That’s the thrust of an article in Forbes.  Picking up on a Wall Street Journal Books blog post by self-published author Nicholas Carr, the article raises some interesting questions:

But as with other forays into the digital realm, electronic publishing’s benefits come with some drawbacks. Printed books traditionally serve as reliable historical records, but if authors and publishers maintain the power to alter e-books periodically to make them more commercially attractive to consumers, the texts’ validity such texts could be compromised.

For example, a book that doesn’t do as well as expected by its publisher may be changed according to consumer feedback. Chapters might be added or deleted, or an unpleasing ending could be modified. If a book can be continuously changed, it isn’t really ever complete, and may not be a reliable reference.

Carr also points out that school boards and other authoritative bodies could abuse such capabilities, manipulating textbook content to reflect specific political or religious agendas, ultimately wielding a greater influence over what students or citizens are allowed to read.

Thanks to Nicholas von Glahn for the link.


  1. Sometimes a new capability requires a new institution, or new guidelines to an existing institution, to police it. No one likes “more laws,” but quite possibly literary organizations, or bodies like the Library of Congress, will have to provide tracking and access to altered works.

    We may have to establish a new method for designating certain texts as “historically significant,” and therefore required to notify a body in the event of an edit. This would place the burden only on certain texts, making the tracking and access job easier.

  2. Exactly how is this more of a problem than when print books are revised, sometimes quite substantially? All that’s necessary is an acknowledgement that a book is a new, revised edition. Even novels are revised, though not as frequently as nonfiction.

    There is also substantive manipulation of textbooks to reflect political and/or religious viewpoints. In fact, the problem has been acknowledged as a quite serious one. Publishers who have been pressured to change history or science (literally) for textbooks to be used in Texas have found themselves meeting opposition to such changes in states like California, which have refused to adopt such books.

  3. This is an imaginary ‘problem’. As Catana says above, paper books have been revised many times in recent history.

    Software has been through this issue for years and there is no problem issuing version numbers when revisions occur. In fact this is a fantastic new facility available to authors and publishers. Non fiction titles can be updated. Readers can subscribe to updates. Biographers can update their biographies. Even fiction writers might decide to revise a title that they may have written early in their career.

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