Changing books after publication: a new trend?

What do you do when one of your book's characters, based on a real living person, dies in reality just before your book is published?

"The Devil's Light," by Richard North Patterson, features Osama Bin Laden as a character. But it was published just after Bin Laden's death, so he lives on in the book. Is this too much of a discrepancy for the modern reader?

Thriller writer Richard North Patterson chooses topics that are “as hot as tomorrow’s headlines,” as one blurb-writer said, but there’s one case where he might have done better sticking to current news. His latest novel, “The Devil’s Light,” imagined an Al Qaeda plot aimed at the tenth anniversary of September 11th… and included Osama bin Laden as a live character. Just days before the book’s publication, Mr. bin Laden was killed.

Most reviewers said the factual discrepancy didn’t hurt the book. Bin Laden wasn’t the main character, and, besides, it was a work of fiction. But readers had
to at least get over that mental bump, and it nagged at some. One Amazon reader groused that it was “a dated book before publication,” and
that he gave up on it after 50 pages, knowing that bin Laden had spent his final years very differently than Patterson had imagined.

“Plan B, anyone?” asked one reviewer.

Journalists have been enjoying similar opportunities in recent years with online publications, able to repair errors with a quick edit rather than seeing their
mistakes live on forever in print prisons. But with newspapers or magazines, any changes are generally noted clearly, with a prominent line telling readers
that an earlier edition contained different material, and sometimes even what the earlier edition had said. It’s hard to picture how a novel could – or whether it
should – convey a similar content change. I remember a few years back, author Ellen Emerson White updated a series that she said had been set too solidly in
the 1980s, adding references to the Internet and cell phones, having the main character watch Hill Street Blues on DVD rather than TV, and so on. It seemed a
reasonable move – but if she had changed the plot rather than the details, I would have preferred that she just write a new book instead. Where should future authors - now that they have the chance - draw the line?

To Patterson, evidently, Plan B wasn’t a rhetorical question. An updated e-book version of “The Devil’s Light” will be released on Tuesday, revised so that Bin
Laden’s fictional fate mirrors his real one, reported The New York Times. The revised version will be published in paperback next year, according to the Times.
Patterson added bin Laden’s death in the e-version, revised sections where characters had referred to him as if he were alive, and added references to his time in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the paper said.

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at

Join the Monitor's book discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.