Ursula K. Le Guin: “I Keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon”

"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings."

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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. Its 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.

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