Went up today at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (requires subscription). The accompanying illustration by Wayne Miller really is lovely, and I had a surprise: my story is also read aloud by Mr. Card himself (the link is on the sidebar of the above-linked page, halfway down).
Category Archives: Writing
One of the most popular search terms for people coming to this blog is, “if you can measure it, you can control it,” in just those words. They go to a page on this site with a different (correct) formulation: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.” There is a critical difference between the two (in a way that’s related to writing as well).
There’s a whole class of things that we can measure but we can’t control. Probably more of them than the things we can control, really. We can measure the position of the moon, but nothing to change it. Measurability may be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient condition.
The trouble is, the proper formulation doesn’t quite get it right either. As stated, measurability is not actually a necessary condition. There are lots of things we can control that we can’t measure: just ask someone swinging blindfolded at a piñata, or walking through an empty room in the dark.
In James Harrington’s original phrase, when he says “control” he really means “intentional control”, and is getting at improvement. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” is a more broadly defensible statement, and more true to Harrington’s original point than the piece that gets quoted. Of course, “Measure” is a tough word, too. Usually it means metrics: something you can convert into numbers. You have a number representing some aspect of your product or process, and you can interpret that number so that you know that one value is good and another bad. Say, number of light bulbs broken out of so many manufactured. You can then experiment and try various things, and then judge success or failure according to how that number moves.
There are statistical tools as well that will help you determine whether that number really did move. Chebyshev’s equality tells us how often we can expect values some number of standard deviations away from the process norm, and if we see lots of values well away from the mean, then we can perhaps conclude that we have changed the underlying process to one that will in the long run break fewer light bulbs. (To my writing friends, this has a direct correlation to Jay Lake’s Bathtub Theory of Writing Success.)
But proof is not always numerical in nature. Sometimes it’s simply boolean: I had test cases that code needed to match, and they did. Or I had a story that I wrote, and it sold. More often, it is qualitative. Oftener still, the real ultimate measurable goal (selling stories or software, or getting follow-on research funds) is just too remote to be immediately useful. Even when I can’t put a number on success, though, I can still evaluate success or failure, so long as I spent thought beforehand on what would constitute success. If I wait until I’m done, well, I’m only human: the temptation is great to define success such that what I just produced qualifies.
In my day job that’s usually what it means, because while I can’t put a number on code or research, I can’t just take on a task, noodle at it a while, and then throw confetti and declare the task succeeded. I have to defend it, and have ready answers to the question, “How do you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?” And sometimes a single day’s success, or even several weeks’ success, is not sufficient proof.
Programmers have it easier in this regard than writers do: even when unit testing and similar procedures can’t be applied (such as with UI programming) it’s possible to write scripts and workflow descriptions to describe how something ought to work. Art students drawing or painting from life can visually compare their canvas to their subject. Researchers and writers have it a little tougher: both are carving out new ground (well, new-ish) and it is not only tempting to define success such that the current effort passes, but there are more opportunities for it. (This is one of the reasons I’ve found my current research project to be in some ways refreshing: the project sponsor insisted on having a description at the beginning of the process for what success would look like, and while living up to that has been difficult, it has kept things focused)
This is also, I think, why I have come down so firmly as a writer on the side of outlining. The story I’m working on right now has a two-page outline describing the story as I want it to unfold, but also the effect I want each scene to have. In mysteries, for example, it can be very useful to have a specific effect in mind: “At this point the reader should think the butler did it.” Making that explicit is also a way of evaluating the goals themselves. No mystery reader is ever going to believe that the mysterious death really was an accident; listing that as the goal for a scene is an opportunity to scrub that and pick something else. Training myself to write outlines in this way has been difficult: very often I’m just writing the skeleton of a story instead. But when I manage it, it makes the writing process so much easier.
Finally, I want to point out that determining whether I achieved a goal is a separate thing from determining whether what I produced is *good*. Much of my work is good, even when it fails at its task: solid, elegant code that does not crash, but that nevertheless does not achieve my goals. I would say, in fact, that one of the biggest struggles in moving from a student programmer/researcher to a professional (and, as well, from a hobbyist writer to a professional writer) was in coming to the realization that “good” is not good enough. It is necessary, but not sufficient.
It might be briefly depressing to think that “good is not good enough” but that turns out to be the key to improvement. By assigning goals to your code or your scenes or any other effort, you can know in what way you need to be good, and in what way you need to be better. Even simple practice sessions can (and arguably should) be goal-driven. If measurement is the key to improvement, then goals are the locks.
I’ve noticed that the “My Fiction” page has gotten some attention lately, and I felt I ought to clarify how I handle sales announcements. Basically, I’ve decided that it’s most prudent not to announce a sale until I’ve signed a contract.
