by Tom Gilson, Against the Grain
A couple of recent articles have pointed out that the malleability of digital publishing can act as a double edge sword. Nicholas Carr in a piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled Books That Are Never Done Being Written recounts his experience with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Collecting a few of his previously written articles, Carr put them together and published them as an ebook for sale on Amazon. Quickly getting the “urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays”, Carr took advantage of the “immediate revision” capability offered by this type publishing and updated his essay. As Carr readily points out there is an obvious plus side to such immediacy. “It makes it easy for writers to correct errors and update facts. Guidebooks will no longer send travelers to restaurants that have closed or to once charming inns that have turned into fleabags. The instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date.” But there is also a dark side. Carr warns that the immediate revising of ebooks is open to abuse by everyone from the school board to authoritarian governments. And citing historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, Carr also argues that it undermines the “cultural preservative” provided by print and its”typographical fixity.” Printed books had an “immutable” quality. “They were written for posterity.” Something that is not often said about their digital counterparts.
An article in Forbes entitled E-Book Editing Raises Questions for Publishing puts this concern another way saying that, “printed books traditionally serve as reliable historical records, but if authors and publishers maintain the power to alter e-books periodically to make them more commercially attractive to consumers, the texts’ validity … could be compromised.” In short, are we in danger of losing the solid foundation that print provided for our cultural and historical records? How primary will primary source materials be in a digital world? Does digital publishing bring with it the death of permanence, at least in terms of the written word? Are the gains in updated facts and increased accuracy offered by “immediate revision” worth the costs? Or is there a middle road where we can have it both ways?
Take a look into your crystal ball and leave a comment letting us know what you think.