Which Version is This?

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, June 2016.]

Authors generate words—an awful lot of words. Everything we write begins with a blank page and ends with a published book.  Between that opening salvo and final sale, any given work might go through dozens or even hundreds of versions. But what constitutes a “version”? And what are best practices for an author trying to track versions of her work?

First Things First

There are two primary times when authors generate versions of a book—as the work is drafted and as it’s prepared for publication. In addition, self-published authors may create new versions of works after publication. The goals and methods of version management vary between these phases.

As an initial note, technology continues to make it easier to generate versions of a work at all stages of production. While Jane Austen toiled away setting pen to paper, most authors today use computers (if not in the first draft stage, then in all subsequent stages.)  We can make changes to electronic files with relative ease, saving the need to copy out by hand or retype clean copies of modified passages.  Similarly, the computer files for ebooks and print-on-demand books can be edited with fairly simple procedures, without concerns about modifying warehoused print copies.

When an author is drafting a book, her need to track versions is primarily personal. She might want to preserve early versions to:

  • Maintain a complete record of her writing process,
  • Protect against hard drive failures and other computer disasters,
  • Track the book’s evolution from draft to draft, including the addition or subtraction of plotlines, characters, setting details, etc.,
  • Preserve specific scenes prior to beginning revisions in case those revisions turn out to be false leads, or
  • Preserve cut scenes, snippets, and other tidbits for later promotional purposes.

By contrast, production and post-publication versions are tracked primarily for outsiders. People with an interest in specific versions include:

  • Copy editors, proofreaders, and typesetters or ebook formatters, who each must work on the proper version in sequence to guarantee a properly finished book,
  • Readers, who enjoy the correction of typographic errors, continuity mistakes, technological flaws, and other corrections, and
  • Vendors, who have begun to send notices to self-published authors about perceived mistakes (such as spelling or grammar errors) in their ebooks.

Any system for tracking versions needs to satisfy every stakeholder.

Draft One, Draft Two, Draft Three

Most authors are accustomed to saving versions of their work as they draft a book. Those saved files are a defense against computer crashes; they might be held on an external hard drive or in the cloud.  A “poor person’s version” can be accomplished by emailing copies of a file to an account such as Gmail that stores files offsite.

But saving versions for tracking purposes has a different function. Tracking doesn’t focus on the most recent version of a work; its goal isn’t to keep an author up and running in the face of catastrophic computer failure. Rather, tracking requires preserving the intermediate stages of a work.

Words are a great bargain when it comes to consuming computer memory.  Still images take up much more memory than words. Music takes more than images. Video takes more than music. By the standards of contemporary electronic devices, plain text takes almost no space at all.

Therefore, there are few, if any, technological limits to an author saving multiple drafts as she writes. There are, however, time and logistical limitations.

For an extreme example:  Audrey Author wants to guarantee she maintains every possible draft of her latest tome. To that end, she sets an alarm for five-minute intervals. Each time the alarm goes off, Audrey saves a complete version of her file, updating the name with a date and time signature, such as TerribleTome1120161525, to indicate the version of the file saved on January 1, 2016 at 3:25 in the afternoon.

Audrey’s system offers her security against power failures and some other computer crashes; she’s saving almost as frequently as most contemporary word processing programs save backups. She’s not likely to miss a single word or phrase that she might want in the future, even if those words are deleted upon revision. But Audrey probably spends more than ten percent of her writing time saving versions of her files. And for most of us, writing time is a precious commodity that shouldn’t be wasted on mechanical processes.

Audrey’s general concept, though, can be adapted into a productive protocol. For example, she might choose to start each day’s work by saving her entire manuscript in a new file, saved with a date stamp. (If she writes in Scrivener, she would do this by taking a “snapshot” of her file.)

Depending on her writing regimen, even that frequency of saving might prove too much to be useful. Audrey might choose to save a master file once each week. Or she might choose to save a master file as she finishes drafting each scene or chapter.

The specifics will vary from author to author, but the process remains the same: 1) Select a system; 2) Implement the system using meaningful file names that convey the content of files; and 3) Use the system.  No version tracking tool works if it’s ignored during the actual generation of versions.

Production Values

A different system is required to track versions of a manuscript during the production phase of a book.  At that point, intermediate “saves” aren’t important—the author does not care what her manuscript looks like when the copyeditor has finished only the first two chapters or five or ten. Rather, she wants to see the completed manuscript. Then she can review it, accept or reject changes, and pass the work on to the next production professional.

The author can use file names to track the process. For example, she might call her final draft (the one that has been subjected to content editing and line editing) FinalEditBrilliantBook6152016 to indicate that all edits were completed on June 15, 2016. She can transmit that file to her copyeditor (directly if she’s self-published, or through her editor if she’s traditionally published.) When she receives a copyedited file, she can save it as CopyeditReceivedBrilliantBook772016 (indicating she received the file on July 7, 2016.)  She can then accept or reject the copyedits, save the version under a new name—CopyeditReviewedBrilliantBook782016—and send that file to her proofreader.

