ebookI read a very interesting post this week at GoodeReader, which asked this question: how do we know our eBooks aren’t being altered?

When I first read the headline, I thought this would be about post-publication correction, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t want my books to be re-written whole cloth after they have been bought and read, but I welcome revisions which involve correcting typos or improving poor formatting.

But our friends at GoodeReader are asking about something else. From the article:
In a recent thread at the e-reading website MobileRead one user explained their reasons of changing the fabric of a book: “I recently uploaded The Queen of Hearts (a collection of novels written in the 1850s) by Wilkie Collins to the MR library. As well as changing ‘gayety’ to ‘gaiety’ and ‘gayly’ to ‘gaily’ I also changed ‘gay’ to ‘light-hearted’. I did this because the English language has changed in the last 150 odd years. In our day ‘a gay man’ would almost certainly be read as ‘a homosexual man,’ and this is simply not what Collins meant – he would have used a different term if he had dared to mention a character’s sexual orientation at all. I did add a note to the posting that I had updated spelling and hyphenation – I also changed ‘to-day’ to ‘today’ for example.”

I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s not the choice I would have made; the English language HAS changed—but of course, if one wants to read modern English, there are plenty of contemporary authors to enjoy. If you want to read Collins, you should read Collins.

At the same time though, the publishing industry does have a long history of adapting and making use of public domain materials. I am thinking of things like the ‘Classics for Children’ books one always finds. Certainly, this poster at MobileRead is not the first to do a little tweaking. And, as the works of Wilkie Collins are most firmly in the public domain, he or she has done nothing wrong.

I suppose my conclusion, then, is that it’s all about playing fair. This poster did fully disclose the changes; if you’d rather read the book as Collins wrote it, there are other editions available to you. So where is the harm?