Most short fiction contracts are straight-forward, but there are occasionally things I would balk at: reserving the right to anthologize a story without additional payment, for example, or an excessively-long exclusivity period. The markets I submit to mostly don’t have these problems (or are willing to negotiate), but there’s always the chance that I’ll want to retract an accepted piece. Announcing the sale before I’ve seen the contract makes me nervous, then.
I do, however, update the “My Fiction” page (upper right) when I get an acceptance notification. The purpose of that page is to let people know what’s out and what’s coming out, and to give new visitors a sense of what I write. I fill in the publisher when I get the contract, and the rest of the details when it’s available.
A short piece, to new market Lakeside Circus. LC is a quarterly ebook magazine publishing a short novels’ worth of short fiction four times a year. My story Still Life, With Orange will be in the inaugural issue; subscriptions are on sale at a pre-launch discount at the moment ($20/year currently). Mine is an experimental piece, more like Whalefall than my mysteries but on a much smaller and more personal scale, dealing with some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I like the effect I got with it.
I thought I’d announced this here already, but I don’t seem to have! My novella “Claudius Rex”, an SF homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries, has been sold to Paper Golem Press‘s Alembical 3 anthology.
This was a hard story to sell, due to its length (~36,000 words after several go-rounds with Paper Golem’s talented editors Lawrence Schoen and Buck Dorrance; many short fiction markets list 4,000 words as their sweet spot) and I’m delighted it’s found such a very nice home. I have the two previous anthologies in this series, and found them to be of very high quality; I’m very much looking forward to appearing in this third volume.
I’m still awaiting word about release dates. These things do take time, but I’ll be sure to post when I have more information. I’m keeping an email list as well; let me know if you’d like to be on it.
[ETA: oops, looks like I only have hard copies of the previous Alembicals. The *Curcurbital* ebooks I have, however, are quite nice.]
The Urban Dictionary has listings for two sayings related to the removal of hair from animals. Writers are fond of the phrase “cat waxing“:
an industry term for procrastination by writers, with heavy connotation of trying to justify the activity as something that “had” to be done. Usually activities that can arguably be considered productive, such as household chores or (highly tangential) background research. The term mocks the behavior of scraping the bottom of the bucket for excuses of diminishing quality.
For example, you’d be working on your novel, but the kitchen really needs to be cleaned, then you can get back to the novel. Oh, and then the lawn needs to be mowed. And the bills really ought to be alphabetized today. And, um, the cat needs to be waxed!
Engineers have “yak shaving“:
Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.
So, for example, you’re working on your novel, but in order to continue you really need to print it out. But the printer’s out of ink, so you need to drive to Staples. But you can’t find your keys in this mess, so you need to clean your office. But you can’t put away all this yak-shaving gear that’s cluttering things up, because you haven’t shaved the yak. So it may look like you’re shaving a yak, but really you’re working on your novel.
Setting aside the obvious connection, they both mean similar things to the writer: I’ve got my manuscript open, but I’m doing something else. There is an interesting difference, however, in terms of the utility of the task. Cat waxers are doing something arguably productive, but unrelated to the task at had. Yak shavers acknowledge they’re doing something that looks unproductive, but insist that it must be done in order to get to the task at hand.
Now, I frequently find myself doing something other than what I’m supposed to be doing: blogging about dipilating fauna, for example. It is vitally important to determine whether one is collecting cat hair or yak hair, I would argue. Partly because classifying the procrastination is a delightful form of meta-procrastinating. But also because knowing what you’re doing can help you decide whether you really ought to be doing it.
If you find yourself cat-waxing, ask yourself: Is this really the more important task? If yes: Does it really have to be done now? If yes: BEFORE you finish this task, decide what your next task will be ($10 says it’s “writing”) and stick to it.
If you find yourself yak-shaving, ask yourself: Am I really blocked by this task? If yes: Is there another way to get around this block (or the block one level or two levels up)? If not: Is this something I could do more efficiently later (combine two trips to Staples, for example, or save the office cleaning until my normal early-afternoon slump), and is there another writing task that I could make progress on in the meantime?
Now, as an exercise for the reader, I ask: Is my writing this post an example of yak shaving or cat waxing?
I’m a devoted listener to the podcast Writing Excuses — despite their claims to the contrary, they really are that smart — and found their most recent episode, on Middle Grade fiction, to be fascinating. (Defining Middle Grade is contentious, but loosely, it’s fiction for kids 9-12: think Charlotte’s Web, the first Harry Potter book, or the Hardy Boys)
In particular, they discussed the difference between young adult and middle-grade fiction in terms of how they deal with the status quo: Middle-grade fiction tends to focus on some danger or event with the resolution being a return to normalcy. The family is reunited, the adventuring child comes home again, the pig is saved, the bad guy is defeated and everything can go back the way it was.
