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The danger of covertly-altered ebooks

“Philip,” writing at his blog Ocracoke Island Journal about the ebook edition of War and Peace he bought on his Nook (emphasis below is mine):

As I was reading, I came across this sentence: “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern….”

For the sentence above I discovered this genuine translation: “It was as if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern….”

That absurd find-and-replace decision was apparently applied to every instance of “kindle” throughout the ebook.

The publisher of this particular edition is hilariously called Superior Formatting Publishing. Their website is a WordPress installation. That’s fine for weblogs of note, like this one, but unless you’ve hired a solid designer and/or developer, WordPress probably won’t cut it for a publishing website.

The company fumbles even worse in basing the majority of the site’s content on Amazon API calls. Amazon has presumably updated something in their API since Superior Formatting Publishing (really, two -ing words in a row?) because most of the site says only “Whoops, looks like there was a problem get the book data from Amazon. Please try again in a moment” or simply “Amazon API Error.”

“Philip” makes the point that “the ease with which anyone can commit such jackassetry with an ebook and a simple, stupid “find and replace” function. He says:

It makes one wary of the integrity of any digital version of not only War and Peace…but any e-book.’

He’s right. Sure, people could always publish altered versions of a text in the past, but it’s far easier to do with digital content than the paper stuff. This instance involves what looks like a very low-budget “publisher,” but there are many such publishers out there, often with cut-rate prices.

I wonder how many others are find-and-replacing classic works of literature. Are all such changes merely stupid, like changing “kindle” to “Nook” in the hopes (I assume) of avoiding some automated removal from the Nook store? Or are there people out there making the dangerous, destructive changes about which Philip opines?

Apple still faces legal action from multiple angles on the ebook front, and most big publishers and sellers know that this is still a nascent market.

But that’s what worries me: will the continued growth of the legitimate ebook publishing market mean the continued growth of D-list wannabes like Superior Formatting Publishing? How can we address the potential for the sale of covertly-altered literature? Is it something for the Federal Trade Commission to look into, as they did with blogger endorsements?

I’m always wary of increased government regulation as long as there’s a way for the market to take care of itself, but I fear there may always be a market for dirt-cheap ebook editions of literary works, sold with or without the right authorization (public domain, licensing, etc.), and with or without the text as it was actually written by the author.

We should all be careful and discerning about which publishers we go to for ebook editions of the books we want to buy.

Hat -tip to Professor Zittrain, on whose site I first read about this