Monday, January 18, 2010

My Books

As far as I’m concerned, a novel is finished when I type the last full stop of the last sentence of the last draft. But it’s also the beginning of another process. The manuscript goes off to the editor and comes back with suggestions for changes and corrections and fixes; when those have been dealt with, there’s the copy-editing and proofreading stages to go through. After that, the file goes off to the printers, where the novel becomes a mass-produced object. What was once a singular object is duplicated, multiplied. Turned into the books in the bookshops, and the warehouses of the internet merchants. The books in the hands of readers. And the complimentary copies that arrive at the author’s door in hefty courier boxes internally armoured with plastic membrane.

The complimentary copies arrive long after that final full stop was typed, and sometimes many years after the vague pricking of the first ideas that slowly grew, sentence by sentence, page by page, into the fully-fledged novel. The actual book seems to bear little relation to that solitary activity: the days and weeks and months spent alone in front of the computer screen or bent over a MSS, blemishing its crisp laser-printed pages with red ink. A time already receeding in memory, because I’m at work on my next novel, or at least, thinking about how to get started. The paper brick of the published book is like a memento or postcard from some half-remembered holiday of another lifetime.

And it also, despite the many drafts, the editing and copy-editing and proofreading, contains mistakes. Typographic errors, clumsy phrasing and factual goofs that will need to be corrected for the paperback and other editions. So at some point the thing has to be opened and read: a grim but necessary process.

Meanwhile, the book is out there, in the world. While I was writing it, I was in charge. But now it’s out of my control. It has a life of its own. It’s interrogated in reviews. I see copies in bookshops (and must supress the urge to turn it face out). Very occasionally I see a copy in the hands of a reader (and must supress the urge to introduce myself). I dedicate and sign copies at bookshop events and at conventions: I even make my mark in the dusty copies disinterred one by one from a suitcase or rucksack by dealers, who ask for ‘just the signature’. For the value of a book is increased by the presence of the author’s signature on the flyleaf: the signature that’s a personalising touch for readers who like or even love the book for what it contains - for its story and characters - also turns it into a fetish object for collectors of first editions.

First publication is not the end of the story of the book. Afterwards, there’s the mass-market paperback, and, over the years, a trickle of foreign editions and (sometimes) new editions from the original publisher. They mount up. Like many authors, I have shelves packed with my own books (none of them signed - do any authors sign their own copies of their own books?). And there are also the anthologies which contain one of my stories, and the books by other people, for which I’ve written an introduction . . . And I have extra copies of all of my books, too.

Most of each book’s first edition is given away, and so are some of the paperbacks. But what to do with the rest of the paperbacks, not to mention the complimentary copies of the American edition, and of the foreign reprints? Some are stacked under the bookshelves in my study, but that marginal space filled up long ago. Some are shelved in a cupboard, and the cupboard is also full. The rest are in boxes in my office, in other cupboards, at the bottom of wardrobes, under beds. It’s said that you can’t have too many books. But I’m beginning to think that I may have too many copies of my own books. Or maybe I need to board up the attic, and turn it into a book depository...


Anonymous Nathan said...

My friend, Ian Edginton, purveyor of fine comic-book tales, very kindly donates many of his spare editions (including foreign-language ones) to the school I work at. There must be a worthy local comp or similar which would welcome your excess copies to the library?

January 18, 2010 7:11 pm  
Blogger Daniel said...

There's always events like Pat Rothfuss' Worldbuilders auctions (see his blog ) and that ilk which would take book donations gladly, or charity shops and charity auctions, your books thus going out into the world and both giving readers pleasure and doing good at the same time...

January 18, 2010 8:09 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Nathan and Daniel. Thanks for your suggestions. I've given away books at meetings of the British Science Fiction Association, to British Fantasy Society auctions, and to charity. Giving some copies to local schools is a good idea I should pursue. As is finding some other worthy cause. Maybe, as someone suggested on Twitter, I could hold a competition to give away some copies, too. Although my publisher just did that...

Anyhow, I need to keep, or feel I need to keep, one title of every edition of book I'm associated with. You might call it a fetish or a neurosis, or simple egotism.
I don't care. I kind of like having them around. Most authors do. And I need extra copies, too, for business purposes, and I've run out of shelf and storage space. Anyone who likes books has the same problem, sooner or later, unless they're especially ruthless about what they keep. It's just that I've now run into it with my own books. Hopefully, I won't get crushed by them, as the hero of 2012 nearly did, in what for me was the funniest moment in the film.

January 18, 2010 8:41 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

That's all very well, Paul, but it fails entirely to address the new world of eBooks, of which you say nothing. You don't need shelf space, just little USB devices and slates and things. What about that?

I note your book WWW is now available only in US ebook format. Luckily I found a US paperback import (thanks TransReal of Edinburgh!). Personally, I'm sympathetic to electronic publishing, but still prefer real books for actual reading until someone gives me a cool device that will change my mind.

Do you welcome the reduction of pressure on your shelf space, or deplore the loss of tangibility of your books?

January 20, 2010 5:50 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Pete, almost all eBooks are still published as an adjunct to paper editions, which is why I didn't mention them (also, these blog posts aren't in any way supposed to be fully rounded articles addressing every aspect of their notional subject, which is one reason why I appreciate comments pointing out and discussing what's missing). Anyway, I still get paper copies of my books, and I have to find space for them, and at the moment, I don't receive copies of electronic editions of my books, so I don't have to find any kind of space for them. That might change I suppose if books go entirely electronic and some kind of universally agreed platform emerges.* But I think that's a long way off because a lot of readers are, like you and me, quite happy with the old-fashioned but reliable form of delivery. And they do furnish a room.

*I know, I know:I already have electronic files of my novels, so why would I want more files containing the same information in slightly different formats? Well, if there was an easy-to-use and universal eReader, I might want a properly formatted edition of each of my books, as file copies. And it would be nice to receive copies of anthologies in which one of my stories appears, because I wouldn't have copies of the other stories. But maybe one of the unintended consequences of the eBook revolution might be an end to complimentary authors' copies.

January 20, 2010 2:52 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

I shouldn't post pissed ;)

Actually, though, I'm surprised you don't get electronic copies. I had a similar problem once, with a journal article I published, where they never gave me a canonical version in PDF and I had to distribute one from the proofreading phase, with a few yellow highlighted bits in. Mildly embarrassing, but nobody died or anything.

January 20, 2010 9:22 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Wow, see familiar for me Russian edition - 3 volumes of "Conflunence". I'm having them too in my book shelf ;)
I understand you - material book is realisation of your artistic work, a kind of paper child for the author - so it's hard to give away it.

January 21, 2010 3:56 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Possibly you should sign them - it would increase their value to your heirs, at least, if that's of any concern to you.

Just finished A Quiet War - excellent, particularly the sub-story of the clone spy!

March 20, 2010 3:16 pm  

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