Why Does Ursula K. Le Guin Hate Amazon?

by on June 9, 2015 at 7:21 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Ursula K. Le Guin’s poorly-argued and evidence-free rant against Amazon is more about her hatred of capitalism than about Amazon’s actual effect on the market for books. Here’s Le Guin:

[Amazon’s] 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 same argument was made in the late 1990s against chain bookstores like Border’s. It wasn’t a good argument then (see Tyler’s masterpiece, In Praise of Commercial Culture) but at least at that time it was debatable. Le Guin’s attempt to resurrect the argument today is bizarre. Does anyone doubt that it is easier to buy a niche book today than it ever has been in the entire history of the world? Indeed, does anyone doubt that it is easier to buy a Ursula K. Le Guin book today than it ever has been in the entire history of the world?

Larger markets support greater variety. A bookstore that only sells locally can’t stock many books. It’s the smaller store that fears taking a risk because the opportunity cost of shelf space is so high. Amazon lowers the cost of stocking books through efficient logistics and by warehousing in relatively low-cost areas (subject to being close to markets). The fixed costs of distribution are then spread over a much larger (inter)-national market so it pays to stock many more books.

Amazon makes a lot of money selling niche books. The precise numbers are debatable because Amazon doesn’t release much data but Brynjolfsson, Hu and Smith estimated that the long-tail accounted for nearly 40% of Amazon sales in 2008, a number that had risen over time. Indeed, since costs aren’t that different it’s not obvious that Amazon makes much more from selling a million copies of a single book than from 10 copies of each of 100,000 books (especially if they are ebooks).

Ebooks take this argument to the limit and the data show greater diversity in who publishes books than ever before. According to a recent Author Earnings report:

…indie self-published authors and their ebooks were outearning all authors published by the Big Five publishers combined

Perhaps what pushes Le Guin onto the wrong track is that there are more (inter)-national blockbusters than ever before which gives some people the impression that variety is declining. It’s not a contradiction, however, that niche products can become more easily available even as there are more blockbusters–as Paul Krugman explained the two phenomena are part and parcel of the same logic of larger markets. It’s important, however, to keep one’s eye on the variety available to individuals. Variety has gone up for every person even as some measures of geographic variety have gone down.

In the past small sci-fi booksellers in out-of-the-way places (link to my youth) barely eked out a living from selling books. Precisely because they didn’t make a lot of money, however, the independents signaled their worthy devotion to the revered authors. Today, Amazon sells more Le Guin books than any independent ever did. But Bezos doesn’t revere Le Guin, he treats her books as a commodity. That may distress Le Guin but for readers, book capitalism is a wonder, books and books and books available on our devices within seconds, more books than we could ever read; a veritable fountain, no a firehose, no an Amazon of books.

1 Ted Craig June 9, 2015 at 7:34 am

How many LeGuin books can you buy at any bookstore? Left Hand, Dispossessed, maybe an Earthsea book or two? How many can you buy on Amazon? Everything she ever wrote. As for her complaint about quick obsolescence and disposability, her real enemy is technology. That trend started with the stream-driven printing press. Of course before that, the most popular book was nothing, since many people either couldn’t read or couldn’t afford many books.

2 mesaman June 10, 2015 at 11:22 am

Ursula K Le Guin? Never heard of her, didn’t know she asserted to be an author, have no idea what her agenda is. From the article I would conclude she is just another liberal loser who voted for the loser-in-chief.

3 RonF June 10, 2015 at 11:40 am

mesaman, regardless of her politics it’s a fact that she is a well-known and highly-regarded SF author who has sold a LOT of books.

4 TimD June 11, 2015 at 11:41 am

RonF, with all due respect to yourself and Ms. LeGuin, it was she who made this a political issue. She does sound a bit whiny, but then again, angry anti-capitalists usually are. As for her selling a LOT of books, you are making the same point Ms. LeGuin’s detractors on here. How easy was it to buy her books before Amazon? How easy is it now? It would be interesting to see how the sales break down, by year, in the pre Amazon era and now.

