Version control, sort of

Aaron asked, in the previous thread:

A bit off topic, but you don’t have a general “contact the author” web submission page and this may be better suited for your LJ:

Actually, before I get to the question, let me quickly say this: If you have a question that I think I can answer, you can leave it in a comment thread, or you can email me at Michelle.Sagara@sff.net. Actually, even if I can’t answer it, you can do either, but it’s less productive.

I won’t answer questions about future developments unless the question is really, really general (e.g. Will there be more about dragons? (Yes)), because some readers are very spoiler-averse. I’m personally not one of them, but I try to respect that reading choice (and it drives my husband crazy when I flip to the end of a book I didn’t naturally arrive at by reading through all the intervening pages).

This is subject to the fact that I am terminally underorganized, and frequently behind (I’m actually almost caught up. My inbox is only at 348). There is a lovely, funny post at Hyperbole and a half, titled “this is why I’ll never be an adult which caused me to cringe in instant self-recognition.

Speaking of which: the page proofs for Cast in Ruin have gone back to Luna. There is now nothing else I have to do to make this a book, except wait. I am, on the other hand, doing final (editorial) revisions on Skirmish. Or will be, once I’ve finished this post.

And now: less PSA, and more answer. The actual question:

How do you feel about self-published authors or established publishers being able to retroactively copyedit e-books and release ‘new and improved’ versions of their texts? Do all future copyedits have to go through you (the author) for approval? Do you think that there is potential for abuse if people fundamentally change the structure? Would you go back and change minor details (e.g. eye color)?

I had to think about this one for a bit.

Henry James revised all of his novels at one point later in his career, and this was well before the time that such a production would have been effortless on his part, or the part of his publishers, who were still stuck with moving little slugs around in order to actually print.

Stephen King revised the The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger before he finished the series. He added 500 pages or thereabouts to The Stand. There are other authors who have gone back to do ‘authoritative’ editions of earlier works. The difference is, it’s not easy compared to revising and resubmitting an ebook.

Publishers have always had a method for tracking errors in printed books, if they’re aware of them; if a book goes back to press (i.e. they print more), they can fix typos while they’re at it, and this isn’t announced. On the other hand, I’m not sure how many publishers still do this. Publishing has become very lean, and I imagine production departments are pushed to exhaustion merely getting the new books to press.

A major print revision would, of course, require complete resetting of every page, and it’s therefore not done often; when it is, it’s for authors whose audience is naturally large enough to include readers who would want or insist on owning a book that is very similar to the one they already own by the same author.

So, it would depend. To a lesser extent, revisions to text were done before ebooks. Fixing formatting errors in ebooks, rife because of the lack of standardization in the process, seems like it would be a godsend, frankly.

A major revision done by a self-published author also doesn’t seem an abuse of privilege, to me, in the sense that s/he is altering his/her own work. I would love to change about four small things, myself, because, you know, making mistakes of that nature in my own books is really, really stressful, guilt-inducing and embarrassing. In public.

I would have serious, serious qualms about a publisher randomly revising my text – but I cannot honestly bring myself to worry about this on the print side of the equation at least; the publisher’s production departments are hugely overworked, and they’re unlikely to try their hand at secretive editing in the middle of their day. In the extremely unlikely event a publisher should somehow decide to hire a copy-editor for a manuscript that has already been printed and published, I doubt anyone would think to ask me first.

But I honestly cannot see this ever happening.

I do know that BenBella did work on the Sundered books after their first release, to clean up the text and the formatting. At the time, I had no e-reader, and I haven’t actually seen either the formatting/typo ridden versions or their improvements. I have no issues whatsoever with the clean-up; I think there might have been ulcers had I seen the first release.

However having said that, there were readers who were deeply upset at King’s revision of his own book. I understand why. As a reader, I form emotional attachments to the books I read and loved years ago. I will return to them. I love them now.