The production process continues, with files received from the proofreader, sent to and received from the formatter and/or typesetter, and finalized.

Overall, the version management process for production can be summarized: 1) Identify each production professional, including the order in which each completes his work; 2) Implement a system to transfer the manuscript file to and receive the file from each professional using meaningful file names that convey the content of files; and 3) Use the system.

A Book is a Book is a Book

Any published book might be edited so substantially than a new edition is warranted. Typically, this level of change is only seen in non-fiction books.

In fact, for traditionally published authors of fiction, the process of version tracking ends at the point of publication. Traditional publishers generally do not give authors of fiction a chance to correct errors, tweak language, or otherwise modify their published books.

Self-published authors, though, have more leeway. A self-published author may create a new version of a published book when she republishes a backlist book. She will definitely need to create a new cover and new back-cover copy. She might choose to update language, change titles, or make other changes. These versions can be tracked as if they were new books.

(I have revised half a dozen of my novels that were previously published by Red Dress Ink, primarily modifying the role of one stereotypical “gay best friend” character, to give him greater individuality and less clichéd treatment. I released each of those modified books as a new edition, specifically an “Author’s Preferred Edition”, withdrawing all earlier versions under my control.)

But what about relatively minor changes? How should an author notify readers about typographic error fixes, continuity fixes, and the like? Should an author communicate information about minor changes to readers? And if so, when should that notification be done?

Elinor Groves (Rendezvous) tracks each needed change in a word-processing file specific to each book. When enough changes have accumulated to warrant her attention, she makes the changes in her production files. She then saves the word-processing file, noting the changes have been made, so she has a specific date indicating when the modifications took place. She also updates a notation on the book’s copyright page, using a code that includes the editor’s initials and the date (e.g., “EG20160408.”) That notation allows her to tell at a glance if the ebook version is current; however, it doesn’t put readers specifically on notice of version changes unless they’re able to parse the code.

Taylor Reynolds (“Three Little Words”) also indicates the versions of her short stories on their copyright pages, but she doesn’t use a code. While all her stories are currently in Version 1.0, she intends to indicate changes to back matter or small editing fixes with the indication 1.1, 1.2, etc. If she significantly changes the cover or the story content, she intends to update her version to 2.0.

  1. Penelope (Cry of Metal & Bone) maintains a spreadsheet on Google Drive. The spreadsheet has a tab for each book, with columns for the version number, date, changes, recorded, vendors, and upload dates. She uses major version changes (e.g. 1 to 2) to indicate corrections of typos or errors in the book. Minor version updates (e.g., 1.3 to 1.4) indicate changes in metadata. She records the specific version number (e.g., “v1.4”) on the copyright page of each book.

As L. Penelope notes, “[O]ne person’s minor [version] may be someone else’s major. It’s a highly personal decision and depends on your reasons for tracking the versions in the first place.”

Vendors Policies Regarding Versions

Each ebook vendor has a different policy regarding informing readers of changes to books they’ve already purchased.

Amazon invites self-published authors to update their books at any time, allowing them to republish their book with a new content file. Customers who buy the book after republication will receive the updates; however, customers who purchased the book before the changes were made will keep the original version already on their devices.

In extreme circumstances, where the original version contains serious defects (ones that make the book difficult for customers to read), Amazon will make the republished file available to customers who already bought the book, using the “Manage Your Kindle” page.  If customers have previously selected the “Automatic Book Update” feature under their Settings tab, then they’ll receive major revisions. Otherwise, they’ll need to request the update individually. Any updated file will override the customer’s notes, highlights, bookmarks, and further page read. Amazon does not consider typographic errors, continuity errors, or similar issues to constitute a “serious defect.”

Apple also allows self-published authors to update files at will. Customers who want to download book updates to their iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch need iBooks 3.0 or later. They can also download updates in iBooks for Mac, if they have OS X Mavericks v.10.9 or later. In all cases, customers can open iBooks, see a badge indicating the number of updates available (similar to the badges for updated apps), and tap or click on the badge to download updates.

Barnes and Noble’s Nook Press also freely allows authors to make changes to existing ebooks. Those changes are not automatically pushed to customers; however, customers who become aware of the changes can download the new version for free by using the Nook’s Archive/Un-Archive feature. Nook Press explicitly states that it will not share customer information with authors, to enable notification (or for any other purpose.)

Authors’ options are nearly infinite when it comes to creating and maintaining versions of their work. While vendors are not always as cooperative at conveying those new versions as authors might desire, customers can be informed of important changes to living documents of ebooks.