Up the Amazon with the BS Machine

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischUp the Amazon with the BS Machine,
Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon

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



Up the Amazon with the BS Machine — 54 Comments

  1. I agree with this completely. It pains me to feel as though I have to use Amazon to sell my book but, unfortunately, that’s where most of the (very small) revenue comes from. Sadly, bookshops are at present unwilling to stock anything they don’t see as a dead-cert for sales, and many publishers and agents are unwilling to test the water with many new authors, too.
    I struggled to find an agent and in the end I gave up and self-published. Self-marketing is incredibly difficult to do while holding down a full-time job, but at least my book is available through lots of channels in addition to Amazon, and I even have a few copies in libraries on the other side of the world.
    I guess that’s the most important thing. If you have no money for marketing, and have no publisher engine behind you to drive you forwards, you have to exhibit patience and find other ways of getting your work out there so that it can ‘soak in’.

    • I am also curious (see below) as to why you seem to have bad feelings for Amazon when it is they who have made it possible for you to get your book in front of readers. Every single complaint in your post is applicable to someone other than Amazon. And, in fact, every single complaint in your post is about something that one or more sectors in the traditional publishing industry bitterly resents Amazon for making obsolete or impossible.

      • I suppose my agreement about Amazon applies when they’re providing print books that aren’t print on demand. It’s definitely an amazing gateway for people who want to get published but, in some ways, it can be self-defeating. I only say this because self-publishing by its very nature means that there’s a lot of dross out there that normally wouldn’t get on any shelf.

        You have to be prepared to sacrifice a lot of profit if providing Amazon with print books, just to compete (they have quite restrictive rules about pricing on other sites if selling there also) but when it comes to print on demand they provide one of the cheapest direct-to-purchaser platforms. Saldy IngramSpark (who I use) don’t have a portal through which customers can buy directly, so I have to take the further hit in the form of retailer discounts. If others could somehow level the playing field by selling direct, I’m sure Amazon would quickly lose the monopoly.

        • Your pardon, but I still have no idea what exactly it is you are complaining about. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you aren’t trolling with the Argument to the Tsunami of Swill.

          That being said, yes, Amazon requires significant wholesale discounting. So does Wal-Mart. The net result of this is lower prices for the consumer and more goods sold. If you don’t want to participate in such pricing agreements, you are free not to do so. If you think that you’d make more money pricing differently – as some of the major publishers do, and have been able to make stick via agency pricing at Amazon – then do that. Amazon is neither a monopoly nor a monopsony (far from either) and multiple other distribution channels exist. People who are worried about Amazon should use them and encourage others to do so. But Amazon, thus far, is by far the least objectionable part of modern publishing both ethically and legally.

          • I see now that I should have written a first draft of my initial message before sending … My complaint with Amazon is the treatment of regular print books, but as you’ve pointed out and I acknowledged, that seems to be a failing of the publishing industry (and retail) in general.

            I agree with everyone who says that Print on Demand is the way forward for those who want to keep their stock perpetually available – at least you’re not at the whim of the publisher to suddenly stop reproducing your book.

      • I have to agree here.. how can self-published authors bash Amazon, when it is the ONLY outlet for self-published authors to maintain a platform for their work. Big publishers act no differently than this post attacking Amazon suggests Amazon amazon acts. I am grateful for Amazon, if nothing more than for a platform for those who chose to maintain control over their work can use to sell it.

        • It’s not the only outlet – I went with IngramSpark, so my book can be ordered through booksellers that use Gardners and Bertram as their stockists. Amazon is just the most obviously visible outlet.

            • I’m not using Amazon’s distribution channels. From Amazon, my book is only directly available to them from CreateSpace. If people want the hardback from Amazon, it comes from IngramSpark. Waterstones and all other outlets get mine from IngramSpark.
              You can, of course, set Amazon to be the distribution hub if you use them in that fashion, but it’s not the only option.

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  3. Ms. LeGuin:

    While I agree with much of what you say (and would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the many wonderful books of yours I have enjoyed) I don’t quite understand how you think that Amazon’s model somehow encourages books to be abandoned. For many authors, Amazon is all about “the long tail.” Once published on Amazon, a book can stay there, if current trends continue, more or less forever. It is publishers who remove books from print. If I publish a book digitally, there it stays on Amazon until I take it down. If I publish one through CreateSpace, it will be available, in print, for either readers to buy directly or retailers to buy wholesale, until I take it down.

