It’s out there. If you collect anything, you’ll know what I mean. Whether it’s first editions, cars, toys, or collector plates, every collection has its white whale: the lost work of art, the failed design, the one that never found a market in its time. Not that long ago, every writer created such works in the regular course of a career. Works went out of print and copies disappeared into the libraries of dedicated readers or popped up in the mysterious second hand market. Some works, unappreciated in their time, became highly desirable. Sure they might be republished—even sometimes in packaging designed to replicate as close as possible the original—but every collector knows it’s not the same as the real thing, the object that has somehow survived. Even more intriguing are the works scrubbed from an artist’s history, ones deliberately left behind.
The more complete the collection, the more esoteric the distinctions between items, the more obscure the desirable must become. An obscure work acquired assumes importance that far outweighs its artistic value, but of far more value is the next thing, the one that’s out there somewhere, waiting for you to discover. This is the collector’s instinct: notions predicated on art as an object, a finite thing. So how does this very natural, human instinct respond to the artwork as endlessly replicable?
As someone who both creates and collects, I think about this often. What is more valuable or more collectable: an author’s printed manuscript (perhaps autographed for authenticity) or the actual word processor file that was slaved over to create said printed object? Is a file on an author’s own computer more valuable than the identical set of bits on someone else’s? What does easy and perfect replication of files do to the whole idea of a collection? What does it mean to have a digital library?
The discussion has been fresh in my mind lately as I’ve been in the process of un-publishing some of my earlier work, methodically removing it from both digital and print-on-demand distribution. You might wonder why I would ever want to do such a thing, surely the whole point of this digital evolution in publishing is that books need never go out of print. True, it takes almost as much effort to eradicate books as it does to create them, but my reasoning is that the books have served their purpose. I’ve never really looked at my backlist as anything more than a playground for publishing experiments and the books are done. I no longer need to have them out there so I’m taking them down from the retailers and putting them back in my bottom drawer (for now). At some point in this process I realised I was inadvertently creating limited editions. Only, I’m not really. Anyone with a digital copy of either book can make as many copies as they like. They can email them to friends, upload them to bit torrent. If there’s a demand for these books (don’t panic, there’s not), they will find their way to readers and I’m okay with that. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have put them out in the first place.
It’s just that now, if you want to read them, you’re going to have to work for it. Sorry about that.
Of course, it’s easy to argue that such questions are of little importance. In the big picture, they are. For accessibility alone, the benefits of digital books and publishing far outweigh any anxiety that the texts will cease to become collector’s items (a first-world problem, if I’ve ever heard one). But I suspect it’s emblematic of something deeper and more fundamental.
Things that are worthwhile are not easy. Writers value their own works with such extreme (some might say psychotic) passion because writing a long-form text is really fucking hard.
The discussion is yet another example of how our texts and our regard for them are changing.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep scouring ebay. I have some whales to hunt.