The author Ursula K. Le Guin has written novels and stories set in almost every century and kind of world imaginable. In one of her novels, people change genders every month or so; other books describe a world of islands and wizardry where Jungian ideas take on literal form. She’s sketched all kinds of utopian and dystopian societies, whether socialist, pastoral or libertarian. She can dream up just about anything. But what Le Guin clearly can’t imagine is a world in which a single corporation determines the kinds of books written and published – and she’s seeing it take shape now. And this is why she has just come out – hard -- against Amazon.
“As a book dealer and publisher, Amazon wants no competitors, admits no responsibilities, and takes no risks,” the 85-year-old fantasy and science-fiction author writes on the Book View Café blog. “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.”
Le Guin, of course, has not kept her frustration with online bookselling to herself: She has written articles and spoken out about Amazon before. She’s read and thought enough about technology to have a sense of the way it can change culture. As the daughter of two anthropologists who studied a wide range of cultures, she’s seen ways culture has existed without strict market capitalism. In her National Book Awards speech, at which she dissed Amazon, she also praised “writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
But what’s valuable about her latest post, besides her general eloquence and rage, is the shift of emphasis. Most of the criticism of Amazon has focused on the enormous number of bookstores it has put out of business; a secondary criticism has looked at the way the online retailer runs its warehouses like sweatshops, requiring overtime and posting ambulances outside distribution centers rather than spring for air conditioning on sweltering days. Le Guin’s new essay is about the way the online retailer shapes what we do and don’t read or hear about.
Much of Le Guin’s piece is about the economic and cultural effects of the bestseller list, which she says used to – until the ‘90s --generate revenues publishers could use “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.” This is what we called the midlist, and a lot of accomplished writers – and just about every poet, short story writer, and non-celebrity historian – lived there. “That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.” Band-aids like self-publishing are hardly a replacement for this.
She’s not the first scribe to take aim at the dominance of bestseller lists and their winner-take-all-logic: Critic Michael Dirda wrote in BookForum that they are “bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist. If there are a dozen slots, six are filled by the same old establishment names.”
Le Guin takes this argument a step forward. “If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big,” she writes. “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.
The retort to this is that publishing has always been tied to capitalism, and that’s true: Publisher Richard Nash has written intelligently on the history of the book and about the implications in the digital age.
But when a single company has the power and reach of Amazon -- it controls about 65 percent of e-book sales in the U.S., paid no sales tax for years, and enjoys lucrative government contracts – we are getting very close to the kind of monopoly capitalism Teddy Roosevelt tried to squash a century ago.
Le Guin concludes her rant with a call to arms: “Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”
Le Guin has long been one of our favorite writers, and with pieces like this one we are reminded why.