SF&F legend and literary rabble rouser Ursula K. Le Guin has been speaking out directly and indirectly about Amazon and the state of publishing for some time. At last year’s National Book Awards, Le Guin was given a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and bemoaned the state of publishing in her speech:

The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom.

(full speech in video above)

In an interview with Laura Miller last year, she repeated her worry about books being turned into commodity:

I think corporate ownership and management of the big commercial publishers has grown steadily more misguided, to the point of allowing commodity marketers such as Amazon control over what they publish, which means what writers write and what people read. Dictatorship/censorship by the market or by government is equally dangerous, and crippling to any art.

Today, Le Guin spelled out her issues with Amazon in her most explicit terms yet. In a blog post titled “Up the Amazon with the BS Machine or Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon,” she says she doesn’t have a problem with buying household goods or even self-publishing through Amazon. However, she is troubled by “how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling.” She elaborates:

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.

Le Guin echoes many of the fears that publishers big and small have had with Amazon in recent years. Although Hachette and other major publishers ended their public feuding, many authors and publishers still worry publicly and privately about the perceived damage the corporation is doing to literature and publishing. Can literature be healthy if a single corporation controls so much of the market? For Le Guin, at least, “Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.”

Read Le Guin’s entire essay here.

47 Responses

  1. Warren Adler

    With due respect, Ms Le Guin blames the messenger. I understand the temptation to attribute all the ills of the publishing culture to the principal distributor of its products.
    Amazon is an ingenious pot pouri of “books”, a mish mash of every genre under the sun, fiction and nonfiction available for anyone who can communicate through words or pictures, of any age, intellectual capacity and point of view.
    As a fellow creative artist working in the same literary vineyard of serious fiction as Ms. Le Guin I am operating in a tiny segment of this vast universe of scribblers thankful that I can offer the fruits of my labor to the “happy few” that discover my work.
    It will never go out of print, always be available for discovery now and hopefully beyond my lifetime and as a self publisher never be beholden to the whims and choices of agents or legacy publishers to tell me how or what to write.
    I made my choice after 27 novels offered by legacy publishers and have continued my career with more creative freedom than I could have imagined before Amazon and others burst upon the scene.
    To have my output out there forever, even as a tiny star in the infinite universe is worth the candle and inspires me to keep the flame lit as long as I am able. Le Guin should be celebrating the phenomenon not attacking it.

    • Brodie

      Mr Adler, did you read the essay and more specifically this sentence?
      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.

      • John Waller

        “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.” Like the big publishers do??? How do they control what we read?? How is it worse than the other publishers??? Since, except for the self-published books, almost all of their books come from these publishers that she prefers over Amazon. Amazon has made more books available to readers than any other publisher, other than Barnes & Noble. That is a bad thing???? If books are commodities, then that means books are more affordable, AND more people are buying them. So, are books supposed to be expensive, like paintings, so only the elite, and the wealthy can afford them?? Which is more important in a book, its price or its content??? The end result of her complaint is restricted access to books, and do we really want that??

        She must really hate Project Gutenberg 🙂

      • Amy Zucker Morgenstern

        From the essay you are criticizing:

        “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.”

    • AnderssonPublishing.com

      I have enormous respect for LeGuin and others of her stature, BUT …
      I disagree. Rather than monopolize publishing, amazon’s made it available to bajillions of writers who never in their lives would have been published the Old Traditional Way with the behemoth that publishing was. I can run you off a list of 20 authors I’ve worked with … they’re now published, selling books, collecting monthly royalties, getting author speaking gigs — and without amazon it never would have happened.

      Now I do agree with LeGuin that enormous mountains of junk are being published. Like McDonald’s proliferation. But it’s up to people like you and me to choose if we want to eat McBurgers or home-grown vegetables with organic chicken. I nearly always favor the “let the market decide” on questions of economics.

      Is Amazon destroying art? I think not. I think it’s encouraging more art/literature. Do I buy books from amazon? You bet. Probably a dozen in the last couple months. Do I get a good deal? You bet. Often half price, with free shipping. But you know the best part of that half price business? The authors don’t take the cut, AMAZON DOES. When amazon discounts the price of a book, they discount their own markup, and the author still gets exactly the same royalties. And those royalties? A well-known award-winning writer with a traditional publishing house might make two bucks a book. My authors on amazon typically make 6 or 8 bucks a book! The traditional publishers held such tight-fisted control over authors for so many decades … hell, they contributed to and exacerbated the “starving artist” cliché. THEY made money, not authors — unless we’re talking Stephen King.

      Many current authors self-published through amazon, became very popular, sold tons of books, and then got an offer from a publisher. And turned it down. “Why should I give you rights to my book and make less money? I’m doing fine, thank you.”

      Does amazon have an enormous monopoly on selling everything from books to dish soap to hot sauce? Yes. So?
      I think Sears and JCPenney had monopolies on products of all kinds back when we were kids. Remember the Christmas catalogs?

      Regarding Le Guin’s statement that the profit motive is in conflict with the aims of art … in a broad way, I agree, but see above on reducing cut versus selling books. Amazon makes it on VOLUME and service, not on markup, nor on the backs of artists (like publishers have). “We should demand our fair share of the proceeds,” she says. I suspect she doesn’t understand how it actually works with amazon. And with the exception of the Hachette mess, amazon doesn’t control what’s available — I’d challenge anyone to pick a book and look for it and NOT find it on amazon. Does amazon sell mountains of fluffy crap books? Yes. But demanding they stop it is like taking on McDonald’s — ain’t gonna happen. The writer wonders, “Can literature be healthy if a single corporation controls so much of the market?” Well, I don’t know, can our diets be nutritious if McDonald’s sells so many Happy Meals?
      [image of two pennies here]
      Kelly Andersson

  2. Terminal Adjunct

    Most of us literary writers don’t even have the luxury of worrying about the commodification of our art. Let me know when I have to compromise my work for my two journal copies. OH WAIT! I already do have to, every time the editor tells me, “Oh, well, it’s really close! Don’t like the title, don’t like this character, don’t really see this plot point happening…”

    Somehow the short story writers and novelists of 1850-1980 managed to balance market demand with artistic content. They hustled, they sold, they were certainly concerned with money. It wasn’t a 24/7/365 MFA system of cronies and favors. Which, you know, doesn’t exactly pave the way for skyrocketing book sales. Baby Boomers will not be happy until there is no culture, no market, no industry left for us to use.

    I would love to see an Amazon drone buzzing to some doorstep with my little tome. Maybe if some of you bestsellers are so bothered by this, you could move out the way and let the young lions feed!

  3. timmyray

    There is Amazon and there is Amazon. I, like many independent sellers, sell on Amazon. It is needed income for many individuals. I have worked in books since 1970,managing for large chains (Doubleday) and independent booksellers. I have also managed a bookstore in Europe. My hobby for many years has been to hunt books that I can sell. Many are rare or hard to find books. One of the great joys for me is to be able to find a title that is not available on the internet. I make it a point to support local booksellers throughout the world.Our grown son works at a great independent seller in Denver; he worked for another independent bookseller in the same city. Some see Amazon as the giant retailer it has become. But please consider that there is another side to this story we independent sellers find as a lifeline for our endeavors.

  4. James

    When one of these bestselling hypocrites pulls their books from Amazon, then maybe I’ll listen. I still won’t agree with them, but I’ll listen.

      • Jeffrey P

        Then maybe the author has already sold their soul to one of the many devils out there.

  5. Editrix

    As she states, she has no problem with self-publishers and other businesses operating through Amazon. However, she’s completely right about Amazon stifling literary voices. What Amazon are doing is putting every other publisher out of business, slowly but surely. The big publishers are consolidating to survive. The small publishers are sinking under the weight of the bestseller machine which promotes the same ten books over and over and leaves no space for the rest. This is also due to Amazon’s impact on the bookselling market. Amazon have space for every book, but have neither space nor inclination to promote every book. The top 20 or so in each Amazon category are visible, the rest are nowhere. And now there are far fewer other outlets where people could discover unknown authors. Even five years ago there was more scope for smaller books to sell a respectable number, now, people don’t even hear about them. So spots for promotion are fewer and more expensive, and only the big publishers can afford to pay for the campaigns that get a book into the front of a bookshop or on Amazon’s home page, and smaller publishers die out. This leads to a smaller number of people selecting and promoting books, and those people are being increasingly forced to live and die by the profits, so they only select things they know will sell. That’s what le Guin is talking about – a reduced amount of quality literature selected and nurtured by people who are passionate and knowledgeable about books, rather than passionate about their bottom line. Look at what’s happened to the film industry.

    You could ask why people need publishers – can’t they find their own books from the self-published books? Some of them are good. Well, the same thing applies – the top 20 self-pubbed books are visible and the rest are nowhere, but there is no filtering method applied here – the top 20 could be good books that someone passionate about literature has spent a fortune in their own money on to risk promoting, or they could be any old crap from someone with marketing skills and a big budget to promote themselves. If you read ten terrible books in a row, would you even know where to turn to find good (new) books once the bookshops have died out, or would you just get gradually tired of reading? I say we need arbiters of literary taste who are driven by something other than profit. No matter what people who are bitter about having had a manuscript rejected might think of those ‘gatekeepers’.

