I am a big proponent of electronic and online publishing but there is a permanence to a physical book or magazine that cannot be denied. This is not to say that physical books cannot disappear. They can and do, but it takes time and effort or neglect. When something is published online, it only takes one click of the mouse to remove it. That work might remain in Google’s cache for a while but eventually, it will disappear entirely, like the words were never there.
I’ve heard various stories in recent years of work being unpublished because a writer and editor had a falling out and other such drama.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. The longer I edit, the more I realize nothing is as simple as it seems.
A writer recently asked me to remove a story from the PANK website because they have a short story collection coming out and they want people to buy the book and that removing online work would make the publisher happy. This request was delivered politely and I’m quite a fan of the writer so this isn’t about ill will but rather, the principle of the thing. My instant reaction was, “Seriously?” I could not believe the request was even made. Is this standard practice? I’ve certainly never had such a request before. At the same time, we like writers and want them to do with their work as they see fit. Given that we cannot compensate contributors for their work, it is the least we can do. The more rational part of my brain understands that selling books is difficult and writers need every possible advantage.
I don’t believe publishing is dying or on death’s bed but the request really highlighted for me the ways in which the publishing industry sometimes shoots itself in the face and takes a scenic tour of a graveyard. Having parts of a collection available online seems like a great way to sell more copies. I would think extant work from a collection is a great advertisement for the book and a marketing tool. I’m no expert.
I was, admittedly, pretty tweaked and in my response to the writer, one of the comments I made was that if the story in question had been published in the print version, that writer could not unpublish that work. We could not track down all 1,000 copies of the magazine to tear those pages out. I also said that I do feel that such a request is a big deal. I cannot quite articulate why I think this is a big deal but there’s more at stake than simply removing a story. Our Writer’s Agreement is clearly not, well, clear enough so this was a great wake up call to ensure that we’re giving writers as much control over their work as possible while preserving the integrity of our magazine. We’ll definitely be revisiting that agreement. In the meantime, I took the story down because it is one story and we don’t have the resources to put up any kind of fight and we want to preserve our relationship with the writer and on and on. I’ve felt uneasy ever since. It’s such a bad precedent to unpublish work for any reason because for me, it contributes to the idea that online publishing is inferior to print publishing, that online publishing is temporary, that it lacks the gravity of print publication. Unpublishing creates an atmosphere where writers can say I will let you publish my writing until I no longer feel like I want you to publish my writing. It feels a bit petulant, not in this instance, but in general. Now maybe having online work exist only temporarily or at the whim of the writer is a good thing and I’m a control freak, I can’t be sure, but if ten or twenty or fifty writers decide they want their work removed so their collections are less available online, the integrity of the magazine is seriously compromised. If such a thing were to come to pass, we would be left with a series of placeholders indicating that once, there was great writing here. I don’t think that would serve anyone’s interests well at all.