Conversely, young adult fiction tends to be more interested in blowing apart the status quo, of achieving some revolution. The corrupt regime is toppled, the farm boy is crowned king, bacon is invented, the bad guy is defeated and nothing will ever be the same again.
I started thinking about how this applied to mystery fiction, and found that it’s actually a useful way to divide the genre (sort of) and to think about individual plots and their goals. You can do a rough split in this way between the cozy intellectual Golden-Age mysteries with genteel consulting detectives and the gritty noir-style thrillers with hard-boiled PIs. In both cases, there is usually a crime being solved, but the attitude and payoff are different. The status quo preservers tend to treat the crime as an aberration to be corrected, an offense against the natural order of things; the inciting incident is “something bad has happened.” The payoff is a return to some semblance of normality, with the innocent vindicated and the guilty punished, and generally a sense of relief and satisfaction. The villains are ordinary-seeming people, even heroic people, who have become corrupted and so need to be removed. The status quo upheavers treat the crime as the natural outcome from a corrupt system; the inciting incident is sometimes “this terrible situation is brought to my attention” but usually “enough is enough!”. The payoff is in seeing a change in the system portrayed, a sense of justice done (legal, moral, and/or social), and a sense of hope. The proximate villains might be similar to the other stories, but in the background there are shadowy criminal organizations, corrupt governments, pervasive inequity, and oppression.
As an example of the former form, consider Sherlock Holmes, who is all about maintaining the status quo. He is for the most part uncritical of the social and legal order (indeed, his brother “is” the British Empire in a very real sense, we’re told). A Sherlock Holmes adventure starts with a disruption or a strangeness, and ends in explaining it. Any irrevocable changes to the status quo (notably, a death or two) are accomplished by the villains. Holmes may scold the Bohemian king (or Poirot the Middle Eastern prince) but wouldn’t dream of exposing him. Even where the goal of the protagonist is an explicit change in the world — such as the disruption of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal empire — the structure of the story revolves around thwarting a particular plot (The Valley of Fear and others), or being assaulted by Moriarty and prevailing at cost (The Final Problem). Moriarty’s empire is enough of the status quo that the campaign to uproot it just doesn’t fit the format of a Sherlock Holmes Story. Other examples in this vein include the more cerebral and episodic mysteries: Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, say, or TV shows like Columbo, Monk, or Castle.
As an example of the latter form, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels nearly always involve his detective upending some ingrained injustice, big or small. The world is imperfect, and people feel powerless to do anything about it, or moneyed interests are keen on keeping things this way. Something stinks, and the hero’s going to do something about it — maybe only something small, maybe only helping this one person — but something will be done to make the world stink a little less. The quintessential Spenser novel starts with a little guy getting crushed in the wheels, and Spenser (the wiseass, the guy who doesn’t like following orders, the guy whose friends in high places are secret disgusted with the status quo) comes in and blows the whole thing open. He doesn’t always do much, and he occasionally has to violate principles, but at the end the world is a slightly better place than it was before. Even in his ensemble-oriented books, like A Catskill Eagle, the personal upheaval that represents the wrong in Spenser’s world happens offstage and long enough before to have become accepted enough to be the established state of the world: he’s still rebelling, not reacting. Or, to use one of the founding documents of the genre, consider Hammett’s Red Harvest, where all the authorities in a town are so corrupt that the place is called “Poisonville” and the protagonist is so disgusted that he takes the whole damn thing down. The structure of a story in this vein involves a lot of world-building, with the character doing a lot of learning about the world rather than about the crime. The Harry Dresden books (for that matter, a lot of urban fantasy in the mystery vein) follow this form.
There are important complications to this division. One of the grittiest subgenres of crime novel is that of the serial killer. In a sense, these are all about quashing a scary threat to everyday life, and the minor themes tend to be all about how lives are disrupted and people are too scared to go about their normal routines. Thinking about plots in terms of their relation to the status quo, the serial killer detection subgenre seems to be further divided in two: a back-to-normality sub-sub-genre where a new serial killer is known (and leaves a calling card, for example) and the population live in fear; and an upheaval sub-sub-genre where so-called everyday deaths are actually the work of one already-established villain, and the complacent authorities must be woken up. One intriguing set of stories that I’m having a hard time classifying is certain more modern interpretations of Jack the Ripper as a member of the aristocracy. That (or certain spy stories) is the closest I can come to finding of a true fusion between the two forms: I feel like the protagonists are trying to uphold and restore the status quo by the surgical removal of one small element of it.