5 Peter G. June 11, 2015 at 2:57 pm

As some folks point out lower down in the comment stack, Amazon is surely making it a lot easier to find and buy Le Guin’s older books… but these will often be USED books, which does not produce revenue for Le Guin. I don’t know how she feels about that, but it does show that “sales” alone isn’t necessarily a useful metric.

6 Jamie June 9, 2015 at 7:40 am

I’m in agreement with Marc Andreesen in his pro-Amazon views:

>’He had to drive an hour to find a Waldenbooks, in La Crosse; it was all cookbooks and cat calendars. So he later saw Amazon as a heroic disseminator of knowledge and progress. “Screw the independent bookstores,” he told me. “There weren’t any near where I grew up. There were only ones in college towns. The rest of us could go pound sand.”’

He also went after Krugman for his anti-Amazon stance:

http://www.businessinsider.com/andreessen-slams-krugman-over-amazon-2014-10

(these are annotations by Andreesen in response):

Krugman: … in case you’re wondering, yes, I have Amazon Prime and use it a lot. But again, so what?

Andreessen: Amazon is hurting America, but not enough for Paul Krugman to take on a little inconvenience by using other ecommerce sites. Principles!

Krugman: You might be tempted to say that this is just business — no different from Standard Oil, back in the days before it was broken up, refusing to ship oil via railroads that refused to grant it special discounts.

Andreessen: Classic Krugman rhetorical maneuver. “Just business” is not the same as “no different than Standard Oil”. Businesses of every shape size and description negotiate with their suppliers every day without in any way meriting a comparison to Standard Oil.

Krugman: So far Amazon has not tried to exploit consumers. In fact, it has systematically kept prices low, to reinforce its dominance.

Andreessen: Another classic Krugman rhetorical maneuver. According to Paul, keeping prices low is a sign of monopoly power, but of course he’d also say that keeping prices high would also be a sign of monopoly power.

7 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:09 am

Amazon seems to be exploiting its monopsony power more than its monopoly power.

Bookreaders seem happy at Amazon. It is the book-writers & publishing ecosystem that’s screaming murder. Not that I think we ought to listen to them.

In that sense, Amazon is similar to Walmart. Mostly happy buyers but sellers that crib. Is that the new normal?

8 EB June 9, 2015 at 9:30 am

I hope it is.

9 Im stupid June 9, 2015 at 9:42 am

Can we all think about the highly-skilled, well-read clerks at the former Mom-and-Pops who earned a living wage and kept our Main Streets vibrant?!

10 Dude June 9, 2015 at 9:49 am

They’re now working at startups, but still keeping the main streets vibrant.

11 mulp June 9, 2015 at 11:02 am

…employing wait staff who work so many hours they can’t be literate because gone are the days of waitresses and clerks coming in before noon and being on the clock until 7pm and having several hours of slow business to read.

The cost of being human is increasingly forced onto the human as business tries to turn them into machines that can be turned off and idled at zero cost, unlike humans who must consume whether earning or not.

12 Jim Treacher June 9, 2015 at 11:56 am

Give them jobs putting tassels on buggy whips.

13 Ameer June 9, 2015 at 7:20 pm

I believe independent bookstores are on the rise again–this article theorizes that the problem was never Amazon, but Barnes & Noble and Borders. Amazon appears to have slain the beast that preyed on the independent bookstores:

http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_edgy_optimist/2014/09/independent_bookstores_rising_they_can_t_compete_with_amazon_and_don_t_have.html

14 Dain June 9, 2015 at 4:04 pm

The revolt of the progressives against free and cheap continues to astound. Materialist populism is now largely the province of the “austerity” right. What gives?

http://rare.us/story/theres-a-revolt-against-free-stuff-and-its-coming-from-the-left-2/

15 TallDave June 9, 2015 at 10:42 pm

In other industries, falling costs are called a “productivity gain.”

As with productivity gains generally, the benefits swamp the detriments. Does anyone doubt more content is sold because of Amazon?

16 Rich Berger June 9, 2015 at 7:41 am

The funny thing is that Amazon has yet to record a significant profit. I wonder why she is lost in some 1960’s leftist funk.

17 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 8:14 am

She’s 85 years old. She’s a creative type, not a woman of business. And, like Diane Ravitch, the democratization of communications may mean that the nonsense of her senescence gets published when it would have only been heard by her children and next-door-neighbor in 1978.