      • Greg

        What’s so great about what they said? Two of my best friends are both self-pubbing through Amazon after being unable to impress the “gatekeepers” enough to land a trad-pub contract. One has just quit his day-job to go full-time writer, and the other is on his way to doing the same.

        Neither of them got the chance through bowing and scraping before the taste-arbitors of publishing houses, and neither did the audiences who have access now to their literary voices.

    • The Mechanic

      The problem with “literature” is, it’s boring and tedious. There’s a reason I don’t bother looking at the books that are published by the big companies anymore, it’s because I can read the newspaper and I get the same thing. Reading fiction isn’t about “literature” it’s about escapism. The editors have lost site of what the customer wants and they are trying to force writers to write what the editor deems is good “literature” based a right-think, this is why the major publishers are selling fewer and fewer books, no one wants to be preached at, they want to be entertained. The “gatekeepers” are ruining the publishing industry by forcing writers to write boring preachy dreck. You forget that Shakespeare was considered a low brow hack.

      • Rick

        “Literature” can also refer to amazing fiction in sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, and many genres. I read both traditional and self-published books, but not a single book from Amazon. Sadly, that means I won’t read many self-published authors due to their insurance on publishing exclusively on Amazon. The issue here isn’t how a book is published. Rather, the issue is how much control Amazon has on the selling of said books.

      • Greg

        As opposed to who? Outfits like Hachet? Because they were SOOOOO committed to not overly controling how books were sold…[/sarc]

      • The Mechanic

        Sorry Rick, had to go back and read the rant, because the article is from a year ago. Her rant was that Amazon was telling Big Publishing that Amazon customers wanted more of certain types of books and books by certain authors, and those books and authors weren’t “literature” and How Dare a mere book seller tell the Publisher what sells. These “stories” that Amazon keeps asking for are pure drivel, the “public” may enjoy them but they’re not “literature” and should never see the light of day.
        Remember, though, just read what LeGuin says, not the hyperbola being injected by the author of the article, the article was written to put even more spin on this by implying that Anyone who doesn’t publish through the “proper” channels is not a “real” author.
        Locked in to Amazon? As far as I’ve heard, other than not being able to sell the kindle .mobi version through other sales chains, the
        authors still own their works, and Amazon gives authors a bigger percentage per sale than other publishers. People stay on Amazon by choice, it’s the biggest marketplace out there, more visibility, more potential readers/buyers. But, hey, it’s your decision, if you want to pass up some decent and entertaining reading just because of the store that sells it, more power to ya Sunshine.

    • Jalestra

      As a reader, I’m not seeing anyone steering my reading. Amazon’s top 20 list generally fails to impress me. Believe it or not, readers are usually intelligent enough to decide for themselves without some Big 6 standing on their throne publishing to the lowest common denominator because that’s what’s “popular” and therefore sells. I was honestly about ready to stop reading until Amazon because every time I looked for books when I was out they were pretty much crap. I was hitting the used book store for good stuff. Publishers are more a problem to serious reading than Amazon could ever be.

      I don’t need someone telling me what I “should” read. It hasn’t been that great. All I can think of is the sheer amount of author exposure I get NOW, thanks to Amazon. I have SO many things to read and they’re usually pretty awesome. I run into the occasional dud, but I did when buying from the Big 6, too. I don’t WANT a “gatekeeper”, someone to stand between me and a book and decide if it’s “right” enough. I have my own mind, thank you very much. Arbiters of literary taste? ROFLMAO I keep passing those books on my way down the magazine aisle because I haven’t seen anything all that great by them in…well, a really really long time. I’m not even a genre specific reader. I’m a voracious reader. I read western/fantasy/sci-fi/mystery…not much romance. It’s just too out there…lol And yes, I do read the classics, so I’m not some pop culture reader. It’s not that the arbiters are any good and actually put any meat on the shelves, it’s that they put out slop.

      • Greg

        ” I do read the classics, so I’m not some pop culture reader.”

        On behalf of all of us who actually ENJOY reading books whose authors haven’t been dead a century or more, I’d just like to say “OI!”

        Having lived long-ago, and being a long-winded pretentious “writer” doesn’t make a book better. In fact, every “classic” I’ve ever had to read left me wanting to beat my head against the wall and/or wishing I had those hours of my life back.

        If reading Tom Clancy or Jim Butcher or the latest Star Wars or Star Trek novel and enjoying them thoroughly and a heck of a lot more than Melville or Stevenson or even Tolkien makes us barbarians in the world of the Artistes, then all I can say is:

        Vive le Barbarian!

