Most writers, when writing a book, will finish a first draft and then make multiple revisions of this until they’re happy it’s the best possible version of the story they can create without outside professional consultation, and that’s when their agent and/or editor is brought in. They work through the whole story until they’re as happy with it as they can be, then their publisher is officially involved and a final version is crafted to be put in front of the public.
For many of his most famous works, Charles Dickens had nowhere near that luxury.
Dickens, like many of his contemporaries, first published his work episodically in magazines. This means that, while he may have already determined the structure and content of works like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, the actual process of having his audience reading the books was carried out whilst he was still putting pen to paper for the later chapters. As people eagerly picked up the first installment the final one may have not yet even been written. No doubt that, when the pieces were collected to be published in a single volume, there were minor editorial changes but the book as a whole remained the same.
Until now the closest parallel we have to this in modern publishing is comic books, where a similar thing happens in a different medium. However, the emergence of independent publishing allows writers to do something similar, though not directly comparable.
In other posts here I’ve talked about how writing a single book, Stripped, grew into a larger series called the California Gothic. Once I’d sketched out this series I realized Stripped was no longer a proper fit in the narrative; some of the terminology as well as the tone had changed. If Stripped had been published traditionally then I would most likely have had to either keep the tone of the series consistent with the first book or scrap the idea altogether. Publishing independently, however, gave me a third option. To rework Stripped so that it fitted the series and then republish it as the newly titled Personal Jesus.
The freedom to edit and modify work after publication gives independent authors a great deal of creative freedom; since a majority of the readership consume our work digitally then these changes can be pushed to them. Of course, these changes must be limited so you don’t irritate the hell out of your audience; they don’t want the book squirming beneath them as they read or find the ending they now have to be completely at odds with the beginning they started with.
You have to find the balance between putting your work before the public while it’s still in draft form and improving on it once it’s released. Walt Whitman did this throughout the many published versions of Leaves of Grass. He refined the poems it contained, changed their order, dropped some and including others. For Whitman the published work was a living organism that could grow and change in accordance with the author, the audience and the world which it both existed in and commented on.
It is this Whitman-esque spirit that I feel independent publishing can move us back towards. Painters often produce multiple versions of the same work as they develop the underlying ideas and techniques through which they’re expressed, and digital publishing offers writers the same flexibility.
And surely it can only be a matter of time before the flexibility of the medium is incorporated into the narrative. Perhaps a work in short story format (to more easily allow for re-reading) that is periodically republished by the author to include new passages or variations on existing ones that offer new meaning to the prose. A truly organic book where the narrative and messages grow as its characters respond to the changes they experience.