Saturday, May 1, 2010

The e-book and definitiveness

Okay, I'm coming pretty close now to having my free e-book ready to go. I've been grappling with the kind of stuff experienced copyeditors can do in their sleep--consistency of punctuation, formatting, and style--and if I know myself well, I know that soon I will have to just throw up my hands and put it out there.

This got me thinking, though. Unlike every other thing I have ever published in my entire life, what I put up for download doesn't have to be a definitive edition. Indeed, if a writer has sole control of a work, and the work can be updated and uploaded at will with a few mouse clicks, then is there really any justification for declaring it to be finished?

Well--sure. As I've written before (indeed, in an essay that will be in the e-book called "Limping To The Finish"), one declares things finished in order not to spend the rest of one's life agonizing over them. And readers, of course, don't want the novel they're reading to change as they read it (see Stanislaw Lem, "Vestrand's Extelopedia in 44 Magnetomes"); they want to enjoy a complete, fully realized work. At least most of them do. I do.

But as this work is a loose collection of incidental writing, a genre I intend to continue writing in, and which is unlikely to appeal to a print publisher, why should it be definitive? Indeed, it's as much like a piece of software as it is a book. I could update it occasionally in new editions--or I could update it constantly, with version numbers. If I want to keep thinking about it every day for the rest of my life, that is.

Which of course I don't. But I do like the version numbers idea. I doubt I am riding a wave that will destroy definitiveness forever, but I do think that some books, in this new format, will benefit from having looser standards for completion, perhaps mine among them.

13 comments:

Hugo Minor said...

I'm a technical writer by day and all of my documents have version numbers and last revision dates. They are intended to be viewed online as PDF files, but since people love to print in the office, having the version number and date is helpful to point out to people if they are referring to an older version.

jrlennon said...

Sure, but have you ever seen version numbers on a literary work? I'm sure somebody has done it...perhaps it's an idea whose time has come...

Hugo Minor said...

Maybe "1st edition," "2nd edition" too....

Pete said...

Version numbers may give procrastinators one more reason not to read your work: "Oh, I'll just wait for 3.0..."

jon said...

Chapters of the novel I'm posting now i've quietly revised and reposted several times. The first three chapters as they stand started out as one chapter. And I still haven't made up my mind as to what to do with it. It is a vexing question, and interesting as well. I see it as a work in progress, not a finished project. The other e-books i consider to be finished, definitively. Electronic publishing allows you to decide either way. I think version numbers make a lot of sense. I have an even looser project going on, essentially a collection of notes and reviews on books and ideas for a novel or novels. i think of it as being a work in progress on the web which is also an archive. Is there any interest? I have no idea. I don't even know how good any of it is, but the combination of blogging, website and electronic publication lets an author expand the idea of an edition, of finished works, and of archives. You become the whole shebang, and if there are readers it all happens fairly immediately. Works become open ended, evolving entities.

jrlennon said...

This nice thing about this in general, for a writer like me, is that, when I write something that is solid and definitive, and corresponds to obvious and conventional categories of endeavor (ie., novel, short story), I can try to sell it...but all this other stuff I write that isn't connected, can't be defined, and isn't worth much on the open market--but might still be of interest to people--has a way to go out and exist in the world.

I mean, one does not want to just put out any old shit. But there are things of some value that have previously had no obvious path to readers.

ed skoog said...

Whitman's Leaves of Grass would have been an excellent decades-evolving e-book. Wordsworth's Preludes the same. Pound's Cantos. Works that are by their nature processes rather than products, interactions between the writer, who the writer was yesterday, who the readers were yesterday, who's reading now, all very Lem-like equations.

jrlennon said...

Agreed, this idea lends itself well to poetry. The Dream Songs springs to mind, too.

Ed, have you head the recent episode of Bookworm featuring John Ashberry? What an awesome dude. I love him. His new book is great, too.

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