Nicholas Carr has an article in The Wall Street Journal about the malleability of e-books. Because a digital edition can be perpetually edited, it is never officially finished. He muses on how intrusive school boards and dictators will tinker in otherwise “published” e-books.
The section that interested me most (as I’ve pondered the article’s subject before) was this:
What may be more insidious is the pressure to fiddle with books for commercial reasons. Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
I can absolutely see publishers doing this. It could create a world where books are tailored to fit a majority, in the same way market testing has resulted in a bevy of cookie-cutter movies. On the other hand, one could argue that this isn’t so different from the modern writers’ workshop.
One issue the article doesn’t delve into is how editable e-books can encourage more collaborative reading. One could imagine people trading versions of the Bible annotated by Christopher Hitchens or popular novels with erotic fan-fic written in, or copies of The Da Vinci Code with embedded photos of the art mentioned in the story. You’d end up with a variety of specially named editions floating around.
This would all serve to add to the notion of the physical book as a collectors item. With e-books as ephemeral, the printed book may continue to exist as the authority on what the final, official draft is. In the future when print runs decrease dramatically, having a personal copy of the rare, unchanging, printed book will give its owner a certain authority on the text and having a personal library will again become a status symbol.