Are Ebooks Ever Done?

by Jami Gold on May 10, 2012

in Random Musings

Old book with latch

In the world of traditional publishing, if errors make it through the editing process for a book, authors (and their readers) are stuck.  A lucky few authors are able to get egregious mistakes like wrong character names or missing paragraphs fixed in later print runs, but most of time, errors remain in the text forever.

Enter ebooks and self-publishers.  Ebook (and Print-on-Demand (POD)) files are easier to fix and upload than the hard-formatted versions used in traditional printing.  And authors who self-publish can ensure fixes are made.

Is this ability to change an ebook file a good thing?

My first thought was “no.”  Too many times, if we think something is temporary, we won’t be as conscientious.  I don’t know about anyone else, but my handwriting is neater when I know I can’t get a “re-do.”  *smile*

Similarly, I want authors to treat their ebook files as a permanent, final version.  I don’t mean authors shouldn’t fix a typo if they find it, but I want to trust they did their utmost to ensure a book is free from errors, especially for anything above and beyond minor issues.

But I’ve been shocked to see some self-publishers take an “eh, I can fix it later” attitude.  I saw one self-publisher comment that he didn’t use beta readers because his real readers—the ones who have paid money for his book—would point out all his mistakes, and then he’d upload a new file.

Then what did he think would happen?  Most ebook retailers and self-publishers don’t have a nice, automatic way to update distributed ebook files, so readers are left out of later “fixes” for the most part.  That can make early buyers feel cheated if there are significant changes.

Granted, that self-publisher’s comments are probably an extreme case.  Just as likely among writers I know would be a perfectionist author, constantly wanting to tweak their books because they’re unable to let them go.  Neither approach is healthy in my mind.  Either way, I’ve always wanted to think of ebooks as being as permanent and unchanging as paper books.

Then I read an article yesterday that made me question my attitude.  The article was about an opera of all things, but it pointed out that most art forms are malleable.

Orchestras today have standards for what an A note is (440 cycles per second, apparently), but back when many classical songs were composed, there was no standard.  In fact, musicians often tuned their instruments “up” to sound more “brilliant.”  As a result, what we think of as an A note has changed over the centuries, and the classical songs we know don’t necessarily sound as they were intended.

The article then points out that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been trimmed down over the years and that there are three very different versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. How did we decide which one was the real masterpiece?

In other words, the article raised the question for me of whether art is ever “done” or “unchangeable.”  I know I prefer feeling like I have the final version of a book, but is that just my perfectionist nature speaking?  I don’t know.  But as more readers transition to e-reading, our always fluctuating culture might change its perspective on books in ways we never anticipated.

Do you think the ability to change ebook (or POD) files will affect how we view the permanency of books?  Should authors ever change ebook files?  Does your answer depend on if the change is for minor typos vs. more involved changes?  Do you think the ability to change files leads to a less conscientious attitude?  If an author changes an ebook file you’ve purchased, do you want to be notified of the update?

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37 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee May 10, 2012 at 6:15 am

I think authors should treat e-books like they do paper, where the original book is as error-free as possible, with remaining typos being fixed in following print runs.

Buyers of a first-edition print book with an egregious typo don’t automatically receive the repaired version. They might be offered a bookmark or something with the repair—if they bother to look for a repair—but they won’t automatically get the new version.

Now, if an e-book vendor automatically gives the new version to all readers, I’m fine with that (Smashwords does, I believe). But I don’t think it’s necessarily required.

If an author want to do a revision, say a decade later, (like Patricia Briggs did with Masques), then fine. It’s like reissuing a backlist title. But to treat it as malleable because it’s an e-book and easily changeable…strikes me as sorta unprofessional.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 9:14 am

Hi Carradee,

Good point about how readers don’t receive updates of printed books either. And for little things like typos or whatnot, that’s not a big deal. But the slight attitude shift makes me wonder if we’ll see more significant changes to address issues brought up in reviews. For example, imagine an author reads a review that points out a plot hole. Will that author be tempted to add in a paragraph or so fixing that?

As you mentioned in the duplicate comment I caught in the spam folder (which I deleted and rolled into the above for coherency’s sake), if someone wants to change the basic outline of the story years later as a full-on re-issue, that’s different. I know some authors have been doing that with their backlist just to bring them up-to-date technology-wise. They’re meant to be semi-new stories. But to change the basic story from the get-go seems unprofessional to me too.

Thanks for the great comment, and I’m glad I was able to rescue them from the spam folder. :)

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Carradee May 10, 2012 at 11:40 am

I’m glad you could rescue them, too. Much appreciated!

I’ve seen some folks make significant changes to reflect reviewers, so that’s already happening. I think some authors will have the charisma to pull it off, making it a group effort with a readership that enjoys being part of the process, while others will get lambasted for even trying it.

