From movable type to movable text

The Review section of tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal includes a brief essay by me on what I think will prove to be one of the most radical consequences of the rise of electronic books: the ability to perpetually revise a book even after it’s been published. We take for granted the fixity of text in a printed book. But on a Net-connected digital reader, fixity disappears, replaced by endless malleability. Here’s how the piece begins:

I recently got a glimpse into the future of books. A few months ago, I dug out a handful of old essays I’d written about innovation, combined them into a single document, and uploaded the file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Two days later, my little e-book was on sale at Amazon’s site. The whole process couldn’t have been simpler.

Then I got the urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays. I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations …

Read on.

8 thoughts on “From movable type to movable text

  1. Yt7509

    But we should also not forget that the book as a “fixed object” is also somehow a cultural/commercial thing, but it wasn’t always the case.

    For instance somebody like La Bruyere in fact “published” only one book “The Caractères” but with at least nine successive editions, and not a unique case in XVIIth XVIIIth centuries at all.

    Also at the time there was no editors, more “printing book shops”, and no real notion of copyrights either, and “printing book shops” would copy/print more or less what they wanted, about this :

    Which in fact with errors in copying was also rendering the notion of a book as a work or edition much more “fuzzy” (still the case in China btw on some aspect I think)

    Droits d’auteurs/copyrights were then set up after french revolution with the abolition of privileges.

    Otherwise if it evolves this way, hope clear “publication acts” and associated dates will remain as available information.

  2. Tyler Moore

    While this constant stream of edits, updates, changes and corrections has obvious negative implications for history books, text books and other forms of non-fiction, as a web developer I can’t help but be excited about what this means for programming books.

  3. John Martin

    Similar trends in music, which has migrated from grooved/pitted immutable plastic to digital files, now even being streamed/accessed from central stores.

    Publishing platforms like SoundCloud allow ongoing tinkering and revision of songs. And one can envision how streaming services like Spotify and Pandora could enable ongoing changes to popular songs, allowing artists to update riffs, re-mix tunes, etc.

    Music has also shown how endless remixes and even homegrown YouTube music videos has enabled collaborative versions and reinterpretations by third parties of formerly static works.

    Digital rights management and copyright laws have put some brakes on these new capabilities; it’s not clear to me that new laws are needed to protect the original works.

    The article says changes are zero-cost, however there is a cost – the artist’s (or collaborator’s) time. Therefore changes need a motivator and some sort of return to spend time on it – and as pointed out in the article, there are both positive and negative motivations to alter a work.

  4. mdierken

    The revisions made are not hidden so nothing is lost. And the revisions made might even form more new information for readers, researchers and historians.

    Do Kindle books have a revision number, or a revision history, or a ‘view other revision’? Something like GitHub for books would be cool.



    I came across your piece in the WSJ and it gave me a link to here. I noticed from the WSJ piece that you write digital books and I noticed from this site that you blog. How do you distinguish these two media (digital books versus blogs)? That is, what do you see as their respective advantages and disadvantages for reaching your desired audience?

    To be more specific, I’m wondering what perspective would lead you to transform your old essays into digital books as opposed to blog posts or pages.

  6. Revkin

    The comment about textbook revisions above appears lopsided toward the negative.

    The great positive in this lies in the ability (at the college level at least) to keep a textbook endlessly relevant to a line of study. This may not be needed for Civil War history but for a course in anything related to current events, surely is a valuable capacity.

    Think molecular biology, climate change, Middle East studies, on and on.

    In essence, the line between syllabus and textbook is blurring, and I personally love the prospect of a living learning “script” for my courses at Pace U. instead of a static book.

  7. Don Craig

    Happily, I have the opposite problem. A tangle of my websites lies in the wake of the last 15 years, all now in need of revision. I value their presence too much to stop renewing the URLs, but my energies go into ever-newer web presences, leaving the old to molder. I tell my wife I have an appreciation for history, she says I just won’t throw anything out.

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