    Leaving aside digital, the only way a book can go out of print is if the party responsible for printing it decides not to print any more copies. Since CreateSpace doesn’t do that (nor does Lightning Source or any of the other true Print On Demand sources) the concern only applies to traditional publishers. They have been (in)famous for playing games about when a book is or is not in print (and thus the rights might revert) for decades, although they certainly seem to have gotten worse about it in the relatively recent past. I respectfully suggest that if you are concerned with the current business model of traditional publishing – “print, push, punt,” to coin a phrase – you should address your concerns to them, not to Amazon.

    • I would add that when a book goes out of print it doesn’t disappear, but remains accessible through used book stores and libraries. Through the Amazon Marketplace I have access to thousands of out-of-print books that, in the past, I could never find even had I searched dozens of independent used book stores. I really don’t understand Le Guin’s gripe with Amazon.

  4. I have to say though, I think you are dead wrong about this. Indie authors are selling books on Amazon without the book ever having been “in print.” Also, if you look at Amazon’s lists, they aren’t all the latest from the “best-selling author X”.

    I am a fan of yours, and happy to have purchased many of your books in ebook form via Amazon, but do not understand why, if you truly feel that “Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment,” your own books are offered for sale there. Can you explain?

  5. Ms. Le Guin is absolutely one of my favorite authors, but much as I respect her, most of that is so wrong it is difficult to parse the wrongness. She is apparently totally unaware of the large number of authors, including previously traditionally published authors, who are selling their back list through the evil Amazon. She is apparently unaware (or has forgotten) that the whole best seller syndrome predated Amazon and is not their modus operandi in the least. That was the doing of brick and mortar chain stores and the big publishers. When Walden books and Barnes & Noble were putting thousands of independent book stores out of business, I don’t remember all this whining about their evilness. The same when they decided that blockbusters were the way to go.

    Of course, Ms. Le Guin is welcome to question why I self-publish my novels which make a rather tidy living for me. However, as she so rightly points out, I owe neither her nor anyone else an explanation for my career choices. However, digital books are not trashed and replaced. Trashing and replacing is the methodology of the beloved big publishers and brick and mortar stores so let’s give credit where credit is due.

  6. “Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon”

    “Amazon and I are not at war.”

    Must be a new definition of war the kids have come up with.

    “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.”

    The late 19th century best-seller lists in England were dominated by authors such as Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, Florence Barclay and Charles Garvice. Each of them were selling hundreds of thousands of copies at a time when Henry James was lucky to sell 10,000. The best-sellers list of the ’60s and ’70s were filled with potboilers like Arthur Hailey, Jacqueline Susanne, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” and Harold Robbins. I can’t blame Amazon for them. We have always had a taste for schlock.

    “And the independent booksellers that were and are the natural habitat of the non-best-selling book have been driven out of business.”

    That’ll be news to Cupboard Maker Books, the Midtown Scholar, the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, and Aaron’s Books. Some have closed, sure, but many have held on and are thriving, thank you very much.

    (Oh, and if you’re going to criticize Amazon, be sure to attack Abebooks.com, where I buy many of my books. Of course, they’re sent to me by independent bookstores from across the country, so I guess they’re just as responsible for degrading the culture as Amazon, right?)

    “That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.”

    You have just described New York publishing, except for the super-competitive pricing.

  7. Is it okay if I use Amazon to buy books that were formerly out of print, but have now been republished by the author? How about used copies of out of print books?

  8. Then please, like every other author who complains about Amazon, remove your books from Amazon. Scott Turow lambasts Amazon but his books are still there. Yours are still there.

    Could it be because you sold the rights to your books? That you have no control over your own business? Seriously. Did you sign that letter from the Authors Guild printed in the NY Times? Every single author who signed it should not have their books on Amazon. Yet every single one does. I believe that’s the definition of hypocrisy.

    So while decrying something with words, your actions, and the actions of many others, say you don’t really mean what you say.

  9. I have only love and respect for U.K. LeGuin’s work, almost all of which I have read, much of it repeatedly. Unfortunately, however, her astonishing powers as a writer in no way translate to meaningful or useful insight into the workings of the book market.

