My Halloween story Mister Yuk won honorable mention in this quarter’s On The Premises. It’s a combination of an old eastern European folk tale and the kind of stories we used to tell each other on Halloween as kids.
Author Archives: John P. Murphy
I’ve seen a number of articles recently about schemes to sell “used” e-books, mostly spurred by Amazon’s recent patent on such a process. I’ve seen lots of enthusiasm about this, but I think it’s misplaced. There are two main points that I’d like to see made more prominently in this discussion:
First: This can’t work without intrusive DRM, or worse
Any scheme that allows reselling “used” e-books has to accomplish the fact of deprivation: the seller, in exchange for money, is deprived of the ability to make use of that book. This is obvious in the physical world (if you sell it, you don’t have it anymore) but less so in the digital world. Backups, however, are ubiquitous. Deletions can be undeleted. Files can be moved to USB sticks. Whole libraries can be uploaded to e-readers that are never Internet-accessible, and so never receive revocation commands. In other words, there are scenarios where you can buy an e-book, sell it as “used” and still have a copy. In such a case, one could buy an e-book the instant it is released, take a moment to back it up so as to be able to re-read it at leisure, and then turn around and sell it “used” before half the market has even woken up. (Heck, you can automate it so that you’ve bought it, stored it, and resold it before you’ve woken up.) Unless of course Amazon agrees to a blackout period on “used” e-book sales, and I wonder what concessions they’ll squeeze out of publishers for that…
If there is any doubt at all about the ability to achieve complete deprivation, then there must also be a tracking mechanism whereby some central authority must give its blessing to each sale after verifying that you have the right to make it.
Without these two components (deprivation and tracking), everyone who buys an ebook copy of, say, John Scalzi’s Redshirts becomes a de facto printer of John Scalzi’s Redshirts. A printer with unlimited ability to produce an identical copy in direct competition with both the rightful publisher, and everyone else who has ever bought a digital copy. With no costs beyond the initial purchase, then the first person to try it need only charge pennies less. But the next person will charge pennies less than that, and so on. It does not take a genius to realize that this will eventually drive the effective price of Redshirts to some pre-defined minimum below which the mediating authority considers their used e-book scheme to be no longer worth their time and database resources. Even if it actually takes some time and energy to produce these copies, these are computers: any process can be automated. Look to the in-game economy of Kingdom of Loathing to see this in action.
The “sell N copies after buying 1″ case is clearly the more disastrous than the first case. In order to ensure that this rush to the bottom does not happen, a central repository must be set up to track purchases from beginning to end. Someone needs to keep track of every original purchase, and needs to check at the time of each resale whether you have purchased that book. It needs to handle cases where you bought more than one copy (perhaps on sale, to resell after the sale period?) or were given an e-book as a gift (gee… another 500-page political screed… thanks, Aunt Agatha). If you buy an e-book through an indie bookstore, you can’t sell it through Amazon’s market unless Amazon gives them access to their tracking, and vice versa; people who want to ever have the option of selling their “used” e-books on Amazon will have to buy them from Amazon in the first place. (Oh no, says Amazon, don’t throw me in that brier patch…)
Not too long ago, everyone praised Tor to the skies for selling their e-books without DRM. Why? Amazon’s DRM up to that point locked you into a platform, and gave them the ability to yank books from your devices. It was argued, persuasively, that under such a condition, you did not really “own” the books you bought. But even their DRM was not so draconian as to require phoning home each time you wanted read a book.
Guess what kind of DRM scheme this requires.
Yup, the only way to ensure that someone can’t read a book after purportedly selling their last copy is to make sure that a) their device checks “has this book been sold on?” before letting you read or continue reading, and b) can only be read on devices that perform that check. (Oh no, says Amazon, don’t throw me in that brier patch…) If the scheme fails on either point, then we’re back at the situation where you can buy an ebook the moment it’s released and have your unread copy for sale, “used” and at a lower price, ten seconds later.  To be really sure, it would need a continually-open connection: otherwise I could buy the e-book, load it up, let it do the check once, then turn off my wireless connection and leave it off while I finish reading, having already resold it “used” while the market was still hot.
Amazon’s specific patent potentially goes even further than that. In the described scheme, everything is stored server-side, and then is accessed on an as-needed basis by download or streaming. If they go the download route, they will need to use DRM as described above. But they may also choose the streaming route, which for an e-book could mean everything from download to an encrypted local cache to downloading page-by-page. In which case, in exchange for the ability to sell a book, you actually wind up with less ownership of it than you ever had before.
This to me feels like a very clever answer to Tor. Tor was roundly praised, and rightly so, for going DRM-free, allowing you the reader to use whatever device you like, and trusting you to not be pirates while acknowledging some level of informal sharing as a general social good. But DRM-free downloads aren’t amenable to formal resale (at least, not without the fun situations outlined above), which allows a mendacious e-book seller to turn it around and paint Tor’s move as an effort to kill your right to sell your used e-books. (Oh no, says Amazon…)
Second: The perfect-copy nature of e-books changes the social bargain of copyright
Books are impermanent objects. Readers dog-ear pages, and tear dust jackets, and spill coffee on them. Peoples’ names are written in the inside covers, and people use highlighter markers and jot notes in the margins. Paperback books turn yellow over time, because they’re generally printed on cheap paper, and the cost savings mostly passed on. Books get left in airports. They get incinerated when your house burns down. All of these things reduce or eliminate the value of a purchased book. Books must also be physically transferred, incurring costs in delivery and sometimes storage space.
