I’m going to ramble a bit on a subject that has disturbed me for a while, and I hasten to say that I have not yet found the definitive answer.
It was prompted by this post by Stacia Kane, which was actually inspired by something entirely different, but in the bottom half of her post, she takes a huge swipe at self-published authors who change their works according to reader opinions, effectively using paying people as beta readers. I agree with the vast majority of her points, namely:
1. Changing your book after a reader’s comment makes you look pathetic.
2. Using paying readers as beta readers is just–urgh. I have no words.
3. Using paying readers to pick out your typos–ditto.
That said… I found myself getting a bit annoyed by the sanctimonious my-way-is-the-only-right-way tone of the post. One of the facts of self-publishing electronically is that you can easily change your book. And it’s not as if it doesn’t happen in big-publishing land either. I read a hardcover of a book borrowed from the library in which a place name is spelled incorrectly in about half the book. In the (mass paperback) version that I bought afterwards, only a few misspellings remain. OK, OK, I agree, that’s only a typo. What about changing the story, or adding to it?
No! My rational mind says. You have a contract with your reader. A book is carved in stone the moment you publish it.
Then again, I read most books only once. I don’t really care about any further special editions of the book that come out after I’ve read it. Also, what exactly do you pay for when you buy a book?
I buy a book to be entertained for however long it takes me to read the book. I buy a book because I like what the author is doing. I buy music because I like the band. I will buy two different versions of one song, because they’re different. I’ll pay to go and hear the band play live, even though I will know for certain that the sound will be nowhere near as sophisticated as that produced in a slick recording studio, where re-takes and mixing are possible. And where there are a lot of backing singers, and did I mention the accompanying orchestra? Is one version worth less than the other?
What do you pay for when you buy something that is the product of someone else’s imagination?
If I buy a painting, do I expect the artist to never paint and sell anything similar? If I buy a novella, do I get upset when I learn that there is a longer version of the story?
As I said, I don’t have the answer. So while I agree with Stacia that you should not put up an unedited first draft, or use Amazon buyers as beta readers, I also don’t see any harm in expanding or modifying the story at a later date. Also, because it is easy to change books, there will be lots of people who will do it, and the process of publishing will become more fluid and interactive. And that is something that is both inevitable and something that some people will deride for some time to come.
As for myself, I have never touched anything since publishing it. Just the thought of continuously changing my books makes me feel tired. I put them out because they’re finished.