Ursula K. Le Guin has it backward

Ursula K. Le Guin is asking people to not buy books from Amazon because they market bestsellers, the literary equivalent of junk food. She said last week

I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.

I agree with that. That’s why I shop at Amazon.

If I liked to read best-selling junk food, I could find it at any bookstore. But I like to read less popular books, books I can only find from online retailers like Amazon. If fact, most of Amazon’s revenue comes from obscure books, not bestsellers.

Suppose I want to read something by, I don’t know, say, Ursula K. Le Guin. I doubt I could find a copy of any of her books, certainly not her less popular books, within 20 miles of my house, and I live in the 4th largest city in the US. There’s nothing by her in the closest Barnes and Noble. But I could easy find anything she’s ever written on Amazon.

If you’d like to support Amazon so they can continue to bring us fine authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, authors you can’t find in stores that mostly sell packaged microwavable fiction, you can buy one of the books mentioned on this blog from Amazon.

12 thoughts on “Ursula K. Le Guin has it backward

  1. I hesitate to suggest this, but I think you have entirely missed her point. Le Guin is not basing her objection on the fact that they sell bestsellers. She’s basing it on the fact that they are actively working to eliminate other kinds of fiction. She writes:

    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.

    The reason you can buy obscure works by Le Guin on Amazon is that they exist. Le Guin (and others) are arguing that, if Amazon’s dominance of the market and current behaviors persist, such works will never be published in the future. You can agree or disagree, but it’s a totally different argument from the one you are attributing to her.

  2. For someone who is by all accounts a good writer, Le Guin is a little hard to follow in her blog post.

    It seems to me that Amazon is encouraging diversity, not working to eliminate it. Amazon gives even the most obscure authors a distribution channel. Maybe Amazon negatively impacts moderately popular authors in a way that I’m not aware of, but they certainly benefits unpopular authors.

  3. My main regret is Ms. Le Guin’s dim view of all who purchase through Amazon, as though they were slaves to the “BS Machine”.

    Lots of “systems” exist in all markets, especially those in capitalist economies, to connect consumers with products. The “BS Machine” is far from the worst, since it may at least exert some peer pressure on a few who might not otherwise read any books at all.

  4. This is not a new discussion; writers have been complaining about Amazon for a decade or more. Basically, Amazon is accelerating the disappearance of the “midlist” — those authors who are not bestsellers, but whose works remain in print for multiple years and sell at modest volumes. I am not an expert in this area, but there are lots of online resources related to the debate.

    This is not about books that have been published in the past. This is about which books will be published in the future.

  5. As Frederico posted, Amazon’s labor practices are far from ethical, which is why they can sell you so much shit for so cheap. Every argument made by the anti-Walmart movement 10+ years ago now applies even more so to Amazon. These are the reasons I avoid purchasing any goods from Amazon.

    I do, however, still use AWS, and while plenty of folks still report they’re not a great employer, the job market for IT is competitive enough to ensure fair compensation and treatment.

  6. How ironic: Just two days ago I started reading The Dispossessed (by Ursula Leguin). I purchased the Kindle edition from Amazon.

  7. Doug: I doubt you could have found it on paper locally, unless you happened to run across it in a used book store.

    I sometimes run across good older books by serendipity, but almost never deliberately. If I’m looking for a specific title, I hardly ever find it locally.

  8. As to diversity, a friend of mine published an ebook on Amazon. Very niche, but it would probably have never seen the light of day at all if Amazon didn’t exist.

  9. The books at B&N are just as microwaveable. Now that Borders is gone, I’m down to one independent bookseller, and the used book chain. The independent is great just because it stocks different books not found at B&N. I need the serendipity of the physical bookstore. At Amazon, I just buy every book in the category, but that leaves with a lot of books that don’t fit where I am with the subject.

  10. I’m a little confused by her comments as well. Major publishers are becoming far more picky about exactly what they’ll publish; they are far less into risk-taking these days, choosing instead to push only titles they feel might be blockbusters. I agree that many of Amazon’s tactics are not great; however, who else has created a system to give visibility to unheralded, independent treasures?

    If she’s truly serious, and on the side of the reader and the writer, then let’s hear her make positive suggestions about how to fix the issues prompted by changes in the publishing industry as well as condemnations of Amazon.

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