scribe.jpgBefore the printing press and moveable type, we relied on scribes (in the broader sense of being more than just a copyist) to record words and to copy manuscripts. This was a one-person operation, even if there were many scribes tackling the same document.

The advent of the printing press and moveable changed manuscript production. Now several people working together produce numerous copies of the same manuscript, each having a hand in the whole project.

But ebooks are changing our world again. eBooks in the age of the Internet puts us back to the one-person endeavor. One person can be author, editor, publisher, marketer — just what a scribe did 700 years ago. The question is: Is this progress?
The problem with the scribe system is that two scribes didn’t record the same event identically. And scribes were simply recorders, not investigators, so they did no verifying. Scribal work lacked assurances of credibility; if scribes recorded an event and then rerecorded it but did so differently, which version was the accurate record? And what about the third and fourth transcriptions? The printing press increased accuracy by creating a single record that was accurately replicated multiple times.

You can get a better sense of the problem by considering this: One scribe writes “Giving her the book or the candle is giving her a great gift.” A second scribe, at the same lecture writes: “Giving her the book and the candle is giving her a great gift.” Two scribes, two possibilities, two different meanings. Which is the correct transcription of the lecture? On which transcription should future readers act? What happens if more than one transcription is preserved and repeated in the future? What happens when a scribe 50 years later decides that since both can’t be right, the best thing to do is to combine them into a third possibility: “Giving her the book and/or the candle is giving her a great gift.” Perhaps this doesn’t matter much when talking about the gift, but it surely matters when discussing what the law is and what happened in history.

The problem in the Age of eBooks is the rise of the self-published author. This author is akin to a scribe. There is no assurance that the book I buy today will match the book you buy tomorrow and there is no book against which we can compare to determine the correct version. More importantly, once we stray from the world of fiction, there is nothing to assure the ebook buyer that the ebook author has done any fact checking. When a self-published ebook declares that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 6, 1941, how will the reader of the future know the truth or falsity of this assertion?

Granted the problem is less dire with “obvious” facts such as the Pearl Harbor bombing date, but what about with “less obvious” facts? How many of us know, for example, the years of the First Crusade without looking it up (1095-1099)? Or of the Children’s Crusade (1212)? Or the year Pompeii was destroyed (79 AD)? Or Rudolph Hess’ rank in Hitler’s Germany (Deputy Führer)? Or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)?

The scribe, like the self-publisher today, exercised great control over his or her individual endeavor. At-whim “improvements” could be made to the next rendition of the work and no one would know because there was nothing against which to compare the current work. It was a replay of the oral storytelling tradition, the handing down of stories from generation to generation with each adding its own embellishment, just done in written form.

But how good is this for consumers and scholars in today’s world? Revised editions, noted as such, are, of course, useful and acceptable. But the unnoted revised editions that can be expected with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, will create havoc in the marketplace. As reader’s catch an author’s errors and the author corrects his or her work (assuming the author does make corrections), what will be the effect of the errors on those who have read uncorrected versions? Suppose your child bases an essay on a college entrance exam on incorrect information gained from reading a self-published ebook about the Crusades?

Yes, it is clear that other scholars and authors can protest the inaccuracies and even correct them in their own work. But that assumes (a) that the number of sales of the incorrect work will rise to such a number as to attract attention, (b) that those who digested the mistaken information were made aware of the errors, and (c) that the correctors themselves are more than simply misinformers themselves.

eBooks are a great leveler of the playing field in the sense that the combination of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet lets anyone with the dream of being the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen Ambrose have the opportunity. This trio of opportunity can, however, cause chaos that is uncontrollable. Conversely, the trio can be the savior of education by combatting the flow of misinformation as is happening in Texas (see, e.g., Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change).

But no matter how the problem is cut, the question of whether a reversion to the scribal days that the trio of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet permits is good or bad remains to be seen. If self-publishers adhere to the more traditional publishing model of fact-checking, professional editors, and high (relatively speaking) quality production, the return to the scribal role will be positive. On the other hand, if the model of “push it out the door as fast as one can” prevails, ebookers and the public in general will suffer, albeit perhaps unknowingly.

Until ebook self-publishing settles into a more formal method of quality control, I think it will be effectively limited to fiction and nonscholarly work. The opportunity to expand into a recognized scholarly venue will be the catalyst that will change self-publishing in the wild to self-publishing on a more formal, certifiable basis. I predict that within the next 10 years we will see a certification process for self-published ebooks — perhaps even for all ebooks — designed to assure the ebook buyer of the quality and accuracy of the content and to assure that revisions and new editions are noted. I expect that future ebook self-publishing will more closely align to current pbook standards than is currently the case, all for the betterment of self-publishing.

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. While I think I understand the concerns raised in this article, I respectfully disagree with assertions that self-publishing equates to a loss in credibility.

    “…there is nothing to assure the ebook buyer that the ebook author has done any fact checking.”

    There is also nothing to assure the Pbook buyer either. Ask the Texas Board of Education if they believe currently accepted (and professionally published) textbook facts and a majority will likely tell you they do not. Self publishing merely places responsibility for valid content on the shoulders of the author where it belongs.

  2. Fortunately, we happen to live in an age where fact-checking is easier than it was even a century ago. And that is only one aspect of the one-person publisher: When one considers that one “scribe” can create one “document” that can be reproduced to any extent, there has been clear progress in terms of how many a single scribe can reach… even beyond the reach of a traditional publisher.

    There are also ways to record and independently verify the contents of a document, with copyright and institutions like the Library of Congress.

    We are capable of creating accurate and verifiable digital documents, if we apply the proper tools to the job. It will be the application of those tools that determine who is worthy of being listened to, and who is not.

  3. Even before computers, in the “age of the printing press”, people could self publish anything they wrote. All they had to do was take it to a printer and pay the fee. Just ask all those people who published pamphlets during the beginning of the American revolution, or all the peddlers of snake oil in Mark Twain’s day.

    The bottom line is that one should never blindly accept what we read, no matter who publishes it. The “age of the scribe” just brings that fact into plain sight. Certainly, this is not bad.

  4. I appreciate your views Rich, but many of your articles seem predicated on the idea that authors are incapable of doing a good clean up and editing of their own works. And conversely that all publishers do fantastic work that is not capable of being reproduced by any other methods. With many modern day tools, a lot of the ground work for clean up can be done readily, and there is less chance of the issue of a second scribe miss transcribing the contents. The internet provides a fantastic means of cross checking most things with a little bit of effort, and allows for corrections that Pbooks can’t hope to match. The Encyclopedia Britannica has errors that were published, and I presume had been through a review process before going to print. Wikipedia with it’s crowd sourcing abilities can have multiple groups pointing out and assisting to correct errors. A process that most ebooks could benefit from as well. The loss of the traditional scribe never removed the errors of reproductions, just reduced them. The process can always be skipped be it on paper or ebook, the internet and ebooks just makes it easier to do so with lower barriers to entry.

  5. @Erik —

    Some authors are very capable of doing a good clean up and editing of their own work but most are not, or if they are, they must grow bored rereading their own work because they do not do a good job. All publishers do not do fantastic work; increasingly they are doing mediocre to poor work. But at least in my experience, even a publisher’s mediocre work is often better than the author’s efforts.

    I can do my own taxes and file them as easily as my accountant can, but I still pay the professional to do it because the pro has more experience and knowledge than I do. The same holds true with publishing.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail