May 10, 2012

Are Ebooks Ever Done?

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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Comments — What do you think?

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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.

Michele Shaw

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.

Jessica Schley

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…  — Read More »


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!”


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.

Buffy Armstrong

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.


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.

Marcy Kennedy

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.

Andrew Mocete

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.

Renee Schuls-Jacobson

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.


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.

Fiona Ingram

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!

Shah Wharton

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

Gene Lempp

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 🙂


[…] Tired of me talking about (and mostly criticizing) the self e-publishing thing? You can go listen to a couple of other angles on the idea first from Jami Gold, an unpubbed author like me who talks about the idea that some authors simply skip having crit readers saying that those who buy their books from Amazon will be sure to let them know of errors. Cringe. However, she explores a different angle altogether regarding updates and changes based upon what she learned about the history of musical works. Check out her post on “Are eBooks Ever Done?” […]

Julie Glover

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.


[…] in my old post, I’d questioned whether this ability to change an ebook or POD file was a good thing. Now […]

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