From an article in Publishers Weekly:

In The New Republic, Laura Bennet writes of the increasing mutability of the book , the sense that digital text, trivially easy to update, becomes a “perpetual work-in-progress.”  She writes:

At stake here, some might say, is the question of the integrity of the book: When is a text finished? Any published book is necessarily a somewhat arbitrary product; most authors could tinker forever. But going to press demands that a book be done, at least for the moment. …

There is another key difference between the updated e-book and the revised print edition, aside from timing and cost: In the former, the revision literally replaces the book that preceded it. Once downloaded, in most cases, a new e-book supplants the original version as though the flawed first text was never there. A second print edition can exist alongside its first edition—an e-book, meanwhile, erases the record of what came before it.

This seems to me a critical issue for libraries: ensuring the preservation and access of mutable digital texts.  Digital books are more like ever-shifting websites than traditional print editions, no matter how often they were revised and re-edited by their authors.  Several commentators (e.g., John McChesney-Young) have noted to me that ebook versioning should be considered a mandatory archival practice.  Presumptively, this also seems like a useful business practice for publishers, but with an increasing amount of content being distributed outside of traditional firms (hello, Amazon), the capture of ebook changelogs needs some compulsory force more systematic than an imposition by nervous insurance brokers worried about loss-of-business assets.

The permanence and whole cloth replacement aspects of digital revisions should be deeply worrisome for librarians.  No one wants to see our cultural record stealthily rewritten to better suit the political or social times, much less the author’s or editor’s evolving peccadillos.   It may be that institutions at the level of the Library of Congress and Europeana will need to mandate versioning of digital books and continued deposit of iterations with a national depository.

More in the article.  Thanks to Michael von Glahn for the link.


  1. The other problem with attempting to preserve digital texts is that usefully doing so is already illegal in the US, soon will be in Canada, and the rest of the world is being pressured to follow suit. An archived .epub or .azw file after Adobe, Amazon, or Apple shut down their authentication servers will be about as useful as an archived .lit file is now that Microsoft have shut down theirs.

  2. “A new e-book supplants the original version as though the flawed first text was never there.”

    I fail to see this as a bad thing (assuming the text is, as you say, flawed). Books, now digital, have the ability to be updated easily; that’s a feature, not a curse.

    In the same way we buy a car, and accept the fact that it will be updated the very next year, we should be able to accept the fact that a text may be updated after we purchase the book. If a system is in place for us to either accept the change, or refuse to download it, we are given control over choice. The right to preserve a book’s flaws and outdated info isn’t that great a perk.

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