We live in a world of tremendous political upheaval and lobbying groups consistently push their own agenda. When it comes to digital books, they are less immune to being edited or certain passages, words or phrases being replaced and substituted with something else. How do we know our eBooks are not being altered when we buy them from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo or iBooks?
Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884. There are over 200 racial slurs spread throughout the book and it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the USA, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright. Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books published in 2011 a new edition of the book that replaced certain words with more politically correct ones. The publisher went on a PR speaking tour of libraries and schools to hype the fact this particular version of the book is acceptable to be sold.
One of the big proponents that contribute to the overall problem is open sourced books that are royalty free and not have a copyright. Many publishers such as Penguin resell them as Penguin Classics, and other companies like Project Gutenberg give them away for free. Public domain books can be edited or changed without reason and then resold and distributed through other self-publishing platforms. There are no gatekeepers, no one to make the judgement call if this is best practice.
Many European countries actively erect barriers to combat the problem of changing words in a book. They have what’s known as a moral rights that has no time limit. So you are not allowed to significantly change work and publish it even if the commercial copyright has expired. Moral rights have had a less robust tradition in the United States. Copyright law in the United States emphasizes protection of financial reward over protection of creative attribution.
In a recent thread at the e-reading website MobileRead one user explained their reasons of changing the fabric of a book “I recently uploaded The Queen of Hearts (a collection of novels written in the 1850s) by Wilkie Collins to the MR library. As well as changing ‘gayety’ to ‘gaiety’ and ‘gayly’ to ‘gaily’ I also changed ‘gay’ to ‘light-hearted’. I did this because the English language has changed in the last 150 odd years. In our day ‘a gay man’ would almost certainly be read as ‘a homosexual man,’ and this is simply not what Collins meant – he would have used a different term if he had dared to mention a character’s sexual orientation at all. I did add a note to the posting that I had updated spelling and hyphenation – I also changed ‘to-day’ to ‘today’ for example.”
We are experiencing turbulent times when books are banned and publishers want to push out their own sanitized versions. Others merely clean up old English with modern day English to make books more accessible. Many people believe making any edits is a horrible violation of the author’s work and a disservice to readers. I lean towards that mentality primarily due to respecting literary history.
Michael Kozlowski is the Editor in Chief of Good e-Reader. He has been writing about audiobooks and e-readers for the past ten years. His articles have been picked up by major and local news sources and websites such as the CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and Verge.