September 25, 2012

Should publishers wipe the slate clean?


In a year when so many writers’ reputations have been eviscerated by plagiarism and fabrication scandals, it’s interesting to consider the ways these mistakes are treated by publishers, now that ebooks, websites and online content dominates.

Maria Konnikova in The Atlantic writes that after the Jonah Lehrer scandal, his book Imagine almost entirely disappeared without a trace.  His publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt recalled the book, but unlike in the print-past, the book disappeared from almost every online retailer. Not only the book, but even its title. Searching for Imagine on Amazon would lead to: “Looking for something? We’re sorry. The Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site”. Konnikova reports that the book no longer exists on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website.

As Konnikova writes,

“The recall itself is not the problem. The more pressing question is: What is the best way to retract a book in an age that is increasingly digital, where asking retailers to send back copies touches but a tip of the reading iceberg?… It is worrisome that the book has virtually disappeared from the most prominent online retailers — and the publisher itself. A simple note saying that sales have been halted pending further verification, or something to that effect, would have been a much more honest, transparent solution.

…The issue isn’t suspending sales of a book so much as how a publisher goes about suspending them. Does the publisher publicly—and prominently—acknowledge the error by leaving everything as it was and just removing the ability for new readers to make a purchase until the book is reissued or otherwise amended, leaving the historical record intact, so to speak? Or does the publisher pretend as if a book just never existed?”

For publishers, it may be an attractive proposition to wipe a book from existence when an author has been so grievously misleading, or when a failure of fact-checking has occurred.  Nevertheless, a higher level of duty to the reader might be considered. In a time of digital reading and access, perhaps publishers and writers should recognize the importance of not “disappearing” their failures from the record, or acknowledge that a book may still have worth to the public discourse. As Konnikova says,

“Of course, it’s impossible to wipe out altogether the digital record of a book’s existence. There will always be articles, analyses, used copies…But the principle itself is a frightening one. Not only can you remove physical content—Orwell hasn’t been the only one to disappear off of a Kindle device—but you can change, in a sense, the digital record. And what happens when there actually aren’t any physical books behind those electronic versions—and then a publisher or retailer not only removes all links to the book in question, but then proceeds to remove the already purchased book from your reading device? Imagine: When all of your books are in digital form, what is the backup system if they are of a sudden removed?”

Digital Right Management (DRM) may be one answer to this issue. If books are sold without DRM, the copy is as truly the reader’s to own and lend as a print book. Publishers and writers are of course going to want to sweep their mistakes under the rug, but it feels like there’s a higher moral question to be considered, if they’d care to …



Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.