  6. Ruth Moors D'Eredita, Esq.

    I think Ursula wrongly drapes this blanket over Amazon. Amazon serves a good and helpful purpose in getting books into readers’s hands. This spring alone, from Amazon, I have so far purchased The Naked Civil Servant, an Arna Bontemps collection, the Norton Anth of Short Fiction (both versions), The Last Witch of Langenburg, A Brief History of Time, the new Steve Osborne, a Juliana of Norwich and a Bernard of Clairvaux, Asimov’s Chronology of the World, Harris Middleton’s Black Book, a new Epictetus for my son, The Quiet American, Orson Scott Card’s Elements of Fiction Writing, Michael Carroll’s Madonnas that Maim, the Cowboy Bebop box set, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and a 7th copy of Late Wife by Claudia Emerson. Had I driven to Barnes&Noble each time I needed one of these books, I’d have emerged empty-handed most times, because they do not stock most of these books, and ordering through B&N is a rigamarole, while ordering through Amazon is the simplest buying experience I have all month. I want Ursula to consider that I don’t have much time to go to my city’s independent bookstore–Parnassus, here in Nashville–and browse–but when I do, I emerge with another armful of books. We can all do our part to ensure that independent publishing and bookstores, and Amazon, continue to co-exist.

  7. Michael Arvelo

    I could be way off base myself but from the majority of people I know (who are avid readers, more so than myself), Amazon does not come up in conversation as being a driving force of what they want to read. Amazon comes up as the source if obtaining some random book that they can’t find locally in the big profit machine bookstores or run ragged libraries and small stores. Amazon if anything provides an affordable option to what the more direct publishing companies gouge us on (if said money were all going to the authors Id be ok with it but I get the sense its not)

    • Jalestra

      That’s another thing I really love about Amazon. The money of those self publishing mostly goes to the author. Y’know, that guy (or girl) who spent months working and developing these characters and putting it into a cohesive whole in a way that immerses you into the story. Yeah, those guys. Not the other guys who just take the product and put it on paper. There’s actually one author I quit reading, not because of HIM, but because the e-book was MORE than the paperback. That’s not the author’s fault, it’s the publishers. Unfortunately, if you’re talking about a digitized book you’re NOT spending as much on production costs. Jacking the price up is just wrong.

  8. Brian Nitz

    Amazon isn’t evil but writers and readers must never forget that it is a reptile. By corporate reflex, by US SEC law, it does what it must do to turn a profit every 90 days. The complex relationship between artists, consumers and financial sponsors goes back long before Amazon, penny dreadful pulp fiction, even before the Medicis. In the modern world, corporations tightly control the connections between artists and audience. A handful of record companies, film companies and nearly defunct brick-and-mortar bookshops dominated the US landscape during much of Ms. Le Guin’s career and yet we see no evidence that her work was compromised by these distortive market forces. Writers, musicians and other artists must learn to navigate the world’s economic landscape without compromising their craft. Amazon provides opportunities for aspiring writers to find their audience, just as Youtube is providing a channel for musicians and filmmakers to break away from RIAA/MPAA cultural dominance. Amazon is crushing small bookshops but it is also leaving gaps in the cultural marketplace that we must fill.

  9. Ed

    Human behavior is economic behavior. Amazon is easy, convenient, affordable. Asking readers to stop buying books from there for some lofty ideal of what publishing/marketing should be won’t work, no matter how pragmatic one tries to be.

    The real problem, I think, is that publishing hasn’t found a way to modernize marketing. The good ol’ days of stuffy interviews and book club selections worked great back in the 80s/90s, before social media became big. But now that the internet acts as this giant echo chamber for people’s opinions, trying to compete with “what’s hot” is a damn-near impossible task. And blaming Amazon for it is, as others have pointed out, just shooting the messenger.

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  11. bill mchugh

    As much as I have respect for the author, her views here, in my opinion, mock the abilities of her readers. She is more than welcome to not like how Amazon markets their books. But how different is that from NYT or others? But that’s not the point. Amazon has opened me up to so many author’s that I would never have found if it weren’t for my Kindle and my binge-reading of their free or $1.99 series. Allow me to determine how and where I find a book. I don’t need the author to tell me how bad the marketing on Amazon is – it’s that way for all of it. But Amazon isn’t selling us down the river or diminishing the value of the written word. Sure they are the ultimate in capitalists but I’m a big boy, and I make my decisions based upon the authors I enjoy and the stories I find and not what Amazon tells me to read.

