Pulping the internet

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Roxanne Gay from HTMLGIANT writes about "unpublishing" work online, that is deleting or taking a piece down after it's been posted for public consumption, something you can't really do with print (unless you're the Pentagon or Jonathan Franzen). Gay, who edits the online magazine PANK, tells of an author who asked her to take a story down because it was being published in a collection and the publisher presumably thought having it available for free online would hurt sales:

I’ve heard various stories in recent years of work being unpublished because a writer and editor had a falling out and other such drama. It disturbs me that the term “unpublish” even exists. Is deleting something published online unpublishing? It doesn’t mean the publication never happened. It only means that publication can’t be seen in the future in that specific context. There are lots of unforeseen consequences when it comes to online publishing.

I agree that asking to take a story down is rather paranoid and short-sided. If anything, having a piece available online would be free marketing for a collection ("If you like this story you'll love the new collection available at Amazon ...").

Deliberately killing a piece of writing online for this reason is preventable though, and I think the publishing industry will outgrow it. Eventually publishers will learn lessons from some of the boneheaded mistakes the music industry made as it stumbled online, and realize that the more word of mouth marketing and sharing, the better. But another problem of writing online is work that disappears because websites go under, upgrade their software and break links, or shove it behind a paywall. At least if a print magazine goes bust, a writer will still have his contributor's copy (aka payment) and the copy he sent to his mom. If a website dies and you didn't have the foresight to save a PDF copy, good luck getting it back. Maybe the magic of Google or the Internet Archive will solve this problem too, but I don't put a lot of faith in the ability--or desire more like it--to preserve every character of every web page (except for this publication of course).