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…
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!Pin It