In 1982 Stephen King published The Gunslinger, a collection of five short stories that he strung together and with which he launched The Dark Tower series. It was a sparse, grim novel, raw and unrelentingly powerful. At least, I thought so. Then in 2003 King released a substantially edited version. I read it, and found that King had polished the edges off the original, brought it to a high gloss but at the expense of that gritty intensity that had so propelled the first.
King’s not the first to re-visit an old novel. Off the top of my head I can think of Feist’s re-working of The Magician (also to deleterious effect), and I bet you can think of a few examples yourself. It’s rare that an author does so, however; once a book is printed on paper, it might as well be set in stone. Sure, a new edition might correct a few typos, but you don’t get changes in the plot. One character doesn’t suddenly die from edition to the next. The author has sent his book out into the wild, and that’s that.
Today, however, I can re-upload any of my novels and change it in any way I want. With no previous editions in actual print, how would any new readers know? A reader wrote me a letter once strenuously complaining about the unnecessary death of a dog in ONE BY ONE. My editor had warned me about that, but I had ignored her wisdom and pressed on with my original vision. So distraught was this reader, however, and so nonchalant was my commitment to this dog’s death, that I simply rewrote that passage and uploaded the new version. I didn’t care enough about that dog’s death to risk alienating future readers, so now, the dog lives.
Books are mutable. Even endings can now change. A lot of people dislike my novel THRONE, in part because of how abrupt the ending turns out to be. How hard would it be for me to revisit that ending and add a little more oomph, a little more tra-la-la? Not hard at all, and I may very well do it.
What does that do to our idea of a novel, though? Does it matter to you if the ending changes from one year to another? What if you own an ecopy that retains an ending you prefer – does it matter if the commercially available copy now differs? Should authors maintain an archive of electronic editions for posterity’s sake? Do you think people who enjoyed THRONE the first time would buy a second copy if I announced that in this one, the bad guys won? Could one novel have dozens of iterations, each with different outcomes? Are we entering an era when novels are no longer static etchings but live documents, breathing and changing as long as their author has a mind to remake it anew?