And then in my case, I discovered that I once accidentally uploaded an old (pre–final proofing) file for A Fistful of Fire. And there was a significant typo in the prologue. (The prologue is supposed to take place in year 222 on my fantasy calendar, not year 242—which is when chapter 1 starts.) I was very happy I was still e-book only when I discovered that goof.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Hi Carradee,

That doesn’t surprise me at all. And some crowds would be fine with that. (Some fanfic groups are more collaborative, for example.) But in general, I think authors would hurt their reputation for attempting it.

On the other hand, a typo like your example makes complete sense–it’s a tiny change, but a big impact. I bet you found the mistake quickly, before too many readers saw it. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Michele Shaw May 10, 2012 at 7:20 am

Wow, I’m just stunned that any author would take the attitude of not caring about mistakes and waiting for readers to find them. I want to say, “Get off your butt, ya lazy bum!” Maybe it’s because I’m the opposite — the anal, I can’t let go, omg I found a misplaced comma, neurotic writer type. I, like you, would like to think every writer out there wants to publish their best, but I worry that the ability to make changes will alter attitudes. I hope not. Sure, if a glaring error is found, it’s nice to have the opportunity to fix it, but I still think every effort should be made prior to publication to get it as close to perfect as possible.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 8:57 am

Hi Michele,

Yes, I was rather aghast when I read that comment. :) Like you, I might appreciate the opportunity to fix a typo, but I’d hate to see authors’ attitudes change about how much effort they put into the book pre-release. Thanks for the comment!

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Jessica Schley May 10, 2012 at 9:06 am

I don’t know how I feel about that analogy applied to ebooks. For instance, there have often been multiple editions of classic books. Ones which include different forewords or afterwords, or different sets of notes. And when a writer did have multiple versions of something, newer editions often include them (I know I have some Frost, Dickinson and Hughes volumes that include multiple “finished” versions of a poem.)

But I think the difference is, Orfeo was finished every time. It was polished and complete, whether the pitch is slightly different (as both a musician and a writer, that seems more akin to me to, say, picking up HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE vs. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE) , and no matter who sings the opener.

The problem with e-books, and especially self-pub ebooks, is that the mutability allows writers and publishers to put out an unfinished version to start generating cash right away. This was seen recently with a big 6 house with FIFTY SHADES OF GREY–it first appeared with incorrect front matter and no formatting, even though it was coming from Random House. When the print versions surfaced, the ebook version changed to the correct front matter and new formatting. So, the format makes putting the polish on it unnecessary.

But as a consumer, I want the polished version the first time. If a second edition includes new information that I don’t have in my version, I just might buy it, too…but I need to not feel that the author duped me into paying for their draft work. For instance, I just dropped over $40 on the second edition HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING, which I already own. But the new version has a whole bunch of changes I think are $40 worth of worthwhile…and the first one was no practice run for the author.

I think it’s great that ebooks make creating new editions easier–but I think they should truly be new editions. Polished. Finished. And adding something substantially new.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 9:34 am

Hi Jessica,

Great points! Yes, whether the pitch was different or the production used one type of singer over another, the opera was still polished and complete.

And I did a whole post about the lack of editing issue with FSoG Vintage release. Don’t get me started. ;)

I agree too, that this might be a different issue in non-fiction books where significant advances might occur over time. Non-fiction books–from textbooks to reference books–have a long history of new editions. People know when they buy them that this information is time-dependent, but it’s still the best information it can be at that time. The same time-dependency can’t usually be said for fiction. Thanks for the great comment!

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Amanda May 10, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I didn’t even know it was so easy to change an ebook. It’d be so tempting to continue to go back and make changes…”oh, no wait, this should happen! Or maybe it would be better if I did this!”

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Carradee May 10, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I’m getting a plot bunny for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type project, where the “same” story (characters, situation) has multiple versions for how the situation might end up, depending on what type of story the reader’s in the mood for.

That would be a pain to write. But potentially interesting.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Hi Carradee,

LOL! Funny. I think Tawna Fenske has an ebook released with that idea, but hers is a contemporary romance, where the reader chooses which guy she ends up with. :) It’s in my TBR pile, so I haven’t checked out how it works yet. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee May 10, 2012 at 4:12 pm

My thoughts are to put it all in the same file, though, where the reader picks an internal link. If you think of it, please message me on Twitter and let me know how that one works.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Hi Carradee,

Will do. But it might be a while. My TBR pile is epic. :)

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Hi Amanda,

Oh, I understand the temptation. :)

I’d probably just never read my work again once I released it. LOL! I can’t imagine ever not finding something to tweak, but I wouldn’t want to tweak word choices or anything because that’s all fiddling–in that a word that sounds right today won’t sound right tomorrow just because our moods change. It’s not healthy for us to not be able to call something done.

