Monday, June 20, 2011

Will books someday be works in progress?

I had occasion recently to run into Roger Berkowitz, the CEO of Legal Seafoods. I made a point to compliment him on the uniformly high quality of his many restaurants, both the food and the staff. His reply was, "It's always a work in progress." In so saying, he acknowledged the nature of organizations. Even those institutions and firms with a progressive management philosophy and a long history of excellence know that continuous improvement is, as the name suggests, a work in progress.

Then, coincidentally, I was talking with Mark Graban, who is co-authoring his second book, with Joe Swartz. It's working title is Kaizen for Healthcare: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Sustainable Improvements.

As we discussed his writing and revising, I said something about it being a "work in progress," and he correctly noted, "There is no continuous improvement with books." By which he meant, of course, that once a book is published, it is a snapshot in time of the author's skill and ability in presenting a message. While you may be able to put out a second edition at some time in the future, that pesky first edition -- with all its flaws -- is still out there on people's bookshelves and in libraries.

But I wonder whether, with the advent of electronic books, that will change. Certainly, it is much easier with ebooks than paper books to put out a second and subsequent editions, so that later purchasers get a different version from the earlier buyers. But will it go further than that?

Right now, when you purchase an ebook, the version you download stays the same for all time. Can we envision a time in which the version you downloaded gets updated whenever the author chooses to make a change? Think of it as an Adobe software update!

What do you think? Are we headed that way?


Mark Graban said...

Hey Paul - thanks for mentioning my upcoming book and thanks for chatting earlier about it.

I heard somebody at ThedaCare last week say that "budgets are obsolete the day they are published," the same can be true about books and other publications. We published that DVD about "strategy deployment" at ThedaCare - the general principles are the same but some specific details have changed since last November when things were filmed. A snapshot in time. That also highlights the downside of chasing what other organizations have done - you're chasing a past snapshot in time.

I'm currently working on the oh-so-non-continuous improvement, a 2nd edition of Lean Hospitals.

I would, as a reader and an author, love to have the opportunity to do more continuous updates on books. People who self-publish PDF books are doing that and if you self-publish on Kindle, you can upload a new version every day if you want.

But as the owner of a book, do you want it updating and changing on your own device? I'd say probably yes.

Anonymous said...

It's already here in places. See O'Reilly books for example, where registered book owners get updated versions with errata applied.

There is a difference between new editions (not free) and errata (free). As book owner, you decide when and whether to replace an old version with a new version.

clsmt said...

As a book owner, this would be something I would want to control. Also, it's interesting to see people's thoughts evolve over time.

Anonymous said...

I wrote one of the best comments I've ever written, and Google's persistent problems with its multiple login systems ate it.

It was about books becoming platforms for ongoing discussion, linked to specific sections in the book, similar to how a Kindle copy of a book shows you which sections others have highlighted, updated in real time.

Google's having a real problem these days with releasing stuff that doesn't quite work yet. I had to erase my Android and start over, recently, because of the same login issue.

- ePatientDave

Dr Emily Mayhew said...

Updating books continually really depends on the kind of books you are writing/reading. If it's a novel, constant updating simply means the author couldn't bear to finish it, which makes them a bad storyteller. But for non-fiction, whether for general or educational readership, the question is more complicated. As a historian, it is useful to be able to draw a line under a piece of research, to present it as complete at a point in time. Other historians or researchers will react to it either positively or negatively and drive the field forward. Constantly adding to it won't change that and may encourage researchers to hold back in their analysis in case they find something later. I think you can have it both ways as a writer of non-fiction by having a website alongside the book. A website allows for really detailed referencing, bibliography, extra images and some updates, although nothing substantial - if a historian changes their mind, then it's time for another book. A website also allows for reader feedback, and future historians should engage with this and update the website so this becomes a separate not equal resource with their book. For student text books, the situation is slightly different. Regular updates are essential, provided that proper peer review is in place and does, to an extent already exist in increasing use of online journals and sources. Finally, it is also worth considering that allowing constant updates gives someone else a controlling interest in your own library - this is not necessarily a good thing as anyone who has had a book suddenly deleted on their Kindle will testify, even if you get a refund. For details on what this kind of activity might mean in the future, see Jonathan Zittrain's masterpiece, "The future of the Internet and How to Stop It."
Dr Emily Mayhew
Military Medical Historian
Imperial College London

Michael Hood said... offered to replace one of my Kindle ebooks with an updated version, free of charge. The only drawback is the new version does not contain the highlights and bookmarks I made to the previous version. (Amazon did inform me of this before I accepted the updated version.)