As a writer I understand the desire to change finished books, I really do. I feel that I’m a better writer than I was when I started out in 1991. (In 1986, to be fair, but the book wasn’t published until 1991). There are sentences, paragraphs and whole scenes that I would like to nuke down to zero and totally rewrite. There are plot threads I would like to flesh out, and plot threads I feel are enormously clunky. I’m allowed to feel that way. I am not the same person as I was in 1986. Or 1991. Or even 1996.

But what I feel about my own writing and what readers feel about it are not the same. I have whole days during the writing of any one of my novels in which I feel like an abject, talentless failure. I conversely have days where I desperately want to be able to immediately send all my readers the scene or scenes I’ve just finished because I feel so certain they will love them. Both extremes are part of the process of writing a novel–at least for me.

What I hope for, at the end of any novel, is that the finished book will speak to my readers; that it will move them, that it will mean something.

But some of the books I would rewrite, revise or alter have already done that. They’ve moved readers. It’s why I still have any of them (readers, I mean). And if I go back and change those early books wholesale, I’m destroying some part of the experience of those readers. I’m effectively saying they’re wrong to love the work, or that they had no taste because the books were so bad they need to be obliterated and totally redone.

I love early books by some authors with an abiding and unreasonable devotion–but I’m aware that their authors, decades later, do not feel any of that same love. At all. Ever. And if one of those authors were to take the books that spoke so strongly to me and demolish them in the service of improving the words, I would feel it to be a tragedy.

So. I do not feel that an author revising their own work is abuse, per se. It’s certainly not illegal. But I still feel that if you wrote the best book you could at the time, it’s better to find the best books you can write Right Now than it is to revisit and change the older works.

The only case in which I feel this would not be true is if you personally feel that you butchered the book because your publisher insisted that it had to be cut by 75k works. In that case, though, I think it would be better if you published a second edition – a clear, distinct “author’s preferred” edition.

I’m not sure if that answers the question, because I’m not entirely certain what you mean by abuse. If it doesn’t, and you elaborate, I’ll do likewise.

In the meantime, how does everyone else feel about the idea?

20 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ann Kopchik
    Jun 09, 2011 @ 02:59:49

    >> (and it drives my husband crazy when I flip to the end of a book I didn’t naturally arrive at by reading through all the intervening pages)

    I do this, and it drives some of my friends bonkers. But it’s the journey, not the destination… Besides, I’m a compulsive re-reader. I’ve read the end of multi-book series when only on book two. That usually causes gasps of horror…

    On version control:

    I don’t mind that authors improve their writing over time. I hope and partially expect that the next book is better written than the last. But I do think I would mind if whole swaths of an e-book changed out from under me.

    However, typo fixes? Sure. Little inconsistencies, like eye color or the wrong name? Sure. Deleting a chapter and inserting a completely new one? uh… no. For one… how would I know? What if I read the book, then re-read it a year later and in between, the author majorly revised it? Do those updates automatically go to my ereader?

    I’d be okay if it was episodic fiction that was reworked into a novel (like how Brandon Sanderson did Warbreaker), but an entire novel that’s been published once? I’d rather the author put out a new version and pay again for the “director’s cut” or whatever than discover the novel had been retroactively and significantly changed.

    Even the writer in my balks at that, though, goodness knows I understand the drive and the need to revise. Especially at the moment.

    Reply

    • Michelle Sagara
      Jun 09, 2011 @ 03:06:23

      Even the writer in my balks at that, though, goodness knows I understand the drive and the need to revise. Especially at the moment.

      I never understood it so clearly as when I was trying to put up Chapter Ones of my backlist on this web-site. Then? I understood it completely. Because the chapters are in electronic format. They’re being formatted on the same computer on which I write. I compulsively change small words when I’m re-reading my books before they go out to the publisher — and a sure sign that I have done too much page proofing for the day is when I start to do the same thing on the printed page. It’s the drive to do something. It’s not substantive, and tomorrow, I’d probably fiddle the words in the other direction – but but but…

      It drove me insane not to be able to do the same for, say, Hunter’s Oath once I opened the electronic version of Chapter One. I wanted to drop and rearrange paragraphs. I wanted to smooth out the opening so that it flowed better. And because it was electronic text – that was the natural impulse. I can’t actually scribble on a printed page and expect it to make a difference to anyone but me.

