period is part of the setting. S.E. Hinton’s OUTSIDERS hasn’t lost its appeal with young people even though it’s set in, what? 60’s? Maybe because it’s set in the 60’s. Its universality is part of what makes it so good. True of any good book. As Helen said, at first blush you think, of, course, get with the times. But then you think, what would the book lose?

  12. catslady says:

    Since I’m one of the older readers, I say leave it alone. Where do you draw the line on the changes? Usually you know what year the story takes places, so unless you change that too, it should stay true to when the story took place. I would think it could change too many things. But then maybe that’s just me…lol

  13. barbaralongley says:

    If you can, I’d update. You want to attract new readers, right? A whole new audience, and they’re likely to be in the age range your work was originally intended for when you first wrote those books. This is a new beginning with enormous potential for growth. I’m so excited you’re re-releasing your work, Kathleen. A good story is a good story, and those have no expiration date, but your new audience will relate more easily if the language/gadgets match today’s terminology. I read old classics with my students, and I’m constantly having to stop to explain things and words that never existed in their 8 or ten years of life!

    • But what if the age range is “adult”? I absolutely want to attract new readers, but as catslady says–and this is something I keep coming back to in my own mind–where do you draw the line? I’m wondering whether seeing a story in its original context isn’t part of the experience readers enjoy?

      Language is a quandry. Right now I’m working on a hero and heroine who are younger than my youngest kid. I want them to sound like young people, but I choose not to use much “hip” slang, because so much of that is here today, gone tomorrow. I try to use an expression or two, but I’ll be more generous with slang that’s been around long enough for usage to become fairly general. I want to make new friends but keep the old. Does that make sense?

  14. Jody Vitek says:

    I’d leave it. It makes me think about how they’re changing classics because it’s not politically correct to use the language and/or slang. If Judy Blume were to change Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, I’d be mad. I loved that book as a tween and bought it for my daughter and neice. My neice read it over and over, she liked it that much.
    Great discussion and a lot to ponder.

  15. TrishJ says:

    This is a hard one. some of the older books are like comfort foods– I will re-read my favorite books over and over depending on my mood. But on the other hand, younger readers may not “get it’. Glad I don’t have to make that decision. congrats on the new book — just in time for my birthday.

    • I’m like that, too, TrishJ, and when I wrote this post, comfort food came to mind. The books I re-read are timeless even thought they are of their time.

      I have a birthday coming up, too. I’m hinting for a Kindle, but if they don’t take the hint, I’ll treat myself. We can do that, can’t we?

  16. chey says:

    Congrats on your latest release!
    If it’s a contemporary, I’d say update it if no year is mentioned. If it seems outdated, I think less people will recommend it to others.

  17. Stephenia says:

    my first instinct is to say leave it as is, we all know the book is from an earlier time, I even get a kick out of watching old Charlie’s Angels shows and they use these GIANT portable phones that were so “it” at the time. My next thought is that if you’re trying to reach new readers, then updating would seem to be in order. Then I had another random thought that if I was purchasing the book and found it really modified from what I’d remembered I might be disappointed. So I’m firmly on the fence, lol.

  18. MaryC says:

    I’ve read re-releases that have been updated and those that haven’t. My feeling is, if it requires major updating, I would rather the author spend time writing a new book. As authors release their backlists, I have found that it is usually stated in the information provided about the book.

  19. kris says:

    Congrats on the release! I’m happy for the authors who get another chance to share the magic of their books! i don’t mind re-releases and sometimes the updating isn’t at all necessary. but, there are some times where the description of characters is so out of date that it’s a turn-off. i guess it just depends on the story and the time frame (there are just some fashions, hair trends, etc. that I do not want to be reminded of!!!).

  20. Amy Hahn says:

    Here is my question…can you list an original release date when you re-release to digital? I’ve been reading on my Nook, and there are books i’ve glanced at that are listed as being released over the summer, but the references are enough to let me know it is a few years old. I can tell when it says the publisher is the author that this is a story that has probably been around for awhile.
    I’d love the 80’s references…some things never change, esp the feelings in a romantic love story. But as a reader…if i download something, i’d like to know if a story has been around the block a few times. Just my two cents!

    • Amy, I haven’t read anything on an e-reader yet, but the copyright date has to be there somewhere. Even if it’s old enough to have the copyright renewed or the copyright ran out and it went pulic domain, I think the original date has to be there. But is the c date listed on the site where you purchase? Good question. Now you’re sending me to check.

  21. AMY MAKES AN EXCELLENT POINT. I checked my own THE NIGHT REMEMBERS on Amazon. It was originally published in 1997, but the publisher didn’t put out the e-book until 2007, which is the only date listed on the Amazon e-book listing. Surely the original date is listed along with the print history on the copyright page in the e-book. I hope.

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