Copyright is a grand bargain, remember. Used physical book sales are on balance a good bargain for society: authors and publishers lose out on a paycheck for their work, sure, which slightly lessens their ability to produce new work, but in exchange there’s an incentive to preserve out-of-print books. For in-print books, the items in trade are frequently degraded and less-accessible, and thus represent a lesser product that additionally bears some slight social stigma (think about giving one as a gift, for example, when new copies are available). The used book market has issues of quality, rarity, and space to be managed: it’s hard and financially risky work that often goes unrecognized, fulfilling not only a market niche but a positive social need.
E-books have none of these flaws. As digital objects, they can be (and nearly always are) backed up in a way that allows quick and easy reversion to original state (if not better, given that errata can be fixed). Digital highlighting and other desecrations are stored in another file entirely, which would be omitted, leaving the file in original condition. Even if the reader does not restore their file from backup, it is highly likely that the intermediary would dispense with the step of requiring the upload of the file embodying the e-book to be “sold” as a ridiculous waste of bandwidth. This would also prevent someone maliciously altering a file, such as to deploy malware or to delete the ending and add the line, “Rocks fell, everyone died.” or “To find out what happens next, send me a dollar”.
Selling a “used” ebook is actually the assertion of a right to produce and sell one royalty-free electronic copy of a book based on the combination of a previous license and the (somewhat verifiable, through onerous methods) promise to no longer exercise that license. Even Amazon’s version, described as shuffling bits around a central server, is in practice highly unlikely to actually involve thousands of copies of the same file being moved from directory to directory. Instead, they’ll stop producing perfect copies of the file on demand for one person, and instead produce perfect copies on demand for someone else.
This means that, unlike in the physical space, “used” e-books directly compete with “new” e-books on nothing but price. Not quality, and almost certainly not convenience: Amazon has a much better bargaining position against individuals reselling through Amazon.com than it has against Big Six publishers, which means it will almost certainly wind up taking a larger slice of the resale pie than the original sale pie, which incentivizes Amazon to make it very, very easy to get the “used” version.
Competing with the author on such equal terms, with much less of the risk associated with trading in physical used books, represents a pretty major change in the social bargain that is copyright. It might be a reasonable change. But if so, it ought to be debated in those terms and legislated as a deliberate alteration (with the attendant opportunity to toss the original authors a new bone in compensation, or possibly as an explicit response to recent increases in copyright term), not decided by fiat by Amazon.
* * *
 Actually, if you don’t care about getting to read a book, nothing prevents you doing this at all. And if you don’t think that there’s an author out there willing to game this system by buying up ten thousand ebook copies of their own book on release day, and then selling their NY Times Bestseller “used” at a penny difference over the next year, in a context where to end customers the only difference is the price, then I have a network bridge I’d like to sell you.
 Or charms, if you prefer. I refer you to Nero Wolfe’s behavior in Gambit (among my favorite scenes ever):
There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes.
At Nature magazine’s Futures column, available here. This story started off life as an entry in Codex‘s yearly Weekend Warrior contest. Nature Futures is a great short fiction market: they’re quick, they pay well, they illustrate, and hey: it’s Nature. The guidelines are a little rough (strict 850-950 word count, because it has to fit on a single page) but I highly recommend it to writers of flash fiction.
I am home from Boskone and very nearly recuperated. I had a great time, but I ignored the advice that an hour of being on a panel is like three hours of attending them, and it was to my detriment.
Said panels went well, I think. In “Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?” I did want to make the point that we as a society seem to be engineering away boredom, and that this is a bad thing: I feel like we need the time to process our thoughts, which is why I seek out physical labor (doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, going to the gym) as a way of clearing my head. However, I found it difficult to find a way to raise the argument that “boredom is good!” in front of an audience of people I was supposed to be entertaining. I found an excellent summary of the panel here, complete with Charles Gannon’s book recommendations. The “marshmallow test” is Walter Mischel’s experiment at Stanford, which tested a number of children in terms of their ability to delay gratification, and the follow-on studies that seem to show that those children who were best at it, went on to perform well in life. My question: is the focus on instant gratification prevailing in Internet app design undermining that skill?
Another point I wanted to raise (partly in jest): will future generations of kids, used to being able to fact-check in a second, be completely unable to understand the character of Cliff Clavin?
“Rise of the Machines, Reconsidered” was a really enjoyable panel, at least for me. Of the three panels, it was the only one where I actually (briefly) forgot that I was in front of an audience instead of just having a conversation. It could have been twice as long: I’d have especially liked to talk a bit more about software; the military robotics discussion was in keeping with the panel description, but I think it lost the audience a bit. My take on the broader subject is that I don’t think that physical robots and artificial intelligences will overlap as much as in the literature. Intelligence is likely, in my opinion, to be diffuse and ubiquitous. The ability of a process to fork is, I think, under-appreciated in depictions of artificial intelligence. The panel description listed three movies that the future of robotics might look like; I’d planned to opt for a fourth, Disney’s _Beauty and the Beast_: ubiquitous but dim hyper-specialized devices designed to be maximally pleasant to interact with.