      I was mostly good.

      Reply

  2. Genna Warner
    Jun 09, 2011 @ 12:45:35

    >> (and it drives my husband crazy when I flip to the end of a book I didn’t naturally arrive at by reading through all the intervening pages)

    I can honestly say that I have done this for one book and one series. The series being The Sundered where I was in the middle of the second book and so engaged in Erin and Stefanos relationship I just had to know they were together at the end because if they weren’t well I wasn’t going to finish the story, :) I did a lot of crying through that series.

    As for the a readers perspective on version/re-versioning a book already printed:

    If i read the original story, and it was engaging enough, I would be curious enough to want know what the author changed that I would want to re-read it. But I am also the type that like to watch the deleted scenes and alternate endings to movies and all the associated directors cuts. I realize that writing is an art and as such I can enjoy the different aspects of the works. But I would not want the original book touched so if we are talking about an eBook, I would want the original eBook to stay as it is and have to pay for the new eBook. If the author is just fixing typos and formatting issues then adjusting the original eBook would be best but then there is the logistics of how do you as an author make sure that people get the corrected eBook that have the older one.

    Reply

  3. Emily
    Jun 09, 2011 @ 21:36:24

    I don’t mind, so much, but I like to be able to see both versions. On the other hand, in some cases a major re-edit on the author’s part has moved a book into a more accessible realm for me (Patricia Briggs’ “Masques”, for example – there was no way I could find a copy because it was such a limited run at the very beginning of her career, until she re-did it and re-released it as a best-selling author. I think her fans would have been disappointed to see the novel as it first stood, because from my understanding it was nothing like the polished author she is now).

    I think Briggs’ Masques actually has been the deciding factor for me on this topic – I just want to read a compelling story. I’ll read the first one you wrote, and the rewrite, and probably enjoy both as different stories.

    Reply

  4. David Youngs
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 02:42:14

    I object to books getting changed significantly between editions. Terry Pratchett’s The Last Hero had art added for the paperback edition. Then there was the reissue of Stranger in a Strange Land with an extra 30,000 words you didn’t realize were missing from the original.
    I have no objections to correcting typos/misspellings/lapses of thought. I enjoy errata slips (for “pheasant” read “peasant” throughout).

    Reply

  5. Jennifer
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 03:13:54

    >>(and it drives my husband crazy when I flip to the end of a book I didn’t naturally arrive at by reading through all the intervening pages)

    Add me to the list of wives who’s husband can’t understand them reading the end first. Though mine at least tolerates and is somewhat amused that I do it. I try it with the Cast books, but often, the end just doesn’t make sense without the context of the rest of the story!

    I too have no objections to typo/spelling corrections and that sort of thing. Adding back in scenes that might have been caught due to length worries wouldn’t bother me either.

    Edits that would change the essense of a character or a plot might bother me. I guess it would depend on how happy/attached I was with the thing that was changed!

    Reply

  6. Joey
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 17:35:02

    I don’t flip to the end. It’s a journey and if the author wanted the ending known beforehand s/he would tell us before the end of the book/series/whatever.

    On the subject of rereading: I do it, but most of the time I can only read a book “for the first time” once and for me there is a special pleasure in all the discovery that comes from the first time that is never the same in a reread, so I’m usually not one to rush through a book to get to the end and then reread it right away.

    >> But I still feel that if you wrote the best book you could at the time, it’s better to find the best books you can write Right Now than it is to revisit and change the older works. <<

    As a reader I totally agree with this. Fix the typos for sure, but otherwise … move on.

