June 3, 2015

Ursula LeGuin: “The idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model.”


Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula LeGuin believes that “the idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model.”

In a long but remarkably concise blog post titled “Up the Amazon with the BS Machine, or Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon,” she compares buying a book on Amazon to consuming junk food. “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.”

“Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.” But she believes “many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.” On those quality books, she writes:

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.

The full post is available here.

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.