18 pst314 June 9, 2015 at 7:16 pm

I believe she is some sort of anarchist-socialist.

19 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 9:52 am

A lot of sci-fi authors seem to get stuck on the future that they imagined as a kid when they age, not the future that actually came to be. Ray Bradbury hated personal computers, for instance.

20 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 10:47 am

Ray Bradbury’s oeuvre was not confined to Sci-Fi and a critique of the disagreeable effects of the interaction of technology and culture was manifest as early as 1951.

21 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 11:49 am

Yes, I suppose I should have said “speculative fiction”. And the critique of technology has been there since the inception of the genre, but it’s clear that some authors have much more trouble understanding or coping with the modern world than others.

22 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 1:06 pm

but it’s clear that some authors have much more trouble understanding or coping with the modern world than others.

“The modern world” is a cliche and he ‘understood’ it well enough. He just didn’t like it.

23 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 2:03 pm

What’s cliche is old people thinking everything new is going to make culture worse.

24 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm

He was 31 when he wrote the 1st installments of Fahrenheit 451.

25 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 3:32 pm

And he wasn’t complaining about personal computers in 1953.

26 mulp June 9, 2015 at 1:42 pm

“The funny thing is that Amazon has yet to record a significant profit. I wonder why she is lost in some 1960’s leftist funk.”

The perfect competitor in a perfect market with no monopoly forced to constant run faster adding productive capital assets just to stay in one place.

hippie leftist mulp, who was an “I like Ike” boomer who learned basic economics in civics class in public schools in the 60s and grew up inspired by the prospect of working on hard projects like getting to the moon and just earning a living changing the world and not getting rich, which to me was having $10,000 in cash that justified murder to take it from me based on Perry Mason.

Profit is possible only with a monopoly.

Amazon generates a market rate of return on capital that it invests in buying new capital, all of which depreciates in most cases far faster than its useful life so the added capital investment generates business expense that negates business income and thus eliminates income taxes.

That Bezos is a zero profit capitalist is confusing when economists advocate corporate monopoly profits to restrict competition and raise prices and cut pay to labor by getting bigger and bigger to eliminate competitors. Bezos is instead the competitor who is always afraid to look over his shoulder to see if someone is racing up to pass him so he invests ever more in productive capital and labor to stay in the race.

Bezos is afraid of becoming Wal-Mart which after Sam Walton passed bent to Wall Street to extract profit to create wealth and within a decade became hated by many consumers who previously had rejoiced at the increased choice and selection at big city prices where many competing stores drove down prices. Where Wal-Mart had meant good jobs, Wal-Mart meant overworked underpaid staff and poor service all to serve Wall Street, not customers. Fortunately, those managers seem to have been replaced and Wal-Mart is not focused on profits but in staying in business – it has discovered monopoly is transient, and its focus on profits opened the door to hundreds of Targets nearby.

27 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Root post refers to accounting profit. Commentator replies with long screed about economic profit. Good times.

28 JWatts June 9, 2015 at 8:27 pm

It’s mulp.

29 lxm June 10, 2015 at 6:25 pm

It’s jwatts

30 rayward June 9, 2015 at 8:05 am

Will Amazon be the End of Books. Amazon sells books like it sells other goods, for volume not for profit. Amazon doesn’t generate profits because today’s investors don’t demand it. Since volume not profits is the goal, Amazon will cut prices for books and other goods even though doing so cuts its own profits and the profits of its suppliers, including the supplier (i.e., author) of books. Will writers stop writing books as a result? One gets the impression reading Tabarrok’s blog post that he believes writers write books not for the profits but just because they are writers. Dogs chase cars even though dogs can’t drive! I would be more sympathetic to Tabarrok’s position if he didn’t have a captive market for his books, books sold at inflated prices to buyers who take out government subsidized loans to pay for them.

31 Rich Berger June 9, 2015 at 8:20 am

I think the evidence has been pretty clear for a long time that writers will write and musicians will play with slim chance of making a go of it.

32 albatross June 9, 2015 at 8:48 am

Yep, there is an unbelieveable amount of fanfic available, the best of it about as good as the average commercially published novel you pick up off the shelf at Barnes and Noble, all written for free. Arguably one of the best SF novels of the last couple years, _The Martian_, was originally self-published by the author on his website. Novels will continue to be written and read (and music will continue to be made) even if there’s no clear way to pay its creators.

The societal argument for having some mechanism to pay creators of novels and music is that we hope to get more and better books and music out of that. I’m not sure how you’d measure whether or not we’re succeeding–it seems pretty clear that books are improved quite a bit by professional editing, and certainly the average work that gets published by Tor is a lot better than the average novel-length work on fanfiction.net, but it’s hard to know what the world would look like if nobody could make a living publishing novels.

33 Sam Haysom June 9, 2015 at 10:55 am

What about non-fiction. I have a hard time believing that anyone’s writing fanfic equivalents of a book about the Rwandan Genocide for instance. And I’m entirely certain if the non-fiction market dies C and T aren’t going to take it with a stiff upper lip. No they will whine about why aren’t there anymore good books to read or in Cowen’s case pretend to read. How are they supposed to signal now?

And I think you guys are underestimating the lottery effect that lurks behind a lot of this fanfic, the remote hope that they too might write the next 50 Shades of Grey. Buying lottery tickets is pretty foolish even when there are jackpots- but if tomorrow jackpots disappeared no one would buy lottery tickets.

34 John Thacker June 9, 2015 at 11:57 am

I have a hard time believing that anyone’s writing fanfic equivalents of a book about the Rwandan Genocide for instance.

You mean that you don’t think that Wikipedia exists?

35 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 12:54 pm

The bulk of good non-fiction today does not get paid for principally via book royalties.

Speaking engagements, fame, consulting gigs, directorships, awards, academic appointments are the indirect rewards for writing good non-fiction. At least, popular non-fiction.

Unlike fiction writers, non-fiction authors usually have a related day-job (Journalist, Professor, policymaker etc.) that will serve as a backstop

36 Sam Haysom June 9, 2015 at 12:55 pm

You make my point for me. Wikipedia exists only because it can harness the trove of book and journal sources that came before it. Wikipedia articles on currents are terrible. It’s almost like you don’t understand how Wikipedia works. They don’t even like to accept prart sourcing on it. Wikipedia is dominated by a secondary-source ethos. That means books.

37 John Thacker June 9, 2015 at 3:08 pm

It’s almost like you don’t understand how Wikipedia works. They don’t even like to accept prart sourcing on it. Wikipedia is dominated by a secondary-source ethos.

Eh, Wikipedia claims to be dominated by a secondary-source ethos, but in reality that’s not how it works. The individual motivated editors (not well paid) do a lot more to shape articles than the average book out there. Painstaking researched secondary sources (or even primary sources) are wholesale ejected when they don’t meet the interests or approval of influential editors.

The editors know what they want the article to say, then they selectively cite what they want in order to make the article say that. The editors are the true authors of the articles; the secondary sources close to irrelevant.

And in particular, it doesn’t “mean books,” as it’s far easier and more common to get something in Wikipedia by citing something online, which oftentimes is produced by an equally interested amateur.

38 John Thacker June 9, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Book citations on Wikipedia oftentimes may as well not even exist (or might well completely contradict the text), since they’re almost never checked.

39 Eric H June 15, 2015 at 11:19 pm

“The editors know what they want the article to say, then they selectively cite what they want in order to make the article say that.” That’s true. In addition, lots of cites are simply a result of using The Googler. This is especially true w/r/t current events. By the way, isn’t there an XKCD bit about the potential circularity of wikipedia, media, and google?

40 gregorylent June 9, 2015 at 11:03 am

and coders will code but look at all the ipr crap thrown around

41 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:14 am

Most of the best books written were written just because the writer had something he wanted the world to read. Not for making money.

In that sense, volume is what most great authors want, not profits.

42 Sam Haysom June 9, 2015 at 10:57 am

What was the last great work written with absolutely no expectation of monetary reward? The Leviathan. Your argument is based mostly on great works that were written in conditions so remote from our own that it makes no sense to project the psychology of those writers foward.

43 Sam Haysom June 9, 2015 at 10:58 am

That should be: The Leviathan?

