Typos and Worse: When E-Books Need Correcting

Photo: New York Times, May 10, 1914, p. 21

Not long ago an author e-mailed us in dismay: An image in his newly published book was wrong.

The book, which I had copy-edited, was so new it was still on my desk: oversized and gorgeous, Edward W. Wolner’s Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago: Architecture, Institutions, and the Making of a Modern Metropolis.

But in Chapter 12, in place of an image of the renovated Times Square Heidelberg Building (1914), a skyscraper of “high slenderness,” there appeared a mystery building, undeniably squat.

(Mystery building)

Although we all rushed around trying to figure out what had happened, it didn’t matter: It was too late to stop the presses. The best we could do was promise to correct the image at the first reprinting. And that won’t happen until the stock of the first printing is depleted.

When Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago is reprinted, the “impression line” on the copyright page will change. Currently this line identifies the book as a first printing, from 2011:

20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11        1 2 3 4 5

The second printing, let’s say in 2013, will look like this:

20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13                      2 3 4 5

Thus, if our goof results in any scholarly disputes down the line, it will be possible to determine which version is the more recent one.

But what happens when a book is published digitally? If the digital version is prepared from the printed version, the impression line is typically the same in both, changing accordingly with new print runs, although Russell David Harper, who worked on the electronic version of The Chicago Manual of Style, points out that the conversion process can introduce a host of errors. Thus, says Mr. Harper, the odds are high that a digital book prepared from the printed book’s electronic files will not match exactly—especially for Kindle and other formats with reflowable text.

And what about books without a print run? Increasingly, some books are made available only in digital form (for e-readers) and as print-on-demand (p.o.d.) hard or softcover books, printed one copy at a time or in small batches as readers order them.

Publishers of p.o.d. and digital books have no need to wait for a new print run in order to make corrections. Rather, they can upload revised files whenever they like. It’s common for this to cost very little, so it’s feasible to make corrections any time an error comes to light. There can be hefty costs in time and trouble, of course: The author or publisher must enter and proofread the corrections, possibly in several different formats (.mobi, .epub, .pdf). But compared with correcting a warehouse full of printed copies, correcting digital copy is a perfectly practical option.

And when an e-book is sporadically or perhaps even frequently revised, is anyone keeping track? What’s the difference between a new printing and a new edition? And does it matter?

It may not matter for ephemeral works, but for any work destined for later scrutiny or citation, it is important to be able to identify which version came first. In the same way reporters and authors give an access date when they cite an online source, e-books can include an impression number as well as an edition number.

A new edition of an e-book, like that of a conventionally printed book, is warranted when substantive updating and revision occurs: a new preface, an added chapter, seven more years’ worth of source citations in the bibliography. For lesser revisions, it makes sense to note a digital reprinting (or impression) every time new files are uploaded, whether it’s to correct one typo or a hundred.

Doug Seibold of Agate Publishing agrees that it’s important to distinguish among e-versions of books. “To my mind, this is related to the whole question of determining the publication date of origin on Web-only stuff, and how, on the eternal Web, one indicates to readers that something on a page has been changed/corrected/updated, when, and why.”

For printed books, the possibility of more than one version has existed for millennia. Even ancient text manuscripts had “print runs,” courtesy of multiple scribes, whose corrections in red ink left no confusion over which version was first.

Surely we can figure out a way to do as much.

Photo courtesy Studiolum.

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