    Prior to my Kindle, I had to go to B&N or somewhere else to have the books I will read presented to me on an end cap. The world has changed and the publishing world, thankfully, in my opinion, is finally becoming a more transparent and free market. Authors are being paid and getting exposure in ways that didn’t happen 10 years ago. To find an author that then wants to cry foul on that side is mind blowing to me. And to be someone from that genre surprises me as well.

    I’m not buying from Amazon because of the ratings they provided. I’m buying because I know the author’s and it’s a reasonable price. I made my own educated decision – and that’s what everyone should do.

  12. Levin Messick

    Ms. Le Guin is I am sure pining for the return of the Scott Merrideth Agency and three to five cents a word. Only really important people who had something to say that fit the proper mold were allowed in the club. The internet, self publishing, and Amazon are a breath of fresh air in this incestuous self admiration club of publishers and the authors who were anointed. Strangely, Ms. Le Guin is supposedly a good science fiction writer, you would think she could have seen this coming years ago. Perhaps she should read early (1980’s cyber-punk) William P. Gibson short stories to catch up with the current world. The point is the world keeps moving along stay up with it and roll with the punches or it will run over you.

    • bluepanther

      Yes! I worked for many years in that incestuous and smug world called NYC trade book publishing and still have many friends who are holding on for dear life. Most of them are demoralized and disillusioned because their little Manhattan circle is no longer the revered gatekeeper for American readers. The internet has smashed their pretensions. They are aware they are irrelevant in many ways though they pretend they can still exclusively shape “the culture.” That being said, I prefer NOT to give my business to Amazon due to its employee practices. There are PLENTY of options out there online for ordering or self-publishing books.

  13. Tony

    I seem to recall reading a similar critique from Jon Bon Jovi concerning how Steve Jobs and iTunes (and digital media in general) “killed” the music industry. It seems Ms. Le Guin’s argument is along the same lines, as Amazon has killed her (personally profitable) version of the book publishing industry.

    Maybe it’s just me but I see more in every subject and genre in both books and music now. Not all of them great material, but at least I get to CHOOSE what I want to read or listen to now, not someone else based on their business model.

  14. Andrew

    The increasing scope of sale for literary, technical and musical writers should not be lamented. There are less refined works available. So be it. That there is more product to choose from is a good thing.

  15. Jill Patterson

    I understand Ms. Guin’s concerns, but on the other hand, Amazon has made it so I am able to buy books and read more often. I do not choose books by the best seller lists, I usually choose by authors I like or recommendations from friends and colleagues; but I live in a small town in rural AZ and while we have one new book store and several used ones, I often cannot find what I want since I lean towards reading history and biography as well as good fiction. Further, as a teacher, my pay is rather low and the books at the store here are often twice the price of the same book on Amazon…so because of that I often have to resort to Amazon. I have even bought Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (which I have loved forever) on Amazon as a gift for a student whom I thought would like the series. It was not available anywhere here in town.

  16. Eeyore3061

    Welcome, unfortunately, to being and example of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law:
    “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

  17. Bard Constantine

    It’s easy to look at the symptom instead of the cure. The publishing industry had been a crumbling relic for decades, yet many authors blame Amazon for the state of literature instead of looking at why the major houses can’ t come up with innovative ways to compete. Times have changed, and being a spiteful Neanderthal still won’t stop the progress of the Cro-Magnon. Rather than adopting this divided stance, those of the old guard should embrace change and leap on the opportunity to be a part of it.

    In the end, it is the readers that ultimately decide what they want to read. The avenue in which the books are delivered is ultimately a moot point.

    • Kathryn Shimmura

      I understand many of the criticisms of Amazon and their marketing machinery…BUT, without Amazon, I would never have access to the interesting books that I find when browsing Amazon. My local bookstores just can’t stock the number and variety of books that I want to get my hands on. There are beloved books I would never have known about with Amazon and connections to new books related to the older ones…and on and on…
      If that makes me a greedy book pig, I’m sorry, I’m not giving it up.

  18. BL Miller

    There are thousands of LGBT books out there and the shelf space in traditional brick and mortar stores is incredibly small. Amazon has opened up the world of LGBT literature/fiction/romance to the readers in ways other avenues could not. It is a win-win for the authors and readers.

  19. Tom Schweich

    When High Country News published their Fall 2014 reading list of 50-60 books, not one was owned by our county library system. The closest a big box store could come was one book by an author on the list, but not the recommended book. I was able to find and read all but one book recommended by HCN through Amazon Kindle. I prefer to use my library to keep book-buying costs down, but availability through Amazon is their very strong selling point.


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