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Update at (Page) 11: Letting Readers Know About eBook Revisions

Some thoughts on how to distribute and spotlight key changes + a call for suggestions

Ebooks, in theory, should be easy to change. After all, a huge print book drawback—stale text sitting on a shelf—no longer constrains digital editions of textbooks, fast-moving tech topics, or a biography of Charlie Sheen.

But between theory and reality stand two big challenges:

  • Getting the changes to readers who’ve already downloaded an ebook file
  • Spotlighting what’s changed, so folks don’t have to hunt for the meaningful fresh bits

The bottleneck blame lies with those who control the e-reading systems: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc. None of them make it easy for publishers to push out updates to ebook buyers. (Amazon does have a primitive change-notification system, but it seems mainly geared to correcting errors; in the three years I’ve been buying (lots) of Kindle books, I’ve never received an update notice.) It’s not that the technology doesn’t exist: Apple’s got a great system for alerting app owners that changes are available and even gives developers a great way to list important changes.

Update feature for apps on an iPad

The Updates section on an iPad makes it easy to see what's changed in each app.

Why can’t we have something similar for ebooks?

I think it’s a huge problem waiting to be solved. Plenty of publishers, including mine, have taken the first step by offering free downloads each time an author makes a big change to an ebook file. But what’s missing is a convenient, reader-friendly system that lets everyone know what’s new. Currently, you have to grab and install the revised edition and then figure out where the changes are. What a hassle.

Computer book publisher The Pragmatic Programmers has a solution that points in the right direction: “release notes” at the beginning of each revision they release. (No surprise, given that programmers for decades have had to figure out ways of alerting customers what’s changed in their software.) It’s an improvement, but the Pragmatic’s system seems particularly geared to their “Beta Books” program, in which authors release drafts as they write; the release notes consequently read like a long list of items the author is knocking off his “to do” list as he works towards the finish line. And you still have to deal with downloading the new file and importing it into whatever e-reading system you use. No fun.

Sports blog SB Nation takes a similar approach, but sidesteps the distribution hassle since they publish on the Web. Their StoryStream system treats each article as a kind of continuously updated blog post, complete with header labels for “Original Story”, “Major Updates”, and then a big collection of all the posts with minor updates—all listed in a long-page scroll. Changes can be viewed either by visiting the website or signing up for an RSS feed. Here’s one example: http://sbn.to/f0fJTp.

But I think what’s needed is something that’s more tightly integrated into the book reading experience. Something that puts a nicer polish on the change tracking and offers the equivalent of bumping into an author on the street and asking: “So, Herman, what’s new in your book?”

Below, I’ve sketched up one design idea that combines three features: a simple bullet list highlighting key updates; a video message from the author, giving him or her a chance to talk about what’s most important; and a combo treemap-style/heat map that offers a quick look at where big changes were made.

"What's New" Dashboard -- design sketch

A design sketch for a system that would let readers know what's changed in an ebook.

I’d love to hear thoughts from others about how they’d like to see this problem solved. My contact info is here; I’ll keep this post updated with suggestions. I’m in the early planning stages for my next book and am eager to use any reader-friendly solutions—especially ones that can be implemented in ePub (vs. an app or a web-based book).