“Safety and Security — Now and in the Future” was my first turn at moderating. I need to spend more time thinking about how that went. I was nervous at the outset about running out of questions, and I think that led to me not exercising enough guidance. It went to some interesting places that way, and I think the audience was entertained, but we were a bit off-topic for much of the panel. The theme of the panel that did emerge was that planning ahead and clear thinking are vital, and some good points were made along with that theme. Solid decision-making chains, go-bags and checklists: outsource your thinking when you’re at your most emotional and confused, either to someone who’s not in the thick of it, or to yourself-in-the-past. The prize for surprising the hell out of me goes to Jim Macdonald, discussing hazmat rescue: apparently the best way to evacuate people without contaminating your ambulance (a vital concern!) is to put gauze over their eyes, so they don’t see what you’re doing, and zip them into bodybags.
Anyway, to those of you who came by, thank you very much. To those who couldn’t attend, I hope I see you there next year!
For any of you in the Boston area, I’ll be at Boskone 50 next weekend. It looks like they’ve got a great schedule planned, with Guest of Honor Vernor Vinge. For myself, I’m looking forward to three panels with fascinating people:
- Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains? (Panel), Fri 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor II
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel
multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration?
Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon
- Rise of the Machines, Reconsidered (Panel), Sat 13:00 – 13:50, Harbor II
We’ve got mechanical limbs controlled by nerve impulses, machines replacing
humans in the workplace, and intelligent systems undertaking complex scientific
investigations on nearby planets. How might these experiences with actual robots
lead us to differ from older conceptions of our robotic future? Which looks more
likely: Asimov’s _I, Robot_; Spielberg’s _A.I._; or Cameron’s _The Terminator_?
Christopher Weuve (M), Charles Stross, Jeanne Cavelos, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon
- Safety and Security — Now and in the Future (Panel) (M), Sat 14:00 – 14:50, Harbor I
When disasters happen and things go wrong — anywhere from home to street,
cybersuite to battlespace — what do you do? Whom do you call? Writers who
also muster wide experience in disaster response share proven policies and
procedures. Today’s mission is the same as tomorrow’s: to resolve dangerous
situations safely and securely.
John P. Murphy (M), Myke Cole, James D. Macdonald
These things are subject to change, of course, given travel, illness, etc, but this looks to me like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Lots of talented writers, great SF art, a whole room full of good books to buy, and, um, Boston weather to enjoy.
I recently passed a milestone that some might consider dubious: 100 rejections for my short fiction. I’m not actually sure which one was my 100th, since two recent ones have no entry in my Duotrope database, but I’m going to say that it was for my story “In Training” just because I like the sound of it, and there’s a decent chance that it’s true.
Stephen King told the story of his first rejection: he stuck a nail in the wall, put the rejection on it, and got right back to work. He did that until there were so many that the nail fell out, so he replaced it with a spike and kept going. Mine are mostly digital, so I don’t know how a nail would hold up. Maybe a really flimsy finishing nail would fall down, necessitating a spike.
The thing is, after a while they don’t sting anymore (…much) and you start to see them for what they are: proof that you’re getting work done and putting it out in the line of fire. Rejections are proof that you’re taking risks; continued rejections, that you’re not completely daunted by them. Anyone can keep writing and submitting after making a sale; I’m proud that I’ve kept writing and submitting after getting a rejection, getting a hundred of them. Here’s to a hundred more! <whisper>With maybe a few more sales thrown in? Just to mix it up…</whisper>
Waaaay back at the beginning of last year I made some plans for my writing this year. Focusing on what I could control (rather than, say, making my goals “sell X number of stories”) I wanted to finish either 10 stories, or 5 and a novel, and submit at least 40 times — in other words, to at least barely exceed my performance the year before. I also made a resolution to submit at least one story every month.
With a submission to DSF, I just completed that latter resolution: at least one short fiction submission every month since December, for a total (so far) of 52. As for the other goal, I’ve finished and submitted 8 new short stories this year (of which I sold one), and I’m well on my way to completing a novel draft, so I either have to finish that or write and submit two more shorts.
So, with a little less than a month left in the year, are any of you still on track to finish resolutions? Do you have time to resurrect one you’d forgotten or given up on?
Totally off-topic, but I’m toying with the idea of making my own nut milk, and the Google results are getting overwhelming and mutually contradictory. Have any of you tried it? I have a couple minor constraints:
- I’m allergic to walnuts (sort of. Walnut oil is OK; walnut skins are not)
- I would like something thicker (more suitable for mixing with coffee or booze than for pouring over cereal)
- Weird is good. Like, I’d totally try peanut milk or pistachio-almond-lima bean milk, if I had some tiny assurance of the potential for success.
I’m looking at using a large piece of muslin to drain, but I think I’d be counting on it draining relatively quickly in order for that to work.