Live books should be with us

A euphemism for physical books these days is to call them ‘dead tree’ versions. Of course, that is just descriptive as they have always been that but perhaps a better term may be ‘dead’ versions.

In today’s WSJ, Nicholas Carr argues that dead is good.

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

He argues that authors will tweak, update and improve. In other words, a dead version will come alive. Publishers may keep taps on what people read and …

… fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.

So let me see, Carr’s problem is books can be corrected, improved, made relevant and perhaps even more readable. And this is some sort of threat because bad people might take control and do just that. But his tone is that the improvements have too little value relative to potential abuse. They would become updatable “like software programs.” Hmm, last time I looked we kind of liked software updates.

What is he worried about? Carr believes a book — apparently in primacy relative to other forms of information — should be an immutable offer. Once published, that should be it. Everyone can then know what the book says and refer to it. To be sure, I think we can all relate to what one would term “the George Lucas” problem. That is the problem that occurred when Lucas engaged in some subtle re-writes in Star Wars films (i.e., Solo shot first!) that, in the opinion of many (OK, everyone), were not improvements at all. And, of course, if authors don’t like how things turned out and want to revise they’ll do it. Carr actually proposed government regulation that may have the consequence of limiting that.

But how can you know? How do you sift abuse from creativity? If George Lucas chose to hand over the Star Wars prequels to someone — nay, anybody, please someone! — to have another go, I wouldn’t want some law standing in the way. Personally, there is a case for compelling open access for improvements — the opposite of what Carr is doing.

The real issue — as covered in The People vs George Lucas — is that we don’t need regulation that constrains versions. What we need is documentation of changes and availability of revisions — just as we have on Wikipedia. For instance, on an eBook, you allow people to choose any version to read. If one version is not there, the whole version can be deemed to be ‘out of print’ and then anyone can publish it. That isn’t a regulation to make living books dead but a regulation to make published versions all available.

And on the issue of publishers and others learning what people like to read. Come on. If they learn and people read more, then great. If they try it and people hate it, they won’t buy the books. And if bad people take control, we have bigger problems than eBook revisions.

One Reply to “Live books should be with us”

  1. I find this particularly amusing because changes to books used to be utterly normal before the invention of printing. Medieval chroniclers and writers would constantly update and revise their works throughout their lives. It was only the invention of printing, a technology capable of precisely duplicating a single edition, that it became normal for books to be immutable. Ebooks, a new and disruptive technology, are in this respect rewinding the clock almost half a millenium.

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