What Happens When an Ebook Gets Updated?

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India AmosBy India Amos, Textist

So, here’s the partial answer to a question I’ve been wondering about:

Subject: Kindle Title [title] (ASIN:[ASIN]) has an available update

Greetings from Amazon.com.

We’re writing about your past Kindle purchase of [title] by [author]. The version you received contained some errors that have been corrected.

An updated version of [title] (ASIN:[ASIN]) is now available. It’s important to note that when we send you the updated version, you will no longer be able to view any highlights, bookmarks, and notes made in your current version and your furthest reading location will be lost.

If you wish to receive the updated version, please reply to this email with the word “Yes” in the first line of your response. Within 2 hours of receiving the e-mail any device that has the title currently downloaded will be updated automatically if the wireless is on.

You can find more information about Kindle related topics at our Kindle support site below. http://www.amazon.com/kindlesupport

We apologize for any inconvenience caused and thank you for your business with Amazon.

Sincerely,
Customer Service Department
Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com

It’s a book I’ve already read, so I went to kindle.amazon.com to see if I had made any annotations. Turns out it’s one I’ve got multiple copies of (it was a freebie in all the major e-book stores for a while), so my markup’s on some other version. (If I’ve actually read an e-book, there is always markup; this is one of the biggest changes e-books have made to my reading habits.) I wrote back and said, “Yes.”

When the new file comes, I’m keen to know:

  • What are the differences between the two versions?
  • Did they fix any of the errors I’d marked?
  • Did any other vendors update the book?
  • Is there any indication of version number in the file?
  • Did the ISBN change?

I’m particularly interested in how this works because I’m prepping some e-book files for Cursor right now (no, really, Richard—right now!), and I’m nearly paralyzed with fear over not getting it right on the first try. It’s all fine and nice to mouth off about the importance of QA, until you’re responsible for it . . .

This has also been on my mind because I recently had occasion to complain directly to the publisher of an e-book I was in the middle of, which was positively filthy with errors (most of them, I suspect—we’re talking hundreds—the result of automated ePub conversion, but there were a fair number of genuine typos, as well). The next day I got an e-mail from their senior managing editor,1 asking me to provide examples of the errors. I’d been reading the book in Bluefire and laboriously2 highlighting all the offending passages, as is my compulsion, so it would have been easy to show her, had I been standing there with my iPod.

But to get those highlights out, in a human-friendly format, I had to spend some quality time with iPhone Explorer, BBEdit, and regular expressions.

Some publishers contact their customers directly whenever a book is updated—O’Reilly, SitePoint, Take Control come to mind—sometimes offering a free download and sometimes pricing it as a version upgrade, just as software developers do. Not coincidentally, all three of these publish technical books, and they seem to mostly sell directly to their readers. In the case of O’Reilly, even if you buy a print copy of one of their books in a bookstore, you can register it at the site and get a discount on the e-book versions, as well as notices whenever the book is updated. I’ve gotten updated files from all these publishers; none of them, to my recollection, included a changelog stating what had been corrected.

I’ve noticed that Barnes & Noble includes version numbers on its NookBook downloads, but do they tell you when a new version of a file you’ve already downloaded has been released? How are other vendors handling this?

Seems to me there might be a place in the e-book ecosystem for a framework like Sparkle, which seems to manage most of the updates in third-party Mac applications nowadays. The e-mail above also represents a strong argument for managing your annotations through some platform- and format-independent service such as ReadSocial, so that your comments and highlights can stay in place even if you have the same book in multiple formats, and even if the underlying file changes.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN EBOOK GETS UPDATED?

It took way longer than “within 2 hours” for the new version of that book to show up on any of my devices, but I finally was able to compare the old and new versions side by side (ah, the benefits of having both a laptop and an iMac).

I noticed a variety of changes:

  1. Replaced two (different) cover pages with one,3 having a different aspect ratio.
  2. Added a linked HTML table of contents. There is still no table of contents that the Kindle software recognizes; I’m guessing the file lacks a “guide” section in its .opf?
  3. Inserted page breaks among the front matter sections, which had previously been all jammed together (though the dedication is still run into the acknowledgments).
  4. Added a colophon graphic to the title page.
  5. Inserted the ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 amid the CIP data; there was CIP data before, but no ISBN appeared anywhere in the book, so I can’t say whether they changed it.
  6. Removed the stray line break that had appeared after the all-capped first line of each chapter.
  7. Added first-line indents that had been missing from most of the body text. (Unfortunately, they also added these to the first paragraph of every chapter, which does not need them.)
  8. Changed body text alignment to rag right, thank you very much. (Chapter heads are centered.)
  9. Fixed two typos in the first chapter (in both cases, an extra space followed an em dash).
  10. Included an image of the back cover of the print book at the end of the e-book. (The back and spine images and text were present before, but they floated free of one another, which looked stupid and made the back cover copy—which was light-colored, to stand out against a dark background that was no longer there—almost unreadable.)

So, some of the changes were to improve usability, some were to improve readability, some corrected errors, and some were cosmetic. One notable nonchange: they left in the “Printed and bound in the USA” statement, as well as the print line (that curious “10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1″ thing, to ye uninitiated), without updating the latter, though they would certainly have done so after making this many changes to the print edition.

I could find no acknowledgment in the visible text that this was a revised version of a previously released file. If someone can instruct me in how to pry open a .mobi file (I do know how to strip off the DRM, but the resulting .mobi can’t just be relabeled a .zip and double-clicked, as an ePub file can), I’ll take another look.

FOOTNOTES

  1. WITH A COUPON FOR $20 WORTH OF BOOKS, PLEASE NOTE! This is how you do it, people. []
  2. O Excellent Micah, please note! It takes way too many taps to make a simple highlight. Compare with how efficiently the eReader iPhone app handles it. []
  3. I don’t know why it had two in the first place—unless maybe the print edition is one of those where just inside the cover there’s a tipped-in four-color illustration, to sex it up? I used to strip those from our rips when I worked in a bookstore, save them up, and employ them as stationery; I probably still have a stack of unused Fabios somewhere in my house. (In case you aren’t aware, mass-market paperbacks such as romance novels are cheaper to destroy than to re-warehouse when they don’t sell, so booksellers are asked merely to rip off the front covers and send those back for credit. The resulting flayed carcasses, called “rips,” go into the everpresent Dumpster out back.) []

This article was originally published at India, Ink, and has been reprinted with Ms. Amos’ permission.

India Amos has been art director for the daily online magazine Nextbook.org (now Tabletmag.com), a book designer at St. Martin’s Press and Neuwirth & Associates, and managing editor of Seven Stories Press. From 1999 to 2001 she was webmaster of poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets. In 2008, she entered the Interactive Telecommunications master’s degree program (ITP) at New York University.

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