Friday, October 21, 2011

Do We Really Prefer Author's Preferred?

Roughly ten years ago, American Gods was released. The book won a lot of awards in a lot of different categories leading Neil Gaiman to believe that people don't really know what to make of his book. Having been such a big deal, the publisher wanted to release a special 10th anniversary edition, and Gaiman requested that he get to put back in about 12,000 words that had been edited out of the first edition. The publisher agreed, so we now have an "author's preferred text" edition of American Gods. I want to read it.

Why? I really don't know. It's not rational. Despite having thoroughly enjoyed it the first time through (and enjoying Anansi Boys even more), I've had no desire to go back and re-read it. I don't do a lot of re-reading (mostly because there are too many books I haven't read for the first time, yet), so the thought of re-reading Gods had never entered my head. But, despite reviews that mostly say there's nothing significant added back in, and despite the fact that it's been so long since I read it the first time that I wouldn't recognize any changes, anyway, I want to read this new edition. Even Gaiman says, based on how well the book sold, that his editor was probably correct in having him cut the 10,000+ words, but, yet, he wanted them back in the book. So, even though the book might actually be better for the lack of a dozen thousand words, I want to read the book that Gaiman intended it to be before the publishers and their editor got a hold of it.

It's not just Gaiman, either. I'm a sucker for any author's preferred edition of a book or director's cut of a movie. I have an innate distaste for someone coming in from the outside and imposing their view upon an artist. Any artist of any sort. Because who's to say that an editor's opinion will actually improve the work? Not that I don't understand the necessity of editors. Especially in movies. And in writing. I mean, you need someone with a different perspective to come in and ask questions sometimes. "What does this mean?" "What's happening here?" "How did we get to this part over here from where we were over there?" Things the author may miss because they exist in his head, and he can't see that he left a piece out for everyone else. But all of that is different from the specific type of editing I'm getting at. The part where someone comes in and says "change this" or "this is too long, cut this stuff out" or... well, there are too many ors.

 Maybe that's why I like Kevin Smith so much. He does it all himself, and his movies, for better or worse, really are his movies. He writes them, directs them, edits them all to his own vision. I appreciate that.

But does my preference for the author's (or director's) original vision translate to the culture at large? Actually, I think the mass of population really doesn't care. As an audience, we tend to pretend that this whole editing process doesn't happen. We like to believe that what we read is what the author intended for us to read. What we see is the director's vision of how the movie should be and not the studio's vision. But, then, there are a lot of movies out there with director's cuts options, although, mostly, those are just aimed at people that already own the movie and like it enough to double dip so they can see the differences between the two versions. I know I'm guilty.

Still... at some level, I think people do care. When they stop to think about it. If given the choice, people will pick the author's vision over the publisher's vision (or the director's vision over the studio's). I have a lot of supposition here, but what I know is that they keep releasing director's cuts and (to a lesser extent) author's preferred editions. They wouldn't do that if people weren't buying them, right? Right? I suppose the real question is who is buying them? Or maybe that doesn't matter.

I suppose my point lies somewhere in here: people don't read. Half of American adults do not read books. At all. Only about half of households buy even one book a year (some buy more, but that other half doesn't buy any). Even of college graduates, half of them will never read another book after graduation. And here's where it really makes me start to cringe (and this is based on memory (I couldn't find the article again)), only about 1/3 of adults in the USA consider themselves to be readers, and most of them (a huge most) will only read one book a year. One book. In a whole year. I have a hard time with this. Then, again, I have a brother who has never finished a book in his entire life. The closest he got was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn during high school, but he didn't finish it before the test, so he didn't finish it. Yes, this means he hasn't read my book, The House on the Corner, and I'm not expecting that he ever will. At any rate, these are the people that will say things like "it was too long" as a reason for not finishing or not ever picking up a book.

And, yet, this is the target audience for editors when they say, "Hey, your book is too long." Or "If you want more people to buy your book, you need to change x, y, and z." Why do we try to tailor books for these people? These are not the people that are buying most books. Certainly not the people reading most books. Remember that 50% of households and how they buy only one book a year? 50% of those books will go unread. These are not the people going back to buy the author's preferred edition.