So yeah, I’d probably just never read them again. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong May 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm

I’m not sure how I feel about the ability to change ebooks, but nothing bothers me more than weird formatting and lots of typos. I find this with self pubbed books. We all make mistakes, but it better be close to perfect if you expect me to shell out money for it. If it’s not, I won’t buy another book from the same author.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Hi Buffy,

Yes, formatting and typos I think are legitimate things to fix. Especially because formatting often looks perfect on one end and comes out garbled on the other. So I don’t blame the author for doing their best and it still being messed up. :) In general, those changes won’t affect a reader’s interpretation of the story.

But as Carradee and I were talking about above, some authors are changing plot events and whatnot based on reviews. When the story and a reader’s understanding of it changes due to adjustments? Ugh. Something strikes me as really wrong about that. As you said, if nothing else, it would convince me to not buy from them again. Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong May 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm

I’ve seen this happen when authors update books that they wrote in the 80s and early 90s. I read this book when I was 14 or 15, a romance. I had no business reading a book like that at that age, but I loved it. Probably the reason I write romance novels. Anyway, I bought the book again a few years ago thinking I was buying the exact same book. I wasn’t. A lot of the really romantic parts were taken out. I was angry. So angry it ended up in the trash. So no, in that case, I don’t approve!!

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Hi Buffy,

Ooo, interesting! I’ve heard of authors updating older releases for technology reasons, just to make them seem less dated, but that’s a major change to the mood and concept of the book. I don’t blame you for being angry. What a way to tarnish the story that inspired your writing. :( Thanks for sharing!

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Chihuahua0 May 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Hmm…deja vu is coming in. Probably because someone else blogged on this topic a few months ago. Can’t remember who, though.

Art is malleable. For example, how would we know the true melody of the Psalms from the Bible? And not to mention the many different editions.

Also, the fact that nothing remains unchanged when something is translated. Language is complicated, so is culture. For instance, some footnotes are needed sometimes when a manga is translated into English, like on honorifics and currency conversions. But sometimes, a pun gets lost, so localization has to replace it.

But personally, grammar errors get a free pass, but major changes should be saved for different editions, with the original being preserved.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Hi Chihuahua0,

Great examples! Yes, translations are very much a product of the translator, and more things are translated from the original than people realize.

“major changes should be saved for different editions”

That’s a great way to put it. A comment above had discussed that in relation to non-fiction, but labeling fiction with edition information might clarify some re-release confusion as well. Thanks for the comment!

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Marcy Kennedy May 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I’m all for typos being changed because I see those as analogous to a musical performance. When I get up to play my flute, if I hit a wrong note, bungle my run, or I’m not perfectly tuned, I get a chance to fix that during the next performance.

As for big changes, I agree with you that what gets uploaded should be the final copy. If I thought an author would change something major in the book, I’d be hesitant to recommend it to someone else for fear that it had changed too significantly from when I read it. Moreover, as a people pleaser and a perfectionist myself, if I don’t think of an ebook as a final copy (just as I would a paper book), I risk the temptation to change it based on every piece of negative feedback I receive. That’s the quickest way to destroy any book. You can’t please everyone.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Hi Marcy,

Good analogy with a wrong music note! And great point about not wanting to recommend a book if you think it’s going to change. This goes back to that writing is subjective thing, and if an author is willing to change something because they think person A will like it, how do they know that wasn’t person B’s favorite part–like with what Buffy shared above? So I absolutely agree with you about how that’s a good way to ruin a book. Thanks for the fantastic comment!

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Andrew Mocete May 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Hopefully you get all the typos, but if you can fix some, that’s cool. As for the plot, I think that’s the author’s call. Sometimes, no matter how well you think you’ve prepared, the book wasn’t ready and this might be reflected in lack of sales. Then the question is do I a)forget that book and write a new one, b)pull and scrap it, hoping not too many people read it or c)pull and revise it because no one will notice a new version since it wasn’t selling to begin with.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Hi Andrew,

Hmm, interesting point about how if the book hadn’t gotten any (many) sales, there might not be a lot to lose with more major changes. Of course, if sales are low, it could be because of the quality of the sample or the blurb, as many people won’t even get to the sample if the premise in the description doesn’t sound interesting. :) Either way, an author might decide the risk of changing things would be worth it. Thanks for the insightful comment!

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Renee Schuls-Jacobson May 10, 2012 at 6:32 pm

I have to say, my reading experience is greatly diminished if I find error heaped upon error. I find errors incredibly irritating. So when I catch someone who should have hired a copy editor, well… it doesn’t make me want to buy anything else from that person.

But, like you, I am a perfectionist.

So maybe that’s my issue.

