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E-book 'missing content'? Amazon must do better

With a notification suited to the digital age, readers wouldn't have worried what they missed when Neal Stephenson's "Reamde" e-book changed underneath them.

Neal Stephenson's "Reamde" is for sale at Amazon.
Neal Stephenson's "Reamde" is for sale at Amazon.
screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

It looks like Kindle e-book customers have found a digital-era hole in customer service that Amazon needs to fix.

Those readers are giving Amazon an earful after purchasing the newest novel from popular author Neal Stephenson--only to be notified cryptically that their e-book needed to be replaced because of "missing content."

The problem afflicted Stephenson's new "Reamde: A Novel," a thriller that's apparently something of a departure from his sci-fi books such as "Snow Crash" and the more nerdy intellectual fiction such as "Cryptonomicon." The problem isn't the kind of thing that would happen with a paper book.

That's of course because e-books are essentially as mutable as any other collection of digital bits. Just like a quick update can patch a new app's shortcomings, an e-book update can fix last-minute typos.

The problem here was not so much that the book changed, but rather that people didn't know what about it had changed.

"After reading over 500 pages of this great book, Amazon tells me there was 'missing content.' After a live chat and talking to 2 support people, they won't tell me what was missing, how much, what type of content, or why," seethed reader cdale77.

And Cynthia Ewer vented, "As of this morning, I'm about 40 percent through the book--and I just received a notice that my Kindle edition was 'missing content,' and would be replaced...It seriously damages the reading experience. I've invested many hours in the book, overlooking various format errors along the way. Now--without more--I'm told that what I've read is incomplete. Do I begin again at the beginning? Do I plow on? Either way, the reading experience is fatally tainted."

Paper books of course needed updates, too, but those changes didn't affect the book as a person read it.

As it turns out, it seems the "Reamde" changes were minor, so another Amazon reviewer of the book, cedwint, probably won't have to worry about having to update his review. One analysis of the what changed in Reamde, using Perl, diff, and WinMerge tools, showed nothing as dramatic as a missing chapter. More like some missing words.

Before: "She called you at 8:42 and told you this story about REAMDE investigation and said she needed to know who had cast a healing spell on her character."

After: "She called you at 8:42 and told you this story about working with me on the REAMDE investigation and said she needed to know who had cast a healing spell on her character."

Honestly, I don't think Amazon deserves to be castigated here--the publishing industry is still adjusting to the idea of e-books, after all. And as a digitally published writer who's produced too many typos over the years, I'm grateful for the opportunity to fix the text after hitting the "publish" button.

But what Amazon needs to do is provide a mechanism to describe the update.

I remember, back in the old days of 2010, when the Android Market would inform me that a new version of an app was available. I'd always want to know what changed, but the information wasn't easily discovered. Is it a security hole that's been closed? A major new feature added? The addition of ads or the sequestering of game levels to a premium version? Something urgent or something that could wait? I had no idea. Installing the update felt like taking a jump in the dark.

But as soon as revised Android Market processes spotlighted what had changed, I became generally happy to update. That's because I felt in control. (As an added bonus, I often feel grateful the developer is helping me out.)

A notice of what changed in "Reamde," at least in broad terms, is really all that Amazon needed to remove that feeling of helplessness that some e-book readers evidently felt.

And now would be a good time to build a notification system--the electronic version of the "errata" page that appeared in revised paper books.

Because--just as live blogs elbow in on newspaper stories, cameras get major upgrades years after release, and software becomes a continually updated work in progress--e-books inevitably will also become fluid.