Revised Thoughts on Book Editions and Revisions

The received wisdom for most publishers using print-on-demand and selling primarily through the Internet is “never release a new edition.” It’s sort of funny, considering the low inventory aspect of POD allows for edition changes without creating a remainder headache, but the reason is brutally commercial. A new edition traditionally means a new ISBN number, and a new ISBN number means a new product page and sales history on Amazon. Publishers who focus all of their efforts on the Amazon platform (and those who simply end up selling most of their books through Amazon by default) risk losing their position in Amazon search and recommendation lists, along with accumulated reviews if the transfer isn’t seamless. The result may leave the publisher starting out from scratch all over again.

In some instances, such as college textbooks, new editions are simply a sleazy way to force students to abandon the old textbook, preventing them from purchasing used books, or accepting hand-me-downs. But many nonfiction books, especially reference works and successful how-to titles, go through regular editions as technology or conditions change. Yes, a well written book on preparing your Federal Income Taxes from 2001 would still be useful today, but not as useful as a well written one updated for 2008. A cookbook may live for decades without requiring a rewrite, but a restaurant guide may get revised every year. Most nonfiction titles fall between the extremes of “good for decades” vs “requires annual update”. The issue faced by POD publishers updating a book is balancing the visibility of the current ISBN vs customer confusion over what they are buying, especially when used books with a different interior are being sold alongside the new ones.

Earlier this summer, I updated the contents of my publishing book without releasing a revised edition. I felt comfortable doing this for a few reasons, but primarily because the book required little updating and most of those updates amounted to deleting descriptions of Amazon functions that are no longer in force. Until today, I don’t think I even mentioned on my own site that the book had been updated, though maybe I’ll add a note to my sales page. I’m comfortable that there can’t be many copies of the old version floating around for sale as new, because Ingram has cycled through their entire stock of the book twice since I revised it and Amazon doesn’t physically stock it. I simply didn’t make enough changes to the book to declare a new or revised edition.

In couple of weeks, I’ll be releasing a revised edition of one of my computer books, which I’ll publish with a new ISBN number and identify as a revised edition in the title and in the book information. I also intend to add a note to the annotation discouraging buyers of the original edition from buying the revised edition. In this case, while the revisions took quite a bit of work, they don’t bring any fundamental new knowledge to the reader, they simply deal with some newer technologies. But as a computer technology title, I do want potential buyers to know that the book has been updated since it was first released five years ago, a long time for a technology title. The reason I went with “revised edition” rather than “second edition” is because I think there’s less chance that buyers of the original edition will confuse it with a major rewrite.

Once I release the new edition, I’ll change my returns policy on the old edition and give stores at least three months to sell the old copies or return them. Maybe I’ll take the book officially out of print before New Years, but I’m curious to see what happens in the marketplace and on Amazon and will certainly report on it. Since my website drives the majority of the sales for my books, I’m not particularly worried about loss of place on Amazon, and the computer hardware book genre is rapidly dying off in any case. In an interesting twist, I think I’m in a decent position to be one of the last publishers standing in the field, since sales really don’t justify any new titles being produced. Just a couple of us issuing the occasional revision to an ever shrinking audience, but dealing with less competition as well.

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