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
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
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.