To change or not to change: the self-publisher’s question

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.

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15 comments on “To change or not to change: the self-publisher’s question

  1. Intentionally using reviewers as beta readers/proofreaders? Definitely a bad idea. I, personally, see no problem with fixing grammar and typos that may have gotten past copyediting and proofing, however. Personally, I’d draw the line at changing the story, unless it’s some special edition rerelease like Neil Gaiman did with American Gods.

    • I think it’s OK, as long as you make sure that it is clear from the outset that it is a different edition, and as long as you don’t keep changing your mind about the story.

  2. I’m with you. I think it is deceptive to put out a book that is not already the best it can be. I also believe that once a work is finished it ought not to be tampered with. Typos and spelling, yes, story line, no.

  3. I totally agree that using your paying customers as beta readers is not good. I’m ok with making typo/coding issue changes as they’re caught – that’s the beauty of electronic publishing.
    On revising the story? I don’t like that idea, although I read a year ago about a big name author who went back (like waaaaay back) and re-wrote one of her early series. The series had the usual rough edges and plot snags that early works sometimes do. She wanted to re-write it to a better standard and re-release it. I guess I’m ok with that, but still undecided

    • I guess I’m more comfortable with an expanded story, where a novella becomes a novel. That is actually quite common in traditional publishing. I don’t know that I actually want to do it, though. Even the thought of going back and changing the story makes me tired.

      • My first completed novel (back in my 20’s) makes me cringe. Still, I have no desire to re-write the thing. I’ve moved on. Personally, I can’t imagine going back and re-writing an early series. It’s done, put to bed. I wouldn’t want to expand a previous novella either. I agree, it seems exhausting to revisit at that point!

  4. Ugh! Yuck! And humbug! To keep changing your story to please readers is reprehensible and silly. #1 You cannot please everyone. #2 You shouldn’t want to. After all, it’s YOUR story, not theirs. Now, if it is found to be so bad that your refunding a lot of sales, then you might want to unpublish, rewrite and put out a new edition clearly noted as such. I also like being honest enough with a reader that I would add an upfront “letter to my readers” to let them know I listened–heard–responded–but that’s just me.

    Spelling and typos that have slipped by the best efforts of beta readers and editing processes–whatever sources you use–is only an improvement to the “quality” of the story you have already told.

    I’ve been thinking of doing a rewrite of one of my novels from my first efforts. IF I decide to do it, it will be a clearly defined retelling of an old story.

  5. Making changes to books after the first publishing release is a digital age phenomenon for the most part because it’s easy–like correcting typos on a computer is easier than on a typewriter. But it’s always happened to some extent.
    Plenty of authors who have had re-releases of print books have taken the opportunity to “update” or “revise” them.
    So what?
    Stephanie Queen

  6. Recently I republished with a new title and added excerpts from the rest of the series while I was there anyway. That is the job of this new way of e-publishing. But I would never go back and change a whole story. It is out there now.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly that to deliberately put out substandard work with the expectation that your customers will act as beta readers and proofreaders is extremely disrespectful to your readership. Writers need to be in this for the long haul, and you can’t build up a loyal following if you treat your customers like that.
    Fixing up typos and inadvertent mistakes that have slipped through in spite of your best efforts – you’d be disrespectful if you DIDN’T.
    Rewriting plot and characters in response to customer feedback…that’s a whole ‘nother thing. Now that it is free and easy to do so, I think it has the potential to be a new art form. The novel could become a sort of collaborative effort between author and reader, an interactive project, with the reader being able to influence the development of the story and the story itself being in a constant state of evolution.

  8. I was at the last RT convention where we were told by republishing experts that it was essential to update books, particularly contemporary novels when republishing your backlist. So if you have your heroine struggling to find a working pay phone in your novel which you wrote back in 1994, you instead have to have her cell phone running low on battery. People reading contemporary novels expect contemporary to mean today, 2012, not 1994, and the technology in the book has to keep up with the times.

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