44 albatross June 9, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Every work of poetry written in the last century?

45 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 12:19 pm

There can be *some* expectation of monetary reward but my point was that in most great work the other motives were far more important. Both Fiction or non Fiction.

The other motives can be diverse: fame, ideological passion, the itch to be remembered and so on.

Even in today’s conditions, many important (non-fiction?) writers make far more from the ancillary rewards that come after writing a popular book than the actual royalty. e.g. speaking engagements, consulting, advisory roles, faculty positions, seminars, directorships etc.

46 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 12:48 pm

A good portion of poetry is probably written with the goal of getting tenure.

47 Sam Haysom June 9, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Your mistake is to look at only from the perspective of the writer. Those ancillary benefits are only available because publishing companies use their large selling works to subsidize to non-best sellers and more obscure works. That subsidy and really more accurately that book in published form likely disappears if the publishing company disappears. So them to the ancillary benefits.

People make the claim that fame acts like some kind of uniquely non-monetary motivator, but taking sports as an example it’s not even clear fame and acclaim even make a difference at the margin compared to money and material rewards. Oh people want to be famous no worries seems like a pretty shallow and frankly uncompelling thing to fall back on.

The fact is we really don’t know what the value of fame is because for the past 150 years fame and money went together for artists, especially writers. The age of realist televison wouldn’t give me much hope either since the people that seem to leap at non-remunerative opportunities for fame seem to be really low in quality.

48 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 1:29 pm

@Sam Haysom

Interesting point about the publishers.

But this raises the question, how much value addition does a publisher provide in the context of the fraction of the money they used to demand.

It also raises the question whether Amazon can subsume some of the roles played by a traditional publisher. Editing, proofreading & general typesetting services could be offered via a freelance model rather than the traditional, monolithic publishing house.

In short, there will be ways to publish where we let go of the traditional publishing model.

49 Sam June 9, 2015 at 12:09 pm

I am a musician in a band that does all original songs. We choose to do all originals because we love to write songs. However we experience what I like to call the ‘negative creativity premium’. That is (as opposed to a cover-band that is paid for most gigs): 1) we are rarely paid, almost never a sum over $50, 2) we are essentially forced to guarantee the venue money via ticket pre-sales and they guarantee us nothing 3). Out of maybe 40 gigs we’ve played, payment has only exceeded expense once. So basically, not only do we keep playing without hope for profit, we actually keep playing in the face of consistent losses.

Part of the ‘negative creativity premium’ is that you have a million people running around joining bands whether they have any talent or not, and as a club-owner or record label, you cannot simply take everyone who wants a chance to be the next one hit wonder. Forcing bands to essentially pay for the opportunity to showcase their music weeds out rather quickly the ones whose marginal utility of the showcase is less than cost. Little-known musicians thus become a population that self-selects into signaling that they care more about showcasing their music than about any monetary reward. So I agree with Rahul, these musicians want volume of exposure more than anything else.

A question to ask is, is the world worse off when the only people willing to publish/produce are those passionate enough to do it without hope of profit?

50 msgkings June 9, 2015 at 1:22 pm

“A question to ask is, is the world worse off when the only people willing to publish/produce are those passionate enough to do it without hope of profit?”

For consumers, probably no….no more sellouts/corporate culture. Actual artists. And some of them will still make a living doing it, just less of one. Up until the late 20th century artists of all stripes (musicians, visual artists, actors, etc) didn’t get rich making their art. A few made a nice living. Maybe that period was a bubble and now we return to modest incomes for artists…

51 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 1:33 pm

@Sam

The point is that creativity by itself may not imply merit. The fact that a regular cover-band gets paid more might be a manifestation of risk aversion.

Only a very small fraction of creative work is *good* work. Whatever “good” might mean to your audience.

e.g. I might rather want to hear a pianist play Mozart than his own budding composition.

52 Sam June 9, 2015 at 2:58 pm

@ msgkings: I agree that the period may have been a bubble. And while I’m an artist myself, I do question if there is an ‘optimal’ amount of ‘great’ art, and can that optimum be provided without much profit incentive? I have seen a lot of great art/music/performance by people who are barely making a living from it. Do we really need to pay artists millions for this?

