Total Control! Wait, Is That a Good Thing?

E-publishing is changing everything about the publishing industry, and the trend is only going to continue.  I used to respond to such sweeping changes with abject terror (probably something to do with my deeply-held belief that everything was a sign of the impending apocalypse), but I've grown enough as a person that I can now react to predictions of vast technological changes by appreciating how cool they are instead of feeling an urge to stock canned goods. 

Shit, if the rapture doesn't take me because I haven't been forgiven enough, and civilization collapses, how will I eat?  I must learn to hunt!


I no longer believe any given technological change will spell the collapse of human civilization, but I do still try to keep a critical eye on new developments.  I despise the mindset that all change is good as much as I do the mindset that all change is bad.

All the typical criticisms of e-publishing - bad editing, opening the floodgates, no quality control, no marketing outlet - have been beaten to death elsewhere.  But a new one occurred to me the other day (or at least, it was new to me), and I wanted to share it.

When I first uploaded Alex, I was able to rush it just a bit (read: push myself to do it, do it now) because I knew if there were any glaring issues, I could always upload a new version.  I got feedback from a couple of my beta readers later that day about the final action scene, and their feedback seemed solid, so I made changes to the scene and did just that: re-uploaded with the book with the changes.  It was only a few word tweaks (a gun "coughed" sparks instead of "vomiting" them, etc.) that did nothing to change the actual content of the scene, so I wasn't particularly worried about it.

Later, I updated the Acknowledgements section as well, to include the names of all the people I was thanking instead of just my relationships to them ("thanks mom, thanks wife, thanks kids"), and to add a new one thanking my high school Humanities teachers, Brad Olson and Sue Hein.  Again, not a super big deal.

Now, since the end of November one of my favorite pastimes has become to open the Alex sample in Amazon and just sort of stare it, trying to convince myself that it's real.  This usually involves a little scrolling, a little reading of my favorite parts, a little admiring of the cover shot (when it was still there... grr... that's a story for another post).  In the many times that I've done this, I noticed something that bugged me.  The last sentence of the second paragraph read, "He had no urgency in the morning...." and I felt that the pronoun was a little ambiguous.  This particularly bugged me because that pronoun ambiguity was something I struggled mightily with when writing Alex.  When your book has one male main character, and he is typically interacting with another male character, "he" is a pretty dangerous word and has to be used carefully.

I wanted to change it to "the boy."  But then I remembered something from my childhood.

My friend, Ryan, and I read The Hobbit as kids (we were just those kinds of kids) and there was a typo in our particular edition which spelled Bilbo's name as "Biblo".  Now, you may not find that hysterical, but we did.  I remember chortling over it until I got tears in my eyes.  Looking back, I don't think it was so much that the name sounded funny (though it did), I think it was also a bit of glee/pride on our parts that we had found an error in a real, printed book.

I'm not saying that errors have a right to exist, or anything like that (dear god, that sounds like a DS9 episode waiting to happen), but it made me think: at what point does my shady use of the "he" pronoun stop being an error, and start becoming a mark of my writing style at the time I wrote the book?

Or, put another way, at what time does my meddling with my own work become screwing around with an established piece of literature?

Yeah, yeah, I'm not Mark Twain or Stephen King.  No one's probably even gonna notice that I did eventually sneak in there and change that pronoun.  But that actually makes the question more poignant to me, not less.  I plan on doing a lot more writing, and at some point Alex won't just be "my first novel" - it'll be a record of my early writing style.  In screwing around with it, I'm changing that record.

Does this matter?  Well, take it to an extreme to see what's got me bothered.  Say I never stop screwing around with it.  It's mine, after all.  I can do whatever I want with it.  What if in a few years I decide that I'm not happy with the way a scene went, or the way Ian's relationship with his wife resolved?  What if I want to change the ending?  I can do it, and no one can really stop me.  Isn't this intellectually dishonest?

If it's just me, that's one thing - but now extrapolate this capacity to the entire writing world.  If e-publishing becomes as prominent as I suspect it will, at some point nearly every author will have this ability to modify their work at whim - and with your average e-reader always or almost always connected to the internet, e-book providers can replace the old copy wirelessly without the readers even knowing.

There are ramifications there.  I'm not sure what all of them are.  I think it would be a very interesting topic to explore in more depth.

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