    Amazon is a book retailer, and making some obvious inroads into publishing in various formats; it also provides a platform for electronic distribution of books, both from publishing houses and independent authors. They offer another way to sell, and for some authors another way to produce, books. The major publishers contract with Amazon over how their books will be sold, and Amazon follows those contracts. That’s it.

    Every criticism in this piece actually describes the practices of the major publishers, who certainly sell their work through Amazon, among other means, and are in fact the primary drivers of the type and quality of fiction available in the marketplace. Period. Look no further than the risk aversion of the mainstream publishing industry to explain the cookie cutter mass market fiction currently populating the market. Look no further than the mainstream publishing industry’s refusal to either reprint or revert the rights of older works, if you desire to place blame for books that go out of print (Amazon, after all, along with mail order, has print-on-demand and ebooks as its primary contributions to bookselling– print runs are the purview of the traditional publishers.) Look no further than Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart, and the publishing industry’s collusion with them, when placing blame for the destruction of the independent bookstore. And look no further than the actual antitrust case brought and won by the U.S. DOJ against the Big 5 publishers for court-adjudicated evidence of actual destructive pricing practices. Etc, ad infinitum.

    Sadly, LeGuin’s post is so largely incoherent, and so ignorant of the actual circumstances of the current publishing industry, that it debunks itself. I wish she would turn her skills and energies elsewhere, or make a concerted attempt to educate herself, because for someone so often on the side of the angels, she is repeatedly blowing it on this one.

  10. An extraordinarily succinct, clearly communicated, necessary and accurate post. Thank you.

  11. The number of independent bookstores has been rising the past few years.

    Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks drove more independent bookstores out of business in the 80’s and 90’s than Amazon has.

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  13. I read your books back when teachers told me that I shouldn’t read things like that and tried to press “more wholesome” books into my greedy hands. I’ve enjoyed them, had my eyes opened by them, seen the world differently after reading them.

    Alas, that was decades ago…and your post makes me sad because it sounds almost like the complaints of those days when there was no Amazon…made by traditionally published authors against the publishing machine.

    Like the others, there is so little coherence, logic, truth, or reason in the post that I’m sad and wish I hadn’t seen it. It almost appears that there is just one evil voice spilling lies into your ear and that’s is all you’ve heard.

    All of the things…without exception…that you just accused Amazon of are entirely the practice of traditional publishing and have zero (nothing, nada, nichts) to do with Amazon and is, quite obviously, the exact opposite of their business model.

    To hold an ebook in storage costs something like $0.0003 per year for Amazon (high estimate) and that includes the high-res artwork and continued updates on back-matter by authors. They hold them forever, offering them for sale for an eternity if the authors want that. There is no out of print, no call for profits, no pressure to succeed. That is all up to the author. If Amazon notes an organic trend of sales in an indie book, they don’t need a big fat publisher to come and buy space on the front table in order to ensure that one special author gets featured. Instead, they read it, reach out and ask if they’d like to put it on sale and allow Amazon to feature it in their daily email. In case you don’t know…that is what hand-selling is in today’s age. Nothing more.

    As for print, the POD world has come to save the trees. For my whole life, I’ve seen those giant bins of destroyed books, their covers ripped off and the pages curling in the North Carolina sun while they wait to be carted off for burning. It was a sad and terrible waste and it doesn’t need to happen ever again. Instead, that same file is saved (at that low cost and low energy state) for all time, just waiting for the day when someone clicks “buy” and then a shiny (or matte covered since those are sweet) new book, smelling of paper and glue is send with care directly to that person’s home.

    As for BS lists, those are almost too clear for anyone to have confusion when it comes to Amazon. Their algorithms are secret, of course, but their logic is clear. Sell more, sell longer and you are higher up in the lists. That’s it. No funny business required. And if you’re a new author, you have exactly the same chance of being seen than and old one.

    As for it being swill out there, I actually felt the most sorrow at hearing you use that term, since that is what your work was called when I was young and eager to read it. Yet, you persevered and are now respected in your profession. Why would you lump the same abuse on another…even before reading it. People like me turned down…yes, I turned down…traditional contracts because they were egregious in every possible way.

    I wasn’t some young and naive writer with no knowledge of the way pennies rub together to produce bill-paying dollars. Instead, I am a scientist with a long career behind me and I know full well what pays the bills and what doesn’t. Being held back by labyrinthine processes that hold no value in publishing today, giving over most of the profits, losing all control, being forced to go out of print as soon as the market shifts without any actual work to keep things rolling on the publisher’s part, and then being told that I’m very lucky to get the offer of all that just made me laugh. Literally.

