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...