A Book Is Never Really Done

17 October 2013

From The New America Foundation

When I started writing my first book in 2003, I’d been blogging for more than three years. I’d learned the value of a conversation with my readers. Most importantly, I’d absorbed the obvious truth that they knew more than I did. So, with the permission of my publisher, I posted chapter drafts of We the Media on my blog. The result was a variety of comments and suggestions, some small and some major, that in the end helped me produce a much better book.

That experiment was an early stab at bringing the Internet’s widely collaborative potential to a process that had always been collaborative in its own way: authors working with editors. The notion of adding the audience to the process was, and remains, deeply appealing.

Why so? It wasn’t only the fantastic prepublication feedback that appealed to me. It was also the potential for thinking about a book as something that might evolve.

* * *

The most famous Internet collaboration is the one almost everyone uses, at least as a reader: Wikipedia. Editing isn’t terribly difficult, though not nearly simple enough for true newbies. Even if it were, Wikipedia isn’t a book with an author’s voice—and isn’t meant to be. Yet it shows many of the ways forward, including the robust discussions in the background of the articles. Wikipedia articles are also living documents, changing and evolving over time. Could books be like that?

* * *

The book world has already gone through major shifts in recent years, even if the biggest traditional publishers have tried to hold back the tide. We’re still early in this transition, perhaps the third inning if it’s a baseball game. When books can truly become living documents, it won’t be game over—it never is—but we’ll be in a much more interesting, and valuable, publishing ecosystem.

See the rest here.


Books in General, Ebook/Ereader Growth, Ebook/Ereader Technical, Ebooks, Enhanced Ebooks, Kindle, Manuscript Problems, Self-Publishing, Writing Tools , , ,

13 Comments to “A Book Is Never Really Done”

  1. Yuck. I have to confess i am a luddite in this way: as a reader, i want the book to be the same every time i read it, even when i don’t like what it says.

    As a writer i don’t consider what i create to be a collaboratio , not in any way. Maybe this is because i don’t work with an editor and only run plot points past friends rarely. But it’s my idea, my execution, my aesthetic…not shared. And while doing a crowdsourced book might be fun as a publicity stunt or experiment, in general my stories are just that – mine. Like them or not, as a reader, but you get no say in what they are.

  2. Yes, the buck stops here. Though I wish I could post chapters somewhere for proof readers. :)

    An aside: Is it my imagination or are we getting more and more writers talking about their writing experiences as if they were in some way unique and of huge interest to other writers?

  3. Randall forgot to blockquote. :D

  4. And the moral of the story is: don’t buy books from the author of the above post, because they’re not finished.

  5. I think you all are a little stuck in the old workflow. How many of your books were perfect the first time you put them up for public consumption? I mean perfect. No typos, no formatting issues, nothing.

    Yeah, I thought so. We’re still making changes to books that are hundreds of years old. Changes shouldn’t be made willy-nilly, but they shouldn’t be costly either.

    • I didn’t take this article to be about format but content. Big difference :)

      • Really? What is the difference? Not being sarcastic and I know the definitions. Believing that a story is frozen at the point of publication is an artifact of the the print age. Homer, the author of Luke/Acts, and Shakespeare all managed just fine making extensive edits after their stories first came to public attention. They wrote narratives that are considered exemplars of their forms.

        • I am content to be a luddite. I expect a story not to change when it is written. Stasis and preservation is somewhat the point of written work; its why the iliad was written down in the first place instead or remaining entirely performed. I am fine with different editions if the writer finds something to change. What i am not fine with is the claim that it’s the same book. This is the ex-library worker in me, i suppose. But i have a personal example that makes me genuinely uncomfortable. One of the first romance novels i read was whitney my love. It has some questionably abusive scenes (he spanks her and there is a pretty rapey sex scene). The book was updated a few years ago to remove those scenes. Fine, if you as the author/publisher want tk whitewash the original for modern audiences – a lot of the early 1980s romances are dated in those ways. Now, suppose i wanted to revisit that story for…any reason. Maybe to figure out why i have an obsession with being spanked, or a revulsion to it when it’s my partner’s fetish. Maybe i want to write an essay about rape in romance. Maybe i just want to reread an old favorite. The book i read? IS GONE. If i didnt know it had been revised maybe i would have thought i made those parts up. Obviously, physical copies of the original are still floating. But not if it had been an ebook. The text i read the first time would be permanently gone, erased as if it never was. Obviously my example is frivolous. A “living text” of historical documents wouldn’t be. Read about trials where the defendenf’s story changes between initial arrest and trial. Now pretend that’s a self-published memoir like the diary of anne frank (in this conjecture she lived) Does it get more extreme (even than it already is) as she gets older and learns more of what was happening around her pocket of ignorance? Can it be trusted with each subsequent iteration as an historical document or does at some point it veer into fiction? If you want to argue that digital is a new form and the new form is ever-changing, fine, but in that case it’s not a book anymore. It’s a new style of performance art.

          One final note, simply from an artistic point of view: one of my favorite perspectives is that “a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.” at some point as a writer you have to stop tinkering and let a story go. Why go back to it after you have detached and moved to a new project? Especially because of the reaction of readers? If they don’t like it, fuckem. If you need that kind of validation in your art then you have no vision; if you are that commercial then why not just write for hire since clearly you have no vested commitment to telling YOUR story.

        • I have given this point some thought. I read not long ago a piece written by the famous Irish storyteller Seumas MacManus in which he lamented the death of the “living story”. (This was published back in 1963.) He believed that a printed story could never equal the benefits of the told story, the living story.

          Decades later, is the digital revolution makeing possible a resurgence of a type of living, told story? I don’t see why we can’t have both side by side.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Page optimized by WP Minify WordPress Plugin