    My editors (2 of them) are wonderful and extremely professional, one of which retired from traditional publishing in order to work on more meaningful projects and not just dross like a picture book of selfies by a celeb or a memoir written by a ghost about a teen with no life behind them. That’s your curated and culturally meaningful traditional publisher’s offerings. The cover artists I work with are amazing, produce exactly the mood and imagery that needs to be conveyed. The proofers have eagle eyes. The formatters work faster than a NYC cop writing tickets on the 31st of the month.

    Are my books “genre” books? Certainly, yet they also hold lessons in them and people seem to really like the way I write. And nothing after the first three would have been written had I signed that contract. And all that work going to other artists would not have gone there.

    Amazon is not to blame for the wide-ranging tastes of a world now set free from censure over what they bring to the cash register. There is no longer that stern look from a librarian clearly conveying they think a patron’s selections are trashy or low brow. Instead, we read what we want. Tradpub does not allow that freedom. It rules with an iron fist, controls each and every word the artist publishes, decides who will have a short run and who will not, and selects only the tiniest few to throw their voices behind and push to the front of the store. Amazon does not. Your letter should be to tradpub, not Amazon.

    I genuinely hope that whoever is whispering all this to you will get a stern look over from you. I hope you’ll challenge their assertions, look for yourself and see how wide the world has become and how many are able to express and share their vision because of the digital world. Amazon is just one part of it, but they are doing it best. We should applaud them…look around for a smaller competitor to help nudge up because competition is good…and then get back to writing.

    • Well said. I sincerely hope Ms. le Guin takes a peek at these and reads them with an open mind. Shakespeare was the pop culture of his day. Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and many others began their careers being published in the pulps — considered “trash” reading during their day. Who knows what authors of this dawning digital age we’ll be canonizing fifty or a hundred years from now?

  14. Ms. Le Guin,

    I love your fiction. But with all due respect… wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Want to keep a work, best-seller or otherwise, available in near perpetuity, in both paper and ebook form? And keep control and earn a decent royalty? Amazon. Please name anything else that even comes close.

    Another of my idols revealed to have clay feet. Think I’m going to cry.

  15. It’s so amusing to see the rantings of the self-published community whenever anyone points out the damage their awful work has done to the world of literature. And how they do howl when anyone dares to criticize the looming publishing monopoly that Amazon is quickly becoming.

    Ursula Le Guin is right on the mark on each of her points.

    • How precisely does one measure “damage” to “the world of literature?” and attribute it to self-published authors? That makes no sense. Snobs have been relying on this kind of doomsday nonsense since the printing press brought the written word to the great unwashed. If your horror stories with giant fish on the cover help us recover from the deterioration of literary culture, then surely your book sales will continue and our minds will be saved from the ogre Amazon. Someone get this man a knighthood.

  16. James,

    When Amazon entered the ebook market, it’s share quickly became 90%. Since then, with the entry of Apple, Kobo, Google, and others, their Market share has fallen every year, to around 60% now, and it’s still falling.

    Now, I am the first to admit, I was only a ‘B’ student in Macro- and Microeconomics, so if you can tell me how a company achieves a monopoly by reducing its share of the market, I (and others) would appreciate it.

    I also notice you sell on Amazon. Why?

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  18. “Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”

    That statement is a nicely packaged overstatement dripping with arrogance.

    Without Amazon, I could not have finished my MFA program. Why? Because my MFA was in poetry, the direct opposite of the best seller. My advisors and professors continually recommended poems to me which were not available in the university library, not stocked in any bookstore within 500-1000 miles, available by order with a two to four week shipment expectation whether I ordered via Barnes & Noble, Borders, or an independent bookstore. But amazon delivered every one of the books I needed within a week. Is that all part of your culture without content?

    When my daughter, a student of Chinese, wanted several specific books for a project she was working on, again the local university, library and bookstores were no help. Back to Amazon again.

    Amazon makes possible what the dog-eat-dog of the profit-per-square-inch bookstores are unable to deliver. Amazon can deliver what my daughter and only ten others in the US want, in a week, at list price.

    Amazon has given me opportunity to engage with poetry colleagues across the country, across the world, which even many large metropolitan areas cannot provide. They do this by providing access to work which is not a bestseller.