The people going back to buy the book for a second time are people that read. And I don't mean one book a year people, I mean people that read. [I did try to find a statistic for people that read more than, say, 3 books a year, but I continued to just find more and more data about how 50% of Americans don't read at all. It got depressing, so I quit looking.] My impression is that most readers, when they find a story they love, want it to keep going. So, yes, when an author's preferred edition comes out with an extra 10,000 words, they want to read it. It may not be rational, but the desire is there.

To be completely honest, I haven't experienced an author's preferred edition that was really worth buying the book twice for, but I would have preferred to have had the author's version the first time. And I've only seen one director's cut of a movie that I thought was a significant improvement over the original: Daredevil. But, then, I liked the original; I just like the director's cut more. In fact, if I'm going to have a super hero movie on in the background, the director's cut of Daredevil is my choice. But, with most movies, it's nothing more than an interesting comparison. And, unfortunately, the director's cut of Highlander II did (very) little to improve it, even if they did cut out all mentions of Zeist. The main "improvement" of an author's edition is that it allows the reader to stay immersed for a greater length of time. Maybe that's all the improvement that's needed? Certainly, that's the reason that supplemental texts to The Lord of the Rings continue to be released. Lovers of Middle-Earth just want more of it. And Tolkien's publishers told him it was too long. (Not to mention the extended cuts of the movies.)

At the core, especially for Americans, I think we all want to see what the author intended for us to see. Maybe, MAYBE, more people would read if we let authors write their own stories instead of letting editors and publishers tell the author what they think the author should be writing. We certainly couldn't do worse. We have so many people saying "this is what people want," "this is what you need to write," "this is what you need to make" that everything is the same and no one wants any of it. Okay, that's not precisely true, but the things that really make it are the things that people that "know" said would never work. Like Harry Potter. People want to see the vision of the author (or director) for the story, not what the publisher (or studio) believes people want to see (I could go into Sony's insistence on the inclusion of Venom in Spider-Man 3 and how most people feel about that movie, but I think we just assume that conversation and skip it).

The fact that we have people that are willing to go back and buy what is essentially the same product twice so that they can experience a story the way the creator of the story intended it to be experienced says a lot to me. Primarily, it says that publishers should allow authors greater creative freedom. Publishers should stop trying to make everything fit into specific molds. Authors are good enough at following the popular route on their own that they don't really need any help from publishers in that. Or, you know, maybe it's all a scheme from the publishers... edit books down to fit arbitrary criteria so that, later, they can release the author's preferred text and make money twice. Don't laugh. I wouldn't put it past them!

Deleted scene:
In the spirit of the whole author's preferred text idea, I'm going to share a paragraph that got cut out. It's a good paragraph, but my post changed directions about halfway through, and, when I went back and re-structured the whole thing, the paragraph really didn't fit back in.

 Books, as they've been for at least the past many decades, are not the work of the author. Not just the author, at any rate. Yes, the author writes the book, but, once a publisher agrees to publish the book, it becomes subject to editing by the publisher. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. By all accounts, many of the people we view as the greats could never have been published without the assistance of one or more editors to get their manuscripts into the kind of shape that would enable an audience to read said manuscript. I think it was Faulkner (although I may be misremembering) that was notorious for turning in piles of pages with just one or two words on them each and no way of knowing what order the pages belonged. Maybe that, in the end, explains his stream-of-consciousness writing.

There you go. A rare deletion from me. Rare because I don't often go back and completely re-write. I'm pretty good at knowing where I'm going when I start writing, but this post fooled me and changed directions causing me to have to go back and start over. However, it does give me this opportunity to include this cut bit even if the post is a day later than I intended it to be.


  1. One of the ladies in my writers group has an agent that has had her make major changes in her novel. This is a huge amount of time spent without a contract or even promise of one. I was one of her first readers and I really enjoyed it. And I am definately in whatever percentage that reads more than 3 books a month. I keep wondering what the big changes are going to read like.

  2. Wonderful post, as usual, Andrew. I couldn't agree with you more that the consumer would much rather see/experience the author's original vision, rather than an edited, cut-to-pieces slab of mediocrity. And I know that's not really the right word, but really. As an artist, don't we hate it when people try to cut and trim and take away from--what we imagine to be--our original masterpiece?

    Several months ago, an online publisher requested a full manuscript of mine. A great, super friendly editor emailed me back, praising the writing, concept, etc. But it was just too long. By 30k words. 30k words! So, I had to do some soul searching. Yes, I edited. Again. Cut unnecessary words, sentences, even paragraphs. But in the end... I couldn't do it. And if no one ever reads that story again but me, I'm fine with it. Because the story, my beautiful masterpiece, is still mine. And I'm right proud of it.

    Again, thanks for your awesome insights, Andrew. Much appreciated.

  3. An interesting post. Given a choice I would always rather see/read the work how the creator envisioned it. They're usually the ones who know best how the story should go.

  4. It all depends on the changes. I've seen director's cuts that have made a movie worse, like the Abyss. The film that made the cinema is far better than the one the director re-edited. The same can be true of 'extended' TV programmes and, I'm sure, of books.

  5. I'm mixed on this one, because I've seen director's cuts/read writer's preferred versions that were worse. It's been about 50/50 for me. So...I will say that I prefer to see the artist's original version (after all, they don't make painters edit their paintings, do they?), but that the artist needs to find a way to objectively look at their work to see what works. I don't want someone telling me what I *want* to see or read, but there are things that don't add to a story or even detract from it, and those things can stand to be edited. I'd prefer the artist make the changes they see as appropriate.

  6. Nancy: I don't think I can get behind making changes for an agent. I've read on too many agents' blogs that, often, they will request (unnecessary) changes just to see if the author will make them. An author that won't make changes is an author they won't work with. I'm just not into those kind of games. I'm also not into making my story suitable for one particular person (the agent).

    Alyssia: I wouldn't have cut 30k words, either. If it's a great story with great writing, it's not too long. I wish publishers would get off of that "too long" horse. Yes, someone who doesn't read might look at it as too long, but the people out there buying and -reading- books won't think it's too long. GRR Martin is proof of that.

    Sarah P: I agree!

    Martin: I have never seen a director's cut that I thought was worse. Generally, they're about the same, sometimes better, but I've never seen one that's worse. I haven't seen the director's cut of the Abyss, though, so I can't comment on that one.

    Shannon: Well, I'm not saying writers don't need editors or feedback; I am saying that writers shouldn't listen to arbitrary demnds upon their manuscripts like "cut 30K words" so that they fit some word count mold. Especially if the writers thinks those words are important.

    I do actually think writers, in particular, need at least one person that can come in and see the piece from a different perspective, and it's better if that person has no strong emotional tie to the writer.

  7. Andrew, I definitely agree on that. There is no magic number that says readable vs. non-readable. It's ridiculous to fit a piece of work into a box.

  8. Great post Andrew. I did read the preferred edition of American Gods and really liked it. But it wasn't a re-read as I had never read the original. I was a late-comer to the fandom of Neil. However, I've gotten two tweets from him now. Score!

  9. Great post Andrew. I love Kevin Smith films probably for the same reason. I am not much on Director's cuts and I really think unless it is JK Rowling or Stephen King I am gonna pass on the author's cut. I would really really really have to love the author or the novel to own two copies. I read constantly as do both of my children. People who don't read scare me.

  10. Shannon: Yeah, but you know how much we humans love boxes.

    Michael: I'm really envious of the tweets. That one thing above all others is making twitter tempting, but I really just don't want to get caught up in another thing. I'm waiting to see what you think of Anansi Boys. The Graveyard Book, though, that's the one I -really- liked.

    Jennifer: They scare me, too. Well, not individually, but the idea of not reading scares me. I just don't get it.

  11. Whoa, I'm having a moment. I read this last week and apparently went on without commenting. I don't have a lot of thoughts on the topic - but think often that extended cuts of novels weaken the story. I think I've discussed before how I suspect that as authors grow in popularity and get more and more editorial control - things can get a bit... wordy. And even worse, tend to make new readers wonder why they ever got so popular.

  12. Rusty: I don't disagree with you that authors can grow self-indulgent. I think the issue there, though, is that they don't get any actual editing. They just get "yes men." It's a fine line, but I would still rather read the author's vision rather than something censured by a publisher.