by Ursula K. Le Guin
Amazon and I are not at war. There are vast areas in which my peaceful indifference to what Amazon is and does can only be surpassed by Amazon’s presumably equally placid indifference to what I say and do. If you like to buy household goods or whatever through Amazon, that’s totally fine with me. If you think Amazon is a great place to self-publish your book, I may have a question or two in mind, but still, it’s fine with me, and none of my business anyhow. My only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.
Best Seller lists have been around for quite a while. Best Seller lists are generated by obscure processes, which I consider (perhaps wrongly) to consist largely of smoke, mirrors, hokum, and the profit motive. How truly the lists of Best Sellers reflect popularity is questionable. Their questionability and their manipulability was well demonstrated during the presidential campaign of 2012, when a Republican candidate bought all the available copies of his own book in order to put it onto the New York Times Top Ten Best Seller List, where, of course, it duly appeared.
If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.
The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.
I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.
If it can find its audience by luck, good reviews, or word of mouth, a very good book may become a genuine Best Seller. Witness Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which for quite a while seemed to have immortal life among the Times Top Ten. And a few books work their way more slowly onto BS lists by genuine, lasting excellence — witness The Lord of the Rings, or Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories. Not products of the BS Machine, such books sell because people actually like them. Once they get into the BS Machine, they are of course treated as products of the BS Machine, that is, as commodities to exploit.
Making a movie of a novel is a both a powerful means of getting it into the BS Machine and a side-effect of being there. Like so many side-effects, it may outdo its cause. To many people the movie is the real thing, the book can be left unread. If the book has value as a book, however, and is kept in print, I have noticed with pleasure that in time the movie tends to become the shadow, while the book regains its substance, its reality, and continues to be read.
But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.
Consistent in its denial of human reality, growth capitalism thinks only in the present tense, ignores the past, and limits its future to the current quarter. To the BS machine, the only value of a book is its current salability. Growth of capital depends on rapid turnover, so the BS machine not only isn’t geared to allow for durability, but actually discourages it. Fading BSs must be replaced constantly by fresh ones in order to keep corporate profits up.
This fits well with a good deal of reader desire and expectation, since to many readers much of the value of a BS is that it’s new: everybody’s reading and talking about it.
Once it’s less read and talked about the BS is no longer a BS. Now it’s just a book. The machine has finished with it, and it can depend now only on its own intrinsic merit. If it has merit, reader loyalty and word of mouth can keep it selling enough to make it worth keeping in print for years, decades, even centuries.
The steady annual income of such books is what publishers relied on, till about twenty years ago, on to support the risk of publishing new books by untried authors, or good books by authors who generally sold pretty well but not very well.
That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.
Any publisher willing to print a book that isn’t easy to market, or to keep books that sell modestly but steadily in print, is bucking this trend. Most of them are small houses. The few big publishers that now continue functioning at all under the deliberately destructive pressure of Amazon marketing strategies are increasingly controlled by that pressure, both in what they publish and how long they keep it in print. This pressure forbids them to value quality as well as salability, or to plan in terms of long-term sales.
And the independent booksellers that were and are the natural habitat of the non-best-selling book have been driven out of business — first by the chains that operated as part of the BS Machine, and now, decisively, by Amazon.
As a book dealer and publisher, Amazon wants no competitors, admits no responsibilities, and takes no risks.
Its ideal book is a safe commodity, a commercial product written to the specifications of the current market, that will hit the BS list, get to the top, and vanish. Sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next thing. No book has value in itself, only as it makes profit. Quick obsolescence, disposability — the creation of trash — is an essential element of the BS machine. Amazon exploits the cycle of instant satisfaction/endless dissatisfaction. Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.
1 June 2015