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.
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.)