    Amazon provides a service other companies do not. When I need that service, they get my business. It’s pretty straightforward, and I’ve been grateful the service was available.

    • “Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”

      That would also include her own books, which are available on Amazon. Remove them and this diatribe might have some credibility. And if she has no control over her own content to do so, well, that raises the question of who has more control. Any author who publishes with Amazon could remove them at any time. Her own publisher, on the other hand…

  19. This bit can be boiled down fairly well. Much of what is for sale is not much good, or at least could be much better, and it’s all Amazon’s fault for selling it.

    The thing there is, Amazon sells everything, and doesn’t choose what’s recommended based on content. Their recommendations reflect what people are actually buying. If it’s popular, and selling well, it is more likely to be recommended without regard to it’s perceived quality. There are no gnomes at Amazon saying “this book is crap, people will love it, put it at the top of the recommendation page!” Instead, they just gather up what is selling well, in real time, and generate the recommendations for that.

    So, effectively what you’re doing is blaming Amazon for the behavior of it’s customers. People are reading what they want to, and you don’t approve, and really, I get that, because I don’t understand why anyone would want to read some things that are selling well.

    All that blaming Amazon really does is to deny agency to readers. They are the ones buying, reading and (ugh) enjoying substandard works. You blame Amazon because you dare not place the blame where it belongs, in the hands of the readers who actually buy the books. This post is chickenshit.

  20. Everything she describes more accurately describes her own publishers, not Amazon. No books on Amazon are “thrown away.” Quite the opposite; they stay in print forever if you’re POD or ebook, and have a long life to build up a readership without the throwaway economics of the Big 5, which demand you make a lot of money quickly or you are ashes. They sit in a bookstore for 90 days and are promptly pulled. If a book on Amazon goes out of print, that’s the decision of the publisher, not Amazon. With all due respect, this just sounds like snobbery, and uninformed snobbery at that.

    • I agree. Merriam-Webster defines a monopoly as, “complete control of the entire supply of goods or of a service in a certain area or market.” This does not describe either the publishers or Amazon. The publishers controlled most of the distribution of paper books for nearly a century, and nobody called it a “monopoly.” No single publisher controlled all of it. The one time they illegally colluded for price fixing, they were nailed for it. Amazon has provided incentives for those same publishers and single authors to sell via Amazon (and they choose to do so), but Amazon does not control the Internet or the supply of books. As long as there are other places to access them and distribute books, it’s not a monopoly according to accepted definitions. “Monopoly” is an emotionally charged word, almost entirely negative, and is used to describe something that many people seem to dislike for other reasons that they won’t or can’t state.

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  23. Few remarks:

    It is publishers, not Amazon, who created BS model and depend on it.

    Amazon’s pushing of e-books (people tend to forget Amazon did not invent e-books, but is the only retailer who took them seriously and tried to make publishers to take them seriously, too) is antithesis of BS model. Success of e-books is not hampered by non-BS books being in print, it *depends* on it. A large bookstore will have 10 or 20 thousand titles; Amazon has millions.

    Just another day I wanted to re-read your 40+ years old masterpiece, “The Dispossessed”, and discovered that my paper copy is long gone, never returning from one of many loans. I had it on my Kindle in a minute; how many bookstores are there which would have it at hand? (Regrettably, I did not find Kindle edition of “Always Coming Home”)

    Before anyone mentions ability to loan a paper book as the major shortcoming of e-books, let me add that I have several spare/old Kindles and I lend them around, still connected to my complete library. I hope that authors won’t mind (I know that publishers would).

    I hope all your titles will remain permanently in (e-)print, either here if you can claw your rights back, or on Amazon; preferably both.

  24. I have to agree here.. how can self-published authors bash Amazon, when it is the ONLY outlet for self-published authors to maintain a platform for their work. Big publishers act no differently than this post attacking Amazon suggests Amazon amazon acts. I am grateful for Amazon, if nothing more than for a platform for those who chose to maintain control over their work can use to sell it.


  25. Ms. Le Guin,

    I would respectfully disagree with many of your points in this blog post. You seem to blame Amazon for many things that they had no part in. I am not a total Amazon fan: they seem to treat their distribution center employees no better than the average Wal-Mart, and that needs to change. But they are not at fault for the things you ascribe to them.

