Some e-books are published with plenty of errors, and others might have other reasons to be updated over time—especially non-fiction books in fields subject to new discoveries. And it would seem that e-books should be easily changeable at need, given their malleable, re-downloadable nature. But at present, none of the major commercial e-book vendors really supports much in the way of e-book change notifications. On his blog “A New Kind of Book,” Peter Meyers talks about this problem and offers suggestions for ways to fix it.

He points out that Apple has a particularly good change notification and explanation system in its app store updates tab, and it would be ideal to have something similar for books.

I think it’s a huge problem waiting to be solved. Plenty of publishers, including mine, have taken the first step by offering free downloads each time an author makes a big change to an ebook file. But what’s missing is a convenient, reader-friendly system that lets everyone know what’s new. Currently, you have to grab and install the revised edition and then figure out where the changes are. What a hassle.

Meyers looks at a couple of publishers—a technical book publisher and a sports blog—that have change update notification methods, and how those methods fall short. And he sketches out a design idea for an update system that would provide comprehensive information on exactly what points changed, right down to a diff-style window of before-and-after notes.

Of course, even if there was an idea form for tracking book changes, e-book vendors would still need to be convinced to use it. And it’s not clear whether Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple could be convinced that retrofitting such a structure into their stores would be a good use of time and money.

(Found via republication at O’Reilly Radar.)


  1. They should just use some appropriate flavor of the already existing and robust revision control systems out there that programmers use all the time, like Subversion or Mercurial or Git. Even something simpler like wikipedia uses for it’s version control would be huge.

    And yes, I also think purchasing an ebooks should entitle you to all the past and future changes to a version, since we apparently don’t own the books. For a fiction title that doesn’t really get ‘updated’ other than for typos and such, this is fine. For people that think this free future versions is no good for text book and reference books, I’d agree. In that case, revisions should only be free within an edition… again, minor error corrections, etc. Major content changes would require repurchasing.

    This is one of many things that need to happen in the ebook world, and is something that could be done feasibly right now.

  2. It is really difficult for a publisher to determine what version a vendor even has on their distribution pipeline. There needs to be a visible identifier of some sort in the metadata. ONIX I am sure will be addressing this at some point on the metadata side, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the ePub file being recognizable on face value with naming conventions of eISBN.epub. Changing ISBN’s for each version seems a work around, but not ideal. Perhaps eISBN_vX.epub or something of the like. It definitely is a customer service question that needs to be addressed, along with a logical vendor notification system.

  3. As someone completely outside the industry I know little about this ISBN process except what I have read over the last 6 months. It seems to me that the ISBN system is totally incapable of being adapted to the new world of digital and publishers and authors need to adapt systems used successfully by software developers for years.

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