A bubble is when the price becomes separated from the intrinsic value of the asset. Have you seen these articles where a famous artist with $1m+ paintings tries to sell them on the street for $20 and barely sells any at all? Or how about the guy who is selling peoples instagram photos for $90K each? People attach value to the brand and the conspicuous consumption factor rather than the intrinsic value of the work. The price gets out of line with the actual value of the product.

53 Joel June 9, 2015 at 11:37 am

I write books, and I promise you it’s not for the profits. Making some extra money is nice, but if that was my only income I’d starve. (And I 100% knew that going in.)

54 mulp June 9, 2015 at 2:56 pm

You labor for free?

In other words, no one is willing to pay you to work as a writer because what you write is of zero value to anyone?

But if you take the same view of the fruit of everyone else’s labor, you can live very cheaply, telling the farmer that his labor is of no value so you will not pay for it and expect the produce to be free.

Of course, with the low food prices we have, that means farm workers get paid very little for their hard labor, so they will not only have little money to pay you, but will place very little value on work done in an easy chair in comfort.

55 mulp June 9, 2015 at 2:48 pm

If by profit you mean business profit, Amazon is quite profitable with so much reinvestment of business profit in productive capital that the depreciation results in zero taxable income “profits”.

Amazon does not use its size to generate monopoly profits like Apple is currently doing, and that will doom Apple. My guess is headlines will read “Apple going bankrupt” will be seen in about a decade as competition turns very well designed smartphones into a commodity like flat panel TVs so the product differentiation is at the margin leaving little room for monopoly pricing.

Le Guin should hate Apple more than Amazon as Apple doing books would sell Le Guin reading her books by the chapter with individual chapters being featured, not the entire book. Why should you listen to the entire work when you can simply buy the exciting bits of the complete work instead of buying the artists’ complete arc?

Bookstores and libraries fare well if they focus on building community. Le Guin participates in that, but pretty much only close to home by doing readings and panel discussions less than a dozen times a year. But I imagine she hears from bookstores that Amazon cuts into the high markup built into SRP as a cover for labor costs because we know economists argue labor costs are deadweight losses to the economy and ideally need to be eliminated. When you must pay to hear Le Guin, the money is not to pay labor costs, but to donate to a cause.

Le Guin should be able to creatively reverse the evolution of economic theory back to the 60s and make the point that it is higher labor costs that creates wealth and higher growth and welfare. NPR interpreted an early story on robots/machines replacing all workers recently, but it took literally the promises made by free lunch economists: cutting and eliminating labor costs will create wealth that trickles down and makes even the poor better off. Ie., not having any income is not an impediment to being better off – you will be better off going from $100K per year to being unemployed with zero income because all the growth the results will shower you with cast offs from the rich that are more valuable than the stuff you bought with the $100K. Ie, the rich robot owning capitalists will tell their robots to build new houses, and their abandoned houses will be available for those with no income to live in.

56 Ken Begg June 10, 2015 at 7:17 am

“Amazon will cut prices for books and other goods even though doing so cuts its own profits and the profits of its suppliers, including the supplier (i.e., author) of books. Will writers stop writing books as a result?”

No. Your central fear is misguided. Due to eBooks and the ability of all to actually hit the market now, far more authors will make a living at writing–earning, say, $40,000 a year or more–or be able to majorly supplement their working income. There may be fewer fantastically rich authors, perhaps, although that’s hardly a given.

57 Eric H June 15, 2015 at 11:27 pm

“… writers write books not for the profits but just because they are writers.” No, that’s Matt Damon. Teachers teach because they want to teach. Actors act because they want to act. Garbagemen want to collect garbage – why else would they take a crappy salary and work in garbage for long hours? Sorry, that last bit was not Matt Damon.

58 prior_approval June 9, 2015 at 8:10 am

‘Does anyone doubt that it is easier to buy a niche book today than it ever has been in the entire history of the world?’

