Patching e-books

Apparently, Amazon has been wirelessly updating error-ridden books, and it raises the obvious question: Should e-book patching even be a thing?

I'm torn. I mean, technology-wise, I think this is great, though I can see the potential abuses all too clearly.

Patching is not a new thing. Computer games have been doing it even longer than George Lucas.* Even print books get the occasional story-tweaking revision. So let's not pretend this is some new, infuriating thing that Big Publishing is doing to us. The difference now, though, is that eBooks can be patched immediately -- even automatically without the user's consent.

I'm going to say auto-patching is a Bad Idea because of Potential Abuse #1: Tweaking the story. Imagine a writer with Lucas Syndrome, endlessly fiddling with his masterpiece. You're halfway through his novel when a character references something that never happened -- except it did happen, in the revised version that got pushed to your device after you started reading.

Even without auto-patching, I fear this abuse. We'd all be arguing over whether Han or Greedo shot first, only to find out we were reading different versions.

Computer games show us Potential Abuse #2: Publishing the novel before it's done. In November, 1999, me and my fellow game developers were working 80+ hours/week to get our game finished before Christmas. We were close, but it was buggy -- critical cutscenes didn't play, others crashed the game, memory leaks made the game unplayable after an hour or so, important characters would kill the player for no reason, etc.

It sounds unplayable, and for some people it was, but they released it anyway. If we brought up a bug at status meetings, we were invariably told, "We'll fix that in the patch."

Don't get me wrong, we made a dang good game, but if you play it without that patch, I pity you. And I fear a world where authors release rough drafts of a novel for quick sales, knowing they can always "fix it in a patch."

That said, I think abuse would be the exception. I think most authors, if they updated their novels at all, would only make small changes. I say that because most film directors don't make controversial changes every time a new video format is released. Most game developers release playable games, using patches for bugs they couldn't have foreseen.

If it actually works that way, it could give e-books more value. We all know the things e-books can't do (can't loan, can't resell, DRM, etc), but print books can't be updated to make themselves better. You'd have to buy another copy for that. Mostly, I think this would be a good thing.

What do you think?

* Apparently, the term 'patching' is from the old punch-card days of computers, when a bug fix had to be literally patched onto the cards.


Myrna Foster said...

Writer's should get it right before they sell it, and that's coming from someone who has Lucas Syndrome. If I could make changes, it would be hard not to abuse it.

jjdebenedictis said...

To get really paranoid and dire, how about the ability to censor and distort every book a person--or even the population at large--owns?

The thing about physical books is you can't sneak a change in there once it's on the paper. You can't edit that history.

Adam Heine said...

That's another really good point, JJ. I was already against the automatic patching of books, but now I think I'm dead set against it. Users should be allowed to choose whether or not they want a new version.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

important characters would kill the player for no reason
I would totally play this game, just for giggles.

And as for abuse #1, I think there should be some kind of temporal distortion law against changing the story, punishable by ... well I can't think of a punishment extreme enough for that.

That being said, having just uploaded a new print version (to eliminate a single typo!), I'm all for patches that fix things like that. But new version? Even my Nook asks nicely, "Are you ready for me to potentially wipe out your entire library, I mean, receive an update?"

It's only polite.

Jen said...

Sequel to 1984, anyone? I love the idea, for a book. Not so much in real life! I have no issues with patching, I suppose, but not being given the choice? That's where a line should be drawn. It might start with correcting typos, but who is in charge of it, and why should we believe they won't misuse it?

(In less disturbing news, I have an award for you on my blog!)

Matthew MacNish said...

I can't even think. I can't get over that you helped make Planescape: Torment.

I LOVED that game! That little talking skull. Wasn't it the Baldur's Gate Engine? I can't seem to recall now.

Heidi W said...

I'd be scared to have the ability to patch--scared that I would want to change the text after some reviews that might highlight some default I hadn't noticed before.

And the other issue is that if patching is available--it never ends. With hard copies, the book is published and you move one to the next one. There's no rethinking it or obsessing because it can't be changed.

Interesting post--something I've never even though about.

Emmet said...

Yeah, I'm fine with fixing typos, but anything else should be banned or optional. I don't want to go back or re-read a book and start questioning my sanity. If you want to have a popular release, a directors cut, and an unrated version that's fine, just keep them separate.

K. Marie Criddle said...

I fear I'd endlessly abuse such a thing. As much as typos take me out of a story, as a writer, I'd be tweaking the ebook constantly. I think the beauty of being published is the sense of "it's now out of my hands; let the world decide" type closure. Heck, it's probably how a lot of writers stay sane and productive.

fairyhedgehog said...

As a reader, I think that Emmet has the right idea: maybe release different versions but no major changes through patches.

I didn't realise there was a historical physical basis for "patches". I do remember when "cutting and pasting" meant exactly that, using scissors and glue!

Peggy Eddleman said...

Wow! That's something I hadn't really thought about. But there are tons of typos in books-- even ones that have been through a lot of printings, and I'd bet an author would jump at the chance to fix them.

But I agree-- changing content wouldn't be a good thing.