    Lastly, when the Author has "time" it would be nice to have the "Upcoming Appearances" section updated.

    Reply

  7. robcharron
    Jun 10, 2011 @ 21:40:53

    Hi Michelle :)

    Thank you for the very interesting post.

    Reply

  8. Michelle Sagara
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 04:58:40

    Joey said: Lastly, when the Author has “time” it would be nice to have the “Upcoming Appearances” section updated.

    Because you asked: I have updated the Upcoming Appearances section to better reflect the fact that I am not being a hermit this year. Or rather, not being as much of a hermit as I sometimes am.

    Reply

  9. Aaron
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 10:26:51

    I’m considering attending a ‘con this year, especially now that I don’t have school or work deadlines hounding me. I gather that the smaller ‘cons are more intimate and you have a better chance of connecting with a particular favorite author or two. Even so, it’s hard to try to plan for a weekend or more if you don’t know more about their schedules…

    Are you presenting at any focus groups during this year’s sequence of events?

    Reply

    • Joey
      Jun 15, 2011 @ 13:34:44

      Aaron, if you plan to attend this year’s Worldcon in Reno, I’d be willing to (help) coordinate a “Michelle Sagara West” gathering/meet-up or two, either as part of the formal con schedule or not.

      Assuming, of course, The Author is willing to participate.

      Reply

  10. Michelle Sagara
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 17:59:53

    Even so, it’s hard to try to plan for a weekend or more if you don’t know more about their schedules…

    Are you presenting at any focus groups during this year’s sequence of events?

    Science Fiction conventions aren’t really very formal in structure compared to, say, a physics symposium. They’re entirely volunteer-run, even the largest. (I’ve never been to a comic con, so anything I say here really only reflects my personal experience).

    Panels are (generally) composed of random authors, between three and five (usually five, but it depends on how large the convention is). They have a general topic, say: Making It as a Full-Time Writer. They’ll list the panelists for that topic. Panels are generally one hour long, and there are usually at least two tracks. We’ll have a general idea of what we start out saying, but panels frequently go off the rails, depending on the moderator and the audience itself.

    Outside of panels, there will often (but not always) be readings, signings, and sometimes kaffeeklatches (which are structured smaller groups of people who go to have coffee with an author for an hour; those usually involve sign-up sheets at the start of the convention).

    But. I have two panels in the tentative Worldcon schedule which just arrived in email. The only reason I have those is because a Worldcon is a logistic nightmare for the people in charge of programming; you need to find something for 400-800 people to *do*, and you need to make certain that they’re not in overlapping events, and that they don’t have conflicts you (the planner) didn’t know about. So a rough draft is done of the authors they *know* are attending, it’s sent out for approval, and it’ll change by July, which is when it’s pretty much final.

    For small conventions, you’ll get your final schedule a week before the convention (sometimes two); with some, you will get your final schedule when you show up at registration.

    I am not on panelling at World Fantasy. It’s an enormously pro-heavy convention, pros are allowed one panel/reading (if there’s space for a reading) each, unless they’re the GOHs. Knowing this, I don’t even try (I mean, Neil Gaiman, Connie Willis (!) as headliners, but even some of the attendees are fabulous). World Fantasy generally has *one* mass signing on Friday evenings in a large ballroom; you pick up your name tag and find a place to sit.

    I will be on panelling at the Worldcon, but as of now, I’m not sure which panels, how many, or when for certain, and won’t know for certain until July.

    I will also not know what my Confluence schedule is like until closer to the end of July, and might well get the final Worldcon and final Confluence schedule at the same time.

    But there’s a lot of hall-time at conventions – where hall-time is exactly what it sounds like; I find a chair and chat with people (sometimes after-panel discussions spill out into the hall and take root).

    Reply

  11. Michael
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 11:51:09

    Game conventions are a very different feel. While there are many volunteers, there are also staff employed by the convention. The focus there is on the dealer room, where game designers of all stripes and levels try to convince people to try their games. There are also games of all types happening at all hours all over the place.

    When my wife and I started going to literary conventions (like Balticon and Confluence) it was quite an adjustment for us. Fun, but very different.

    Confluence is a very small convention (when compared with others I’ve been to), and I find myself at a loss as to what to do when I am not stalking a certain fantasy writer through the convention asking her questions as only a fanboy can and chortling at her lengthy and colorful rants. It was the hall time that made this convention one of my favorites, despite dearth of programming relevant to me personally.

    Reply

  12. Auraya
    Jun 16, 2011 @ 18:05:09

    I tend to read the end of a book when it’s becoming a DNF. Not knowing how a book ends keeps bugging me, no matter how bad the book is. Sometimes the ending makes me curious enough to keep reading.

    On a totally different note, I finally got my hands on a (reasonably) priced copy of Riven Shield. It’s used, but at the moment I want to finish Sun Sword so badly I don’t care. Your books are slighly addictive. I knew that about the cast books, but with those I didn’t have a backlist. It’s been only 3 weeks since I started Hidden city and I’m already halfway through the Sun Sword eries. I have the good luck I didn’t have exams, otherwise I would have been in trouble.

    Reply

  13. fyreink
    Jun 19, 2011 @ 22:01:45

    Finished reading the Sundered series and really liked it. I was at the iBookstore on my iPod Touch and it showed that Into the Darklands was on sale for $2.99 and that Lady of Mercy was only 99 cents!!! Is Cast in Ruin also going to be available of the iBookstore like Cast in Chaos?

    Reply

  14. Michelle Sagara
    Jun 19, 2011 @ 22:23:42

    Finished reading the Sundered series and really liked it. I was at the iBookstore on my iPod Touch and it showed that Into the Darklands was on sale for $2.99 and that Lady of Mercy was only 99 cents!!! Is Cast in Ruin also going to be available of the iBookstore like Cast in Chaos?

    a) Thank you! Can I ask you *when* the prices were 2.99 and 0.99 there? I know that Dark Lands was available as part of the Summer promotion on Amazon for the first half of June – and that really pushed them up the charts. Well, pushed that *book* up the charts. So I’m curious about the iBooks pricing and when it occurred. In theory, Amazon has automatic price matching, but I don’t think the Amazon prices ever dropped like that, which would mean there’s a distinct difference.

    b) I honestly don’t know. Initially, Harlequin and Random House books were *not* available in the iTunes store because they weren’t Agency publishers. I was really, really surprised to find that Cast in Chaos was available – but I assume, since it is, they’ll be available in the store going forward. I know that initially Apple told publishers they had to guarantee that their books would not be on sale at lower prices anywhere else. The only way to guarantee that was to become Agency publishers — something Harlequin and Random House refused to do. As Cast is – in Canada – higher in the iBooks store than it is on-line, something must have (quietly) changed.

    However, I can only see the Canadian iBooks store – and it is a travesty of emptiness that echoes the Canadian iTunes store in its early incarnation — but worse. Far worse. The *only* one of my ebooks available to iBooks readers in Canada is… Cast in Chaos.

    Reply

    • fyreink
      Jun 20, 2011 @ 00:08:28

      I believe that Into the Darklands has been on sale for a few weeks now, and the price change for Lady of Mercy is very recent and that it happened in the last couple of days, as yesterday was the first time I saw it. I check often, waiting to see if Cast in Ruin is available for pre-order yet.

      Reply

  15. hjbau
    Jun 30, 2011 @ 22:59:36

    About the initial question. I say fix typos, of course, but i also wouldn’t mind fixing things that are what i would consider minor inconsistencies. Like Jewel has a lamp in the opening of Hunter’s Death and a candle in City of Night. Or Jewel goes in to pull Teller off of his mother and in the other book he comes out to her. These are what i would consider very minor inconsistencies and something that could be fixed with a few words and would not in anyway change the story.

    Reply

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