October 3, 2011
When e-Books Are Revised
Two stories popped up recently, one from Stephan Shankland via CNET and one from Carol Saller in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Both dealt with the mechanisms of correcting e-books for typos and such. Shankland’s example concerned the Kindle version of Neal Stephenson’s novel, Readme. Kindle users received a cryptic message that the e-book had to be replaced because of “missing content.” That set off a whole flurry of discussion on Amazon reviews of the book wondering what the changes might be. As it turns out, they were minor changes to sentence structure more than missing content. The example in Shankland’s article suggest either an editor or the author caught some sloppy writing after the book had been prepared for electronic publication and someone decided to fix it. There is no explanation as to why this happened.
The point of Shankland’s article is that someone, Amazon or the publisher should have explained exactly what “missing content” meant to the reader. The implication with such a message is that sections of the book were missing which was far from the truth. One statement Shankland makes, however, is completely wrong: “The problem isn't the kind of thing that would happen with a paper book.” Oh, far from it. How many times have I replaced a reporter on the shelf because West made a printing error, or how many times have I had to paste a sheet over a page that corrected bad text. I realize that primary legal materials differ in their authority compared to a novel. Nonetheless, errors creep into general books as well.
This leads me to Carol Saller’s article. She comes at the same problem from the other side. She relates how she copy-edited Edward W. Wolner’s Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago: Architecture, Institutions, and the Making of a Modern Metropolis. Her problem is that one of the illustrations included in the printed volume is wrong. That can be corrected in a second printing with an impression line that distinguishes between versions of the same edition. An e-book is a different animal, especially for scholarly purposes. She suggests that there should be some way to make the same distinctions with e-books.
I agree in that I think there should be something like a revisions and corrections page noting those changes. Stephenson’s publisher treated the novel a bit too casually when a little more information would have gone a long way with those who purchased the book. Printed versions of loose-leaf texts at least have indications of the currency of the text through release numbers and dates appearing somewhere on the page. Revisions to electronic texts should adopt some similar form of notice.
One type of publication where multiple or continuous revisions could be a feature rather than a bug is electronic textbooks, especially law books. Virtually every constitutional law or criminal procedure casebook goes out of date with each Supreme Court term that passes between editions. It would seem practical enough for the academic authors to at least acknowledge that there is later precedent that affects the commentary and analysis contained in the text. A fast update such as this would make an e-textbook that much more marketable for students and faculty alike. I hope law publishers take this concept into account. And while we're at it, an e-textbook format can support multimedia. How hard would it be for an author to offer video commentary on a point? Let's make use of the existing technology to realize the possibilities.[MG]