But seriously this is why I’m afraid of ebooks. I imagine I’ll never be finished revising.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Hi Renee,

“my reading experience is greatly diminished if I find error heaped upon error”

No doubt! I usually check the sample before downloading ebooks now. :)

As for being afraid of ebooks, yes, I understand. That’s why I mentioned above that I’d probably never be able to read my own work after it’s released. Thanks for the comment!

P.S. I fixed it. ;)

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StoriesAndSweetPotatoes May 10, 2012 at 6:40 pm

This is such an interesting topic. Only in the past several years have I found typos in books, even in traditionally published ones. I know sometimes errors get by, but I feel like books are being pushed through publication faster and small things like that are becoming more common. A book I read recently is coming out with an “edited version”. What the heck? I’m not going to keep re-reading the same book to see what sentences have been mildly altered. I say, once a book is done, it’s done. They aren’t wikipedia entries.

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Jami Gold May 10, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Hi Sara,

I know they’ve cut back on editing staff at many publishers. Yet for all this “rushing” of books through publication, books acquired today often won’t be released until 2014 or 2015. Feels like a disconnect somewhere in there, doesn’t it? :)

“They aren’t wikipedia entries.”

LOL! Love it. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Fiona Ingram May 10, 2012 at 11:41 pm

I also agree that despite the ability to ‘fix’ e-versions of a book, an author should make sure that what goes out is perfect. I eventually decided to release an e-book of my MG adventure novel, and was grateful for the opportunity to put in the ‘praise for’ reviews, the awards I’d won, and the extra chapters I had cut for the print version. My e-publisher was very strict about making changes after publication and advised me to sit on the book until I had changed/added/tweaked to my heart’s content. Although e-publishing is flexible, it’s not endlessly elastic. Readers will not come back to buy an updated or fixed-up version of a book. What they purchase will leave a lasting impression about an author’s work. Make sure it’s a good one!

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Jami Gold May 11, 2012 at 8:07 am

Hi Fiona,

“Readers will not come back to buy an updated or fixed-up version of a book. What they purchase will leave a lasting impression about an author’s work. Make sure it’s a good one!”

Well stated! Yes, this is yet another example of just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Shah Wharton May 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

I can’t believe an author thought to use paying customers as beta readers? Crazy or plain thick? Those readers could review his inferior text and ruin any chance of a good reputation for the future. Deservedly so to, me thinks.

I think error correction should be done before publishing takes place, but there are always stragglers, so it is not wrong to correct them as and when they’re found. If every effort is made beforehand, I’d feel fine about improving on the original. But I don’t mean plot changes and things like that. Only spelling/grammar changes. Nothing wrong with perfectionism, but there is a point at which one must let go. I don’t know what that point is, but when I get there I’ll let you know :)

Interesting article as always Jami! X

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Jami Gold May 11, 2012 at 8:14 am

Hi Shah,

Think about how agents still have stories–even after the rise of information about all this stuff on the internet–about receiving query letters filled with the author’s life story and no pitch, etc. (An agent tweeted about receiving one of those just yesterday.) Some people don’t care to do the research into what will make things great, or coherent, or even appropriate. These same people can self-publish now. *sigh*

Thanks for the comment! :)

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Gene Lempp May 11, 2012 at 3:07 am

I think quality is a long term benefit and that “first buyers” tend to be fans – combined, what the sloppy self-pubber will find is a loss of fans and those are not the easiest thing to come by or replace. So, yes, quality counts. As for whether art (of any type) is concrete, no, I don’t really think so – unless it’s made out of concrete, of course. *grins*

Dean Wesley Smith is one of those people I read consistently. He states many times that as indie’s it is smart business to give readers the best quality product in any format they might want it in. Which, would include, updated or corrected versions. The biggest point of this is quality – if you do your best at the start, then big changes should never be required.

Great post, Jami :)

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Jami Gold May 11, 2012 at 8:18 am

Hi Gene,

Ooo, great point about how the first buyers are often “fans.” Yes, the challenge with self-publishing is now discoverability. And who would be likely to discover a new release first? Those who have been following that author’s progress and waiting for news of the release. If the quality is bad, there’s a good chance they won’t be so quick to jump on a second release. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover May 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Why would any author expect his readership to perform the job he should do as a writer? I can’t get over that one.

Be professional, put out a quality product, make your book as error-free as possible. And then fix egregious errors later if you can — a wrong character name, a misspelling, a punctuation mistake. However, if you’re always going back and editing the last book after its release, how do you get to your future books and give them the time and effort they deserve?

Great post, Jami.

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Jami Gold May 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Hi Julie,

I agree, but then again, the stories from agents and editors about the high percentage of queries they receive that don’t follow any standards always blow me away too. :) And great point about how we can’t work on new books if we’re fiddling with the old. Thanks for the comment!

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