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Needles, Haystacks, & eBook Updates

How hard is it to update a digital book after a reader buys it? I’m talking about things like fixing typos, freshening stale references (e.g. web links), maybe even adding a new afterword from the author.

Ask the average reader and my guess is the answer tends towards: “Well, not very hard, right?”

Ask the average publishing professional and the groans and head shaking tell it all: authors who’ve moved onto the next project and can’t be bothered; internal workflows poorly equipped to capture and implement change requests; and reading systems (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) that make delivering updates either impossible or a reader-hostile pain.

India Amos reports on her own experience with a revised book from the Kindle Store…and it’s a sorry litany of Amazon trying to do good in a digital world, but causing more pain than pleasure. (Those highlights and notes you made in the edition you bought? Yeah, those are history if you download the update. Gee, thanks.)

But what really caught my eye was a point India touches on throughout her piece: how on earth are readers supposed to know what’s changed in the new file?

If a publisher is simply fixing typos and stale web links, I’m not quite sure what reader service that provides. After all, assuming these corrections get made months after a book’s release, most folks have already finished reading. They’ve suffered through the annoyances of poor formatting and proofreading; who cares whether the publisher went back and fixed that stuff?

But the real promise of updated ebooks lies in more substantive “freshening up” efforts. I’m thinking about things like computer books that address software changes; current event titles that remain, uh, current; and academic publications that reflect new scholarship. In all these cases, what the reader doesn’t want to do, is go back and re-read the whole magilla. Instead, publishers who can figure out how to offer a guided “what’s changed” tour will earn some serious loyalty.

One easy-to-implement, early model: tech publisher The Pragmatic Programmers publishes in-progress drafts of their books and calls these editions “Beta Books”. Each update comes with a simple front-of-the-book message from the author, listing the key changes:

Beta Books "what's changed" page

Beta Books from The Pragmatic Programmers list what's changed in each new release