    For starters, most of the big publishers are now controlled by parent companies demanding profitability. Midlist authors aren’t as profitable as the big best sellers, like James Patterson or the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Parent companies want money, and they want it yesterday. That can be the only explanation for books “written” by celebrities like Snooki; any publisher that claims to be defending culture and publishes that junk is in complete denial. That has nothing to do with Amazon, that’s a price publishing has paid for being bought out by non-publishing companies. Smaller publishers ARE publishing literature because they refuse to follow that celebrity-junk big-money path.

    Second, the availability of older books is determined by the taxes publishers pay for inventory in warehouses. If it makes tax/money sense for the publishers to destroy unsold stock, as a business that is what they will do. Again, that is not something that is Amazon’s fault.

    And let’s look at the copyright restrictions placed on books published by the big houses. Because they control the rights, an author cannot easily get her book in print again. That requires contract amendments, etc. Again, that’s a big business problem, not an Amazon problem. Amazon swoops at the chance to help someone get their backlist books available to sell.

    You only fleetingly mention the big chain stores in your post. They did a great deal of damage to the small booksellers before Amazon came along. With moneyed agreements with the publishers, they could move more books than the smaller stores could, so of course were favored by the publishers. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, the numbers of small independent bookstores has started to increase again, due to their ability to connect directly with readers, while Barnes & Noble struggles.

    I have worked in a public library for more than 20 years. It used to be incredibly difficult to find old books for readers, unless we could find it in a library somewhere in the country. Now we have the ability to find copies from just about any age, either in libraries or for purchase, thanks to the changes brought about by Amazon. How is that NOT good for readers?

    Finally, the claim that Amazon controls what we read? That blame instead goes to the “gatekeepers”, the publishing houses that denied most people from sharing the stories they had to tell. Self publishing has made it possible to ignore those gatekeepers and share any story you wish. Does that mean all these self published stories are gold? Not even close. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there. But there’s a lot of bad books coming out of publishing houses, too. I have stopped reading many series I used to love, because the plotlines are tired and the same things happen every book to the main characters. And yet these series continue to be produced and favorably reviewed. I can’t explain why that happens, but it makes me mad when these books are held up as “good” and others that are so much more original and well crafted are labeled “bad” just because someone published them on their own.

    Again, I’m not saying Amazon is an innocent business. I’m just asking you to place blame where it correctly resides, instead of following the easy big business path of blaming everything on a company that has learned how to do one thing really well: sell things people want, in a way that is easy for them.

  26. My novels are outside the mainstream. I am gradually getting a following, but it’s taken time. What I write is a mix of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and it’s heavily influenced by New Wave science fiction authors like Phillip Dick, George Alec Effinger, Samuel Delany, and, yes, Ursula K Le Guin.

    I have to publish in e-book and POD. No traditional publisher would take a risk on a book that won’t sell out the print run in 90 days. If it weren’t for Amazon, I wouldn’t be in print. E-books and POD are doing today what paperback originals did in the 1960s–reducing the cost of production to the point that financially risky books can reach the market.

    With all due respect, ma’am, if you had written “The Lathe Of Heaven” in 2011 instead of 1971, I think you would have found yourself in the same position. Traditional publishers have to print books that move quickly, and that means books that are just like what moved last month. That’s not Amazon’s fault, that’s a consequence of too high an overhead combined with a dependence on chain booksellers for distribution.

    Amazon–and the other companies moving into the e-book and POD business–aren’t the problem, they are the solution.

    • pointing out the author’s own work is a good point. if she tried to get published today, she’d be thanking amazon for making it so easy for her to sell her books. the only reason i even own some of her books is because i bought them on amazon!

  27. Many thanks to the many thoughtful people who took the trouble to explain to me where and how my understanding of Amazon’s role in the book business is faulty.
    I can’t agree with the scenario in which publishers are villains and Amazon the hero, but I’d have done better to speak of Amazon as just a super-manifestation of the growth-capitalism mentality that increasingly controls the big corporation-owned publishers, subjecting the autonomy of editors (and therefore writers) to the dictates of Accounting.

    • If capitalism is the problem, then what is the solution? Would you rather that publishers didn’t make money, and went out of business? Would you prefer all books to be published by some Pravda Press subsidized by the government? Writing and publishing books costs money. In my opinion the best way to get that money is to sell the books to people who freely choose to buy them. Are you saying that what people want to buy is not what they should buy?

