i-screwed-712670 Richard Curtis on E-Reads has an interesting post which talks about the potential of e-books to solve a problem that has been known to haunt certain books, particularly ones that are intended to be factual: the dreaded false information that comes to light only after the book has gone to press.

In this case, the book is one about the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, and is based in part on comments from someone who turned out afterward to be lying. The hardcover book has already gone to press, and the author is talking about making revisions for paperback and international editions.

As Curtis points out, had the book been released as an e-book, it would be relatively simple to issue a new, corrected version. (Even simpler on the Kindle, where Amazon could seamlessly replace the flawed version with a new one—assuming that didn’t fall under the “things they promised not to do anymore” from the 1984 debacle, of course.)

In fact, Baen issues a lot of its books as “electronic Advance Reader Copies,” or “e-ARCs,” months before the printed versions come out. Although the purpose of these e-ARCs is nominally to give rabid fans a sneak-peak at their author’s latest masterpiece, I seem to recall hearing that a lot of early-bird fans point out errors for fixing too.

But most publishers don’t put out electronic versions first. The e-version of the Hiroshima book is not even out at all yet. Of course, even if it had been issued as an e-book simultaneously with the print edition, only the electronic version could be fixed. It doesn’t seem likely that e-books are going to replace print books any time soon, so whatever happens those faulty print books would still be around.

And I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder whether it would really be a good thing to be able to correct errors electronically right away like that.

Channel Markers

A very wise friend of mine occasionally writes a webcomic-and-other-stuff blog called Websnark, and back in 2006 he wrote an essay that I have since tried to live by. It’s called “Channel Markers” and it is a sort of common-sense guide for blogging. But a lot of it is applicable to electronic communication in general, especially now that the line is sort of blurring between blogging and everything else.

One of the things he mentions has to do with the temptation to go back and change what you wrote if you realize you made a mistake.

For better or for worse, we live in an ephemeral medium. It’s dirt simple to pull down posts, delete comments, go through and re-edit after the fact. One of the truisms of creative writing is "writing is rewriting," and it’s so simple to go ahead and edit edit edit.

The problem is, people have responded to what you wrote. If you go and change what they responded to, they’re going to remember that fact. Even if you have the best of intentions, any editing or rewriting you do is going to come across as self-serving — an unwillingness to admit to your mistakes. An attempt to make the record show youmade no mistakes, so your critics must be wrong.

The thing about a book is that it’s a physical artifact. If there’s a mistake in it, that mistake is physically fixed, like a fly trapped in amber. It serves as part of the historical record, as a form of proof that someone once thought the things it said were factual enough to publish them.

Fifty or a hundred years from now, if there’s a question concerning what was said, an intrepid researcher might be able to track down a copy of it long after anyone still living has entirely forgotten about it. From the perspective of history, this is a good thing—even if from the perspective of the embarrassed author it more sort of isn’t.

But given a hypothetical future where the e-book is all we have, going in and seamlessly correcting it removes a little bit of history from the world, and makes things a little bit more confusing. And if people have responded to the book, written articles about the incorrect information in it, “fixing” it after the fact looks like “an unwillingness to admit to your mistakes.”

(Of course, as many different e-book systems as there are today, it would probably be published in one that couldn’t be automatically corrected, so might potentially still lurk around somewhere. But I’m talking theory here.)


  1. Chris, great minds think alike. Before reading your article, I had been working on my draft of an article for my blog on the same problem raised by the same article and book, albeit perhaps with a different angle. I’ll just have to see how it comes out.

  2. It’s an interesting issue: what are “editions” of the same work in an e-book world. Surely ebooks should allow for more quickly updated editions, or editions with commentary, etc.

    But equally, we need a bibliographical system for capturing and recording the fact that changes were made, for committing these changes to history. In the old system, a “new and updated” edition of a work gets a new ISBN. What will the cutoff point be in ebook world? Do we need an ISBN+DOI for all the different editions?

  3. Sounds like versioning books is what you’re after. USENET has been versioning books for a long time, but I’m not aware of any ebook seller who versions; Amazon, for example, just sells the ebook once, and to update it you’d need to do it manually (delete, then redownload) after finding out on your own that the book was updated.

    But with versioned books, how would you know that you’ve got the “final” version? And is the final version more valuable than the previous ones? And if you have v1.0 of a book, and find typos, is the author or publisher obligated to release v1.1? And what if an author wants to release a title-page v0.1 just to grab the title, expecting to finish it someday, but never does? And do we really want to deal with an author who just won’t give up, releasing v24.0 a year after publication, literally turning his book into a blog?

    My vote: no versions, just make the author finish it, and get good editors to minimize errors.

  4. This sounds like 1984 a lot more than the “Amazon Incident”–if done incorrectly.

    I think it’s great strength of ebooks that mistakes can be fixed, or new versions can be released with minimal effort. (Though lets hope that every effort is made to minimize mistakes, especially factual ones.) However, there certainly does need to be a versioning system. It’s not acceptable for the author (or anyone with the power to do so) to be able to simply push changes to the text and erase the mistakes with no evidence of the change. That’s scary. Much more scary than 1984, where the government at least had to go to the effort of tracking down each copy of a book or newspaper they re-wrote.

  5. Well, versioning is, of course, what publishers have traditionally done: they’ve noted in the copyright section the book’s edition and printing version (though sometimes in a manner that can’t be easily deciphered by the novice).

    Another possibility for nonfiction is a technique that some news-sites use: adding a note at the beginning or end of the article in order to indicate what change has been made.

    I think different editions are fine, as long as it’s clear they’re different editions, and as long as older editions of substantially changed texts remain available.

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