Almost as if the idea of orphan works doesn’t exist – ‘The Copyright Office is reviewing the problem of orphan works under U.S. copyright law in continuation of its previous work on the subject and to advise Congress on possible next steps for the United States. The Office has long shared the concern with many in the copyright community that the uncertainty surrounding the ownership status of orphan works does not serve the objectives of the copyright system. For good faith users, orphan works are a frustration, a liability risk, and a major cause of gridlock in the digital marketplace. The issue is not contained to the United States. Indeed, a number of foreign governments have recently adopted or proposed solutions.’ http://copyright.gov/orphan/

Of course, it used to be that ‘orphan works’ were generally called ‘public domain works.’

‘Larger markets support greater variety.’

As did a larger public domain – something that has not grown in the U.S. for any work published after 1923. As noted by the celebration of Public Domain Day – ‘What is entering the public domain in the United States? Not a single published work. Once again, however, no published works are entering the public domain in the United States this year. Or next year. In fact, no publication will enter our public domain until 2019.

It’s a Wonderful Public Domain… What happens when works enter the public domain? Sometimes, wonderful things. The 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain in 1975 because its copyright was not properly renewed after the first 28-year term. The film had been a flop on release, but thanks to its public domain status, it became a holiday classic. Why? Because TV networks were free to show it over and over again during the holidays, making the film immensely popular. But then copyright law reentered the picture… In 1993, the film’s original copyright holder, capitalizing on a recent Supreme Court case, reasserted copyright based on its ownership of the film’s musical score and the short story on which the film was based (the film itself is still in the public domain). Guess what happened? Significantly limited distribution—NBC was granted exclusive rights to broadcast the movie, and only showed it a few times a year. Creativity was limited too: a recent effort to make a sequel (featuring Karolyn Grimes, who played George Bailey’s daughter in the original movie) was blocked in 2013.’ https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday

‘book capitalism is a wonder, books and books and books available on our devices within seconds, more books than we could ever read, a veritable fountain, no a firehouse, no an Amazon of books’

Shame that ‘book capitalism’ seems be so easily converted to such things as DRM with e-books and elimination of the public domain (the classic example of Amazon deleting 1984 on Kindles in countries where that work had not entered the public domain), the very reason for the granting of a government provided monopoly in the American Constitution.

59 Nigel June 9, 2015 at 8:24 am

While I’m with you on the importance of the public domain and the indefensible nature of various copyright extensions, Amazon has also made it quite a bit easier to find out of print second hand books.

Two fairly separate issues, I think ?

(btw, Alex, if you’re going to excoriate Le Guin’s writing, you might grammar check your headline.)

60 MOFO. June 9, 2015 at 9:45 am

Still, you have to give P_A credit for the ‘bait and switch there. “Almost as if the idea of orphan works doesn’t exist” implies that what he is about to say somehow refutes what the OP said, when in fact one has nothing to do with the other. Classic PA, at once both contrarian and pointless.

61 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 9:54 am

Not to mention that Alex would probably agree with loosening copyright law.

62 carlolspln June 9, 2015 at 8:08 pm

That’s the LAST thing he would advocate.

63 triclops41 June 9, 2015 at 12:05 pm

But he forgot to mention the Virginia School or the epitome of evil and hypocrisy, the Mercatus Center.

64 Jeff R. June 9, 2015 at 12:06 pm

Lots of words to arrive at the idiotic assertion that the copyright system in this country is suboptimal, therefore capitalism stinks.

65 mulp June 9, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Copyright extension is not capitalism but rent seeking.

Not one bit of capital is created by extending copyright or patent, just the extension of a monopoly on the capital that was properly entering the public domain, just like math and the knowledge of the cosmos.

66 Slocum June 9, 2015 at 8:14 am

It’s heartening to see that the comments to her essay (many apparently from fellow sci-fi authors) are running so decidedly against her.

67 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 8:15 am

Just to correct Andreesen, you had some handsome independent bookstores in my home town, which has higher education within it but does not qualify as a college town. The last survivors have been the traders in used books.

68 Axa June 9, 2015 at 8:17 am

“But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print”

Libraries? I remember reading Chesterton’s Father Brown stories from books 80-90 years old. I was amazed that I could take home to read 1st editions.

Also, I have a more simple problem now. Where I live, brick and mortar book shops sell books mainly on French and German. I can speak French but I can’t enjoy reading a whole book. I depend on the BS machine to buy books on Spanