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October 20, 2016

Should Published Stories Be Set in Stone?

Letters carved into stone with text: Should Books Be Set in Stone?

Several years ago, I wrote a post questioning whether ebooks were ever “done.” As I’d pointed out in that post, in the world of traditional publishing, if errors make it through the editing process for a book, authors (and their readers) are stuck. While a lucky few authors are able to correct egregious mistakes like wrong character names or missing paragraphs in later print runs, most of the time, errors remain in the text forever.

Contrast that situation with epublishing and self-published authors. Ebook and Print-on-Demand (POD) files are easier to fix and upload than the hard-formatted versions used in traditional printing. And authors who self-publish can ensure fixes are made.

So in my old post, I’d questioned whether this ability to change an ebook or POD file was a good thing. Now that I’m published and self-publishing has matured, I’d like to take another look at the question… *smile*

Does the Ability to Update Make Us More Sloppy?

My first thought in that old post was that the ability to easily update our stories was a bad thing. Too many times, if we think something is temporary, we won’t be as conscientious.  I don’t know about anyone else, but my handwriting is neater when I know I can’t get a “re-do.”  *smile*

Similarly, I think most readers want authors to treat their ebook files as a permanent, final version, at least enough that we can trust they did their utmost to ensure a book is free from errors.

Yet I’ve seen self-published authors confess to skipping editors in responses to reviewers because they figured their readers would point out their mistakes. Luckily, that level of reader disrespect accounts for a minority of the many hard-working indie authors out there now.

Just as likely among writers I know would be a perfectionist author, constantly wanting to tweak their books because they’re unable to let them go. Neither approach is healthy.

Or Does Art Require Flexibility?

Before I wrote my original post, I wanted to think of ebooks as being as permanent and unchanging as paper books. But then, as I mentioned in that post, an article made me question my attitude.

The article was about an opera of all things, but it pointed out that most art forms are malleable.

Orchestras today have standards for what an A note is (440 cycles per second, apparently), but back when many classical songs were composed, there was no standard. In fact, musicians often tuned their instruments “up” to sound more “brilliant.” As a result, what we think of as an A note has changed over the centuries, and the classical songs we know don’t necessarily sound as they were intended.

The article then points out that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been trimmed down over the years and that there are three very different versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. How did we decide which one was the real masterpiece?

In other words, the article raised the question for me of whether art is ever “done” or “unchangeable.” I’d always preferred feeling like the book I held was the final version, but perhaps that was just my perfectionist nature speaking. *smile*

As we’ve gotten used to the flexibility of self-publishing, epublishing, ebooks, and POD, many don’t seem concerned about changes to books. As long as the author doesn’t release sloppy crap—expecting readers to help them clean up the issues—most readers accept that final, permanent versions don’t exist anymore.

EPublishing Offers New Opportunities

As I anticipated in that post, as more readers transition to ereading, we’ve seen changes in our culture’s attitudes toward the nature of books.

No one bats an eye when self-published authors update…:

  • Book Cover: Some authors update covers as they can afford better cover artists, some update to reflect better marketing, and some update just to keep attention on their work.
  • Book Description: Where a book description used to be permanently printed on the back of a book, authors now regularly tweak their descriptions on online retail sites to gain keyword or marketing advantages.
  • Front & Back Matter: Many authors update the ebook files of their backlist books to list all their current releases or to advertise that their newsletter subscribers now get a freebie for signing up, etc.
  • Price: Prices used to be printed on books, but the epublishing world of ebooks and POD allow for quick pricing changes to reflect sales and promotions.

(Some authors have even updated their book’s title, but that can cause problems for retailer sites and readers, so authors need to be careful going that route.)

So that’s a much bigger list than it used to be, but it still doesn’t address the potential attitudes when changing the story. What issues might we run into when we update that content?

Can We Update the Story?

I’ve seen several authors update their book descriptions to talk about how they had their story edited since some of their book’s reviews were left. In fact, I’ve picked up a couple of those better-edited books. *smile*

Does that mean we can update our story too?

Again, the maturity of epublishing and my own publishing journey have changed my thoughts over the years. Before, my focus would have been on the old readers, who might get left out in the cold with sub-par versions. Now, in my mind as a reader, it comes down to reader respect.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples…

Improved Editing:

An author updating their work for stronger edits might piss off old readers, but they’re also being respectful of new readers. If they think an update would benefit more people than hurt, I’m not sure I’d argue with them. An improved book for 1000 readers might be more important than leaving a bad book out there to be read by 100.

Even better, if they offer free updates to anyone who had purchased the book before (through retailers if possible, or at least through their website), I’d respect that they’re trying to do the right thing now.

They’re taking responsibility for their screw-up. They know they deserve those early bad reviews and that they didn’t put out a product worthy of their readers, and now they’re trying to fix it.

(Obviously, I’d still encourage authors to try to do it right the first time, but sometimes new authors don’t recognize that their editor is bad until they have more experience—and receive reviews setting them straight. *smile*)

Tweaks to Fix Small Issues or Formatting

Reviews occasionally call authors out on mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes aren’t actually mistakes (either because the oddity was intentional or because the reviewer is wrong), but sometimes the reviewer is right.

A book’s formatting can get garbled despite the author’s best efforts, typos can make it through multiple editing rounds, dialogue might be accidentally misleading, a character’s job might be portrayed incorrectly (a nurse doing something medically dangerous), or a diversity element might be worded insensitively, etc. These tweaks might be minor compared to major editing issues, but even small inaccuracies can be harmful or offensive, or simply make our story less enjoyable to readers.

In this case, I have no problem with the author making the update. From a perspective of reader respect, it could be considered disrespectful to leave the issue in place, and most readers with the old version will probably never realize the difference.

Changing the Storytelling

I’ve also seen book descriptions that reveal the story itself has changed. One book description gave a disclaimer along the lines of:

“Note that since this book was published, the story has been expanded from a short story to a novella length and the ending has changed.”

To that, I say: Now wait just a minute…

Is it still being sold under the same title and retailer IDs (like Amazon’s ASIN) to keep the old reviews and sales rank? If so, think about this from a reader perspective. If the story itself has changed, readers have no way of knowing what aspects of previous reviews still apply.

  • Does it still have a happy/sad/cliffhanger ending?
  • Is the plot twist still unbelievable?
  • Do the characters still do “too stupid to live” things?

Readers don’t know. So all of the previous reviews are now invalidated.

In other words, an author who wants to update a story to the extent that the actual story itself changes (plot events, character arcs, endings, etc.) should just publish the new version separately. If they dislike the old version, they could unpublish it, or at the very least, direct readers to the new (and maybe improved) version.

The point of updating a book’s file is to not start over with reviews, sales rankings, etc. But if those won’t help readers make purchasing decisions on the new version, it seems disrespectful (to me) to act like the new file can just slide into place.

In other words, readers purchase a story, and it’s disrespectful to change that story in a way that misleads readers or pretends that only character names or the premise matters. A hundred authors could write the same premise and all the stories would be different. The story matters.

So as we’re considering whether we want to make changes to our ebook or POD files, we should keep readers in mind. Will the changes we want to make help or hurt readers? If we can answer that question, we might know better how to approach the changing expectations of books and our art. *smile*

Do you have problems with authors updating non-story material in their files? If so, why? What do you think about authors changing the story? Do you disagree with any of my examples or conclusions? Have you updated your ebook or POD files, and if so, how?

P.S. Don’t forget that I’m taking guest post proposals to help me out during NaNoWriMo. Check out the details here!

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30 Comments on "Should Published Stories Be Set in Stone?"

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Christina Hawthorne

There have always been “revised editions” where errors were corrected, new covers slapped on, and sometimes a foreword added. What we have now is all that in fast forward. On the other hand, substantial alterations would, as in the movie world, constitute a remake (I get that the legal issues are a bit different). In other words, alterations produce a different written product. If someone wants to spin chaos they do so at great risk. Can you imagine the conversation?

“Well, the version I read sucked. Be careful which one you read.”

“There’s more than one?”

“Oh yeah. Several.”

“Shoot, I can’t be bothered with that. I want a book that matches the reviews.”

Cobalt-Blue

I originally began posting in serial form on fictionpress.com. One of the things that I’ve noticed about how moving to publishing on Amazon has changed in my writing is that what I put out, as a novel, I now consider set in stone. I now FINISH a story before I publish it, and consider that sets part of that universe in stone. This has led me to starting a Crisis on Infinite Earth sort of story for Nanowrimo this year that will merge all those universes into one.

Stephanie

Your post raises some interesting questions for me. My epic fantasy series begins with a novelette that I wrote, edited, and formatted in 8 hours as part of a challenge. I have full intentions of expanding that into a novella or even a novel at some point in the future. So your discussion of making changes to the story is useful for me. 🙂

On another note, I’ve run into the issue of an author changing the titles before, and to be honest, I wasn’t able to figure out which books I had read and which I hadn’t, so I’ve never gone back to that series. 🙁

Anne R. Allen

This is an important question. I have one book that has been through four publishers. Each one edited it, so each version is a little different. The covers are different and there are no huge changes, but the 3rd and 4th editions have a different opening chapter. I think this does confuse some readers.

But it needed to be done when the book became part of a series.

There is a foreword to the newer editions that explains why the editions are different, but I do realize not everybody reads those.

But as far as changing character names or changing the story, I think that’s a bad idea. I think if you want to do that, it might be time to write a new book. Hey the more books, the better!

Michael Carter

I think any misleading of readers should not be encouraged, but I doubt that is the intention of most authors. Would it not be more misleading to change a story, but it be essentially the same, and to release it as a different title? Readers don’t own the author’s creativity, they only own the particular product they have purchased. They must expect that product to evolve in the same way it does in the music world–many artists play songs differently to their original recordings and it causes excitement rather than dismay. Great post, though, Jami. I wasn’t aware of this issue. x

Kathleen
Kathleen
Hi, Jami! I’ve never even considered this before. Now, I do read a lot of ebooks and have come across plenty in need of a thorough editing, but I usually still read the book unless I am not enjoying the story or characters at all. Unless I loved, loved, loved the book, if the author came out with a re-edited version, I won’t reread it. Then again, I rarely reread any book since I have too many to go through as it is! The only time it bothers me that someone did a bad job editing, assuming they did any, is when there are numerous times that they use the wrong words or things don’t make sense and I have to sit there and figure out what they meant. Punctuation and minor grammar issues I can deal with as I know this person likely spent a lot of time on the story. I can support that to a point since I also hope to one day put out a few ebooks of my own. But, major edits like story changes, POV changes, makes for a new book in my eyes. With all that said, I DO prefer when an ebook has little to no need of editing. As someone with a passion for writing, I read craft books and I follow writing blogs to learn. I find it hard to imagine that many of these people submitting their work with so many errors have not done the same or come… Read more »
Anne
Anne

Hi Jami!

I’m the one in my group of friends most often called “the Grammar Nazi”, for my complaints of obvious mistakes in ebooks. I used to get the BookBub newsletter, which pointed me to a wonderful mix of free to mostly-free ebooks. I found they crossed a wide range of publication-fitness, before I stopped grabbing a book just because it was FREE! *grin*

Oddly enough, my ebook pet-peeve is usually caused by the publishing houses who are accustomed to printed books. You know those pretty little swirls which separates two scenes which aren’t a chapter break? They’re graphics, at least in some cases. But, the publishers maybe forgot that (some) ebook readers permit the user to choose reading colors (mine: dark with red-orange text) — and those graphics don’t convert. Instead, they remain a bright WHITE square/rectangle with a squiggle in it. Painful, when reading in the dark!

Despite this annoying pet-peeve, I do wish more publishers (of all sizes) used an actual symbol, or a line rule, to separate scenes, so e-reader-translation problems don’t ‘lose’ the scene breaks. (I use FBReader on my Android phone. Maybe I need to be on a proprietary reader to have “clean” books?)

Anne.

Kassandra Lamb

About 3 years ago, I went back and revised the first four books in my first series. Mainly, my goal was to correct some newbie writer mistakes, and I also added more deep POV. But I was careful not to change the story nor the characters’ personalities. Once I had learned more about the writing craft, I felt an obligation to readers to make some things right that I now knew were wrong.

The story, in each case, ended up being stronger, and the characters richer. I was well pleased. And the only reviews that no longer truly applied were some of the negative ones. They were soon overwhelmed by more positive ones. 🙂

But I agree, if you change the actual story, it should be re-published as a new book.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

I’ve even gone back and corrected a minor spelling error.
There is a saying that a book is never finished; the writer just stops working on it.
At some point, ideally if you get a few comments which are reasonable corrections and those are made, you stop thinking of the book as a work in progress. You should be halfway through the next book, and you need to give it all your focus.
A writer finds it very hard to spot minor errors because her brain knows what should be on the page, as opposed to what is. So she either needs to leave the book down for a few months or she needs to get another pair of eyes to help.
One author I know, Daniel Pembrey, gave his e-dress at the back of a Kindle book and invited readers spotting errors of spelling or fact to contact him. I pointed out something very minor and he was delighted to be told.
When we can make these corrections on the instant, yes we should. Changing the work in a major way requires upfront information for the purchaser.

Laurie Evans

I’ve changed back matter. I’d like to slightly change the ending of the first book in my series, but was convinced not to. Now it’s in print. I just need to move on, I guess!

Ashley
Ashley

Cover art has always changed over time, even in print books. My husband and I were at Barnes & Noble yesterday and were so wowed by the gorgeous new paperbacks of Harry Potter that we lamented we had no reason for a new set…

But story changes have always happened, too. I remember reading about “classic” authors changing things in subsequent editions (wish I could remember which).

James Pailly

I don’t see a problem with fixing minor mistakes after a book is published. Anything beyond that sounds like a stretch to me.

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Sparksofember
Sparksofember

There is an extremely well-known and established author whom I grew up reading. The publisher released some of her most famous works, originally published in the 80s, as new editions. I was flabbergasted to discover several of my favorite scenes had been rewritten, beloved lines completely gone. These were lines I literally had memorized, as I reread those books so often when I was a teen.

I was eventually able to find an original copy and do a line-by-line comparison and I realized what had happened was those books were originally written with mixed POV. POV rules must have been less rigid back then. Those scenes had all been from the main character’s POV but my favorite lines had been elements from her love interest’s pov, giving his motivations for his actions. So in cleaning up the POV, the author had inadvertently removed the parts that made me squee.

I can understand wanting to update the writing style of the books for the current generation but it made me sad, too. Oh well.

Nirupam Banerjee

This is an extremely important TOPIC you’ve written an Article on. I often thought about it in the light of this Digital Era. The ‘other’ items off the central topic — Cover Design, Interior Design, Book Description (the so called Blurb), the general Front & Back matters, Price, etc — are no problem potentially. But the STORY-ITSELF-UPDATING? That’s the significant question raised in this well presented Article.

Good to know about Leonardo da Vinchi’s various versions of that famous Art work and about Shakespeare’s variations of the same work. But still doubts linger to me — as to the “Story itself updating” being a good thing in the Publishing world.

Maybe this is good only in case of the already famous Artists/Writers. But not for a Newcomer in the publishing world (even E-publishing world).

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