Another important complication is the ongoing series. Very often, especially in television, a series of mysteries will have episodes with the goal of returning to the status quo, and an overall arc of needing to overthrow some narrow aspect of it. Castle does this in two ways: more traditionally, of course, is the shadowy conspiracy behind Beckett’s mother’s murder. But also (and I owe the Writing Excuses folks for this insight; I think Mary Robinette Kowal in particular) the romance arc is also an upheaval of the status quo! My current favorite example, though, one I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lately, is the ongoing series Hannibal. In it Hannibal Lecter is suitably entrenched to possibly be considered part of the establishment (and acts to entrench himself further), and thus the resolution to the overall series arc must needs be a major upheaval — and as you would expect when each episode is a move toward the status quo, and the status quo is rotten, each of Will Graham’s pyrrhic triumphs further entrenches Dr. Lecter.
In this vein, I can think of a number of examples in the mystery/crime genre where the episodes are status quo-seeking and the overall arc is disruptive, but I’m having trouble thinking of the reverse. Straying outside the genre, there’s Band of Brothers, which could be seen as individual episodes involving dislodging Nazis, with the overall goal of getting home to a normal life. But that’s a stretch, I think.
When the overall plot is about returning to or disrupting the status quo, the sub-plots can independently support that with a similar goal. For example, in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, there are very often two parallel plots: 1) Wooster’s chum gets himself into a pickle and needs to be extricated, and 2) Wooster himself has sparked discord between himself and Jeeves vis some sartorial perversion. Such a scene or subplot can also be a thematic clue: The beginning of Rex Stout’s Gambit shows Nero Wolfe doing something he ordinarily would abhor, burning a book, because it has committed crimes. Like solving a murder, it’s an act of justice, and presages him solving the mystery of the story by doing something he ordinarily would also abhor, compromising a dinner (though not with himself at the table, which would be a bridge too far).
On the other hand, using a subplot with the opposite goal can mix things up a bit. Normalcy-seeking mysteries can be a bit of a downer at the ending (after all, murders can’t be undone) and having a forward-looking subplot often entails upending some part of the status quo — remember earlier, that often such plots end on a hopeful note. Romance plots or friendship plots can add an optimistic element at the end, a sense that the overall effort was good for more than just justice. With upheaval mysteries, efforts against shadowy conspiracies often don’t result in a total upheaval, only a small success and a minor respite; actually solving a crime (even if it turns out to only be the catalyst for other efforts) can provide some sense of finality and resolution.
This brings us to the end, and the role of the status quo frequently determines when the story ends. If the story is seeking a return to normalcy, the story is done when the crime is solved. There might be some aspect of the case still to explain (or subplots to be wrapped up) but in general things proceed very quickly from the moment the culprit is fingered. I feel that noir and hard-boiled stories, by contrast, tend to have more meditative endings, going on for pages or even chapters after any crimes are solved.
So what do you all think?
As I mentioned earlier, I have moved cities: I’m still in more northeastern New England, but in a more built-up area. Among other changes, I have a much larger office than I had before, with two nice big east-facing windows. I also have almost no furniture, having gotten rid of much of it in the process of winnowing down old and junky possessions in preparation for the move (a remarkably liberating experience, I must say!) Right now, I’m using a desktop on a small square table, and a laptop on a TV tray.
I’m already putting together plans for a standing or even walking desk, for the day or two a week in which I’ll be dayjobbing from home. But because I have so much space, I was thinking that I would like a dedicated writing desk. Having never had such a space, it occurs to me that I don’t really know what I want from one!
Right now, my writing process tends to be laptop-centric: my laptop has the most comfortable keyboard for long-term typing, and has programs like Scrivener installed. It is also the machine I usually access the Internet from, which is occasionally unfortunate, but it does mean that all of my research is right there. I do a fair amount of drafting by hand, depending on where I am in the process, and also try to carry index cards with me to jot ideas down. There have been times in the past when I’ve liked working on a nice big sheet of newsprint or a whiteboard, but have not had space for that previously.
I’m leaning toward having a broad/deep work surface where I can push the laptop back to have room for pen and paper, or remove it entirely (either to a side tray or a shelf over the desktop) to work with a piece of newsprint. Maybe a couple of short shelves on either side of the desk; maybe a couple or drawers. Another possibility is some manner of easel standing next to the desk, or a whiteboard or corkboard over it. I really like the look of rolltop desks, but I’m not sure how well one would actually work for me. Room for a cup of coffee would be nice, though I do try to limit my consumption of alcohol and caffeine while I’m writing (I try to avoid associating any chemical with writing, lest I one day have to stop/curtail it, and then find that I can’t write without it) I think I’d rather sit with my side to the windows instead of sitting facing them, though glare on my screen might make me change my mind.
So, while I look at furniture and whiteboards/corkboards/easels and other options, I’m curious about your workspaces. What do you like about them? What do you find conducive to your writing? What do you wish you could change?
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.