      The difference between a traditional publisher and a self-published author such as myself is that I don’t have the overhead of a building on 5th Avenue and a dozen secretaries. I can afford to publish what I want, rather than have my choices forced on me by the necessity of supporting a large staff.

      Again, the only arena in which original work becomes economically viable is in self-publishing, and it is companies like Amazon that have made self-publishing possible. Are they a “hero”? No, they are a company that gives both me and my readers the service that we want. When someone else comes along who can do it better, I’ll go with them.

    • Amazon just sells the books that the publishers send them.

      Unlike physical stores, they don’t demand rapid turnover, ludicrous return privileges that are the legacy of a system supplanted decades ago, or outright bribes to make books reasonably discoverable.

      Amazon just sells the books that publishers send them.

      Again, your complaints are entirely about the behaviors of the big publishers. Amazon makes it possible for small publishers and independent authors to compete with “super-manifestations of the growth-capitalism economy.” Without it and the other ebook resellers it has inspired, they would still rule the world of publishing entirely unchecked. You have yet to voice one single complaint that actually blames Amazon for something that it actually did wrong.

      Amazon just sells the books publishers send them.

  28. I agree wholeheartedly, with the exception of the comparison to “agribusiness,” which seems much too cheap, and is, quite frankly, baseless. The criticisms of Amazon are valid, and, while there are valid criticisms of farming and the food industry, lumping into one pretend mass is not legitimate. The anti-GMO industry is something anyone who cares about the planet, science, and evidence should be fighting. We should not be feeding into its rhetoric for no good reason.

  29. Pingback: Le Guin, Amazon, and a good idea weakly argued? | Ravens in Hollywood

  30. I admire Le Guin’s fiction, but I don’t agree with her view of the publishing industry.

    Big box stores have a huge incentive to push bestsellers because they only devote a small amount of shelf space to books. Same with chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble, albeit to a lesser extent.

    On the other hand, Amazon’s business model doesn’t really have these shelf-space limitations. There’s no equivalent of shelf space for eBooks, Amazon can can stock an essentially infinite number of eBooks. Amazon also cares a lot less about shelf space than physical stores – they can stock as many titles as they want in their warehouses and they can even do print on demand in the warehouse. The incentive for Amazon to push bestsellers comes from the fact that publishers will pay money to promote bestsellers, but that’s equally applicable to big box stores and chain bookstores.

    So, if Le Guin’s concern is about keeping less popular books in print, then the development of Amazon would seem to be furthering that goal rather than hindering it.

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  32. Amazon has done far more good for authors than bad by making titles easily searchable from anywhere in the world, by developing algorithms that help shoppers find books they might like based on what books they’ve read and what books have been purchased by others who purchased the book in question, and by pretty much single-handedly exploding the ebook revolution. Prominent authors are able to sell their backlists and lesser-knowns are able to build their readership. Authors whose works might not appeal to the traditional publishers, or who write for niche audiences, have a ready-made platform from which to sell their books.

    Amazon has also done more good than harm for indie booksellers, by setting up a marketplace where any individual or business can sell its wares to an international audience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ordered books from Amazon and they’ve been delivered from independent bookstores across the country from me.

    Amazon has done wonderful things for readers. Not only do I have instant access at my fingertips to the largest collection of titles ever amassed, but I can also choose what format I want it in: new hardcover, mass market paperback, used, digital, or even audio. This means I can choose the format that works best for me, and that if I’m lower on the financial spectrum, I can choose the one that costs me the least, which means I can buy (and read, and recommend) more books! I can easily learn about books and authors who I never, ever in a million years would have learned about without Amazon, and I can RATE THE BOOKS. This is huge. I love physical bookstores, but I can’t go into one, pluck a book on the shelf and call out, “hey, everybody who’s read this book tell me how well you liked it on a scale of one to five” and expect to get very informative answers.

    I shop for books on Amazon. I shop for books at Barnes and Noble. I subscribe to Scribd. And I still shop at local, independent bookstores. The presence of these new markets for books has not reduced the amount of money I spend with the indies, it has increased the amount of money I spend overall on books. Amazon is a boon and a blessing to readers, to authors and even to indie booksellers.

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  34. Pingback: Ursula K. LeGuin On The Publishing Industry | Books Here And There

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