One of the perceived advantages of electronic publication is the possibility of corrections. I say “perceived” because this casts us into the deep sea of uncertainty when it comes to citing sources. If you read an article, and something really struck you, then the author revised that very thing later, you would be “misquoting” if you quoted that fact you found so stunning. In our mania for keeping up-to-date you would need to constantly recheck your sources to ensure that you were working with the latest version of your resource. This level of change speed isn’t conducive to academic practice. When I was young I was taught that a book of the same edition, published under the same title, by the same author, would be the same across printings. That’s no longer true. Due to the ability to insert corrections, the same ISBN can result in two very different books. Call it the hang-up of an ex-literalist, but this bothers me.
Back in the old days it was common to publish books with a “addenda et corrigenda” page that listed the known errors. Beyond that you just had to suck it up and admit that there might be errors in your book. You had to face with fortitude when someone pointed them out. Now you can go back to the publisher, particularly if the book is in electronic form, and have your errors corrected. The only ones to be confused will be your readers. Why are we so bad at owning up to our mistakes? Electronic reading can lead to a slippery slope of confusion about what publishers call “the version of record.” Your permanent record, it turns out, can be changed after all! Mistakes can be erased. Sins can be forgiven.
In publishing the set standard had been that you had to wait for a new edition to change the interior text of your book. The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) was your guarantee that the contents would be identical to any other copy with the same ISBN. That’s no longer true. If you don’t pay attention to which printing you have (which is never cited in footnotes or bibliography) you could be citing in error. This practice has deep and worrying implications. It has come to a crisis under Trump, a president who constitutionally lies. Truth is what he says it is. And if you want to check the facts, well you better be sure that you cite your printing because any of your critics could easily stick a [sic] next to your words if they find any “error” at all.
No longer “Standard”?
It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. A similar idea lies behind the writing of a book. Sure, the lion’s share of the research and writing are done by the author—the person who gets credit for the work—but publishing is an industry. That means other people’s livelihoods are based on the end result as well. The author often doesn’t know what’s going on when the book is in production. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find the publisher’s website for my book is up. You can see it here. My own site for the book has been up for months (here; go ahead and take a look, there’s not much traffic). Those who only read these posts on Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter may not realize there’s a whole website out here that addresses things like books and articles. (I think the CV part requires updating, though.)
In a writer’s experience, seeing a book’s website—receiving an ISBN—is like the quickening of a baby. You’ve known for some time that it’s there, but the proof is in knowing that other people can find out. I only learned of this because a friend wanted a link to the book page. If you google the title without quotation marks you’ll find lots of websites about Christians and nightmares. (Who knew?) People of my generation still often don’t realize that, much of the time, searches with quotations marks are increasing necessary on a very, very full internet. I’m still not sure of a publication date for Nightmares with the Bible, but you can preorder it. (Sorry about the price.)
Once a friend asked me why we do it. Writers, I mean. Unless you’re one of the few who are very successful you don’t make much money off the project that has taken years of your life to complete. I’ve never earned enough in royalties even to pay for the books I had to purchase to research the topics on which I write. It’s not an earning thing, although that would be nice. For some it’s an expectation of their job. For some of us where it’s not, writing books is perhaps best thought of as monument building, a long and intensive “Kilroy was here.” You notice something you think other people might find interesting, and so you write it down. Chances are the number of other interested people will be small. Family (maybe) and a few dedicated friends will lay down the cash for an academic book. But still, there’s a village behind it, and I need to thank them here.
I risk being seen as even more of a book nerd by addressing the topic of International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs. For those who’ve purchased a book in the past several decades, you’ve seen ISBNs, but perhaps unwittingly. They’re represented by a barcode, often on the back cover in the lower left corner, or sometimes the middle. The ISBN is the edition’s unique identifier, but it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that the contents will be exactly the same since typos corrected for new printings may use the same ISBN already purchased. Yes, you read right. Publishers have to purchase ISBNs. Without them listings on many websites and distributors’ lists would be impossible. The ISBN is what fulfillers use to order books since neither author nor title is necessarily unique. Many book titles have been used to the point of dullness.
A typical ISBN
A colleague recently complained to me about being able to request permission to reuse something from a book without an ISBN. Rights vendors often require them. The ISBN came into usage, however, only in 1970. As I’ve learned from trying to load older books into my Goodreads list, there are all kinds of complications and potential confusions if you don’t have the unique identifier for your source. Titles cannot be copyrighted, and many are consequently overused. The ISBN is your guide to a specific book. If the book came before the ISBN system it’s going to take some extra work to ensure that you find the correct way to identify what you’re talking about. This is only one of the many ways in which the book industry differs from most others. It’s also the reason that I generally object to corrected printings.
Perhaps it’s odd to see a publishing professional take a hard line on book content. The fact is almost always an author is given the opportunity to proofread, well proofs. The copyedited, typeset book is given to them. Yes, errors may creep in after this stage, but that’s not very common. If an author didn’t catch mistakes, then a corrected edition ought to be published with a new ISBN. But that’s not how it works. Each ISBN should indicate the exact same content. Although an ISBN must be purchased, just one isn’t expensive (witness all the self-publishing going on these days and that should be obvious). Publishers that have to buy many thousands of them, however, are disinclined to waste them. I’m not a fan of all technology, but the ISBN seems like a good concept to me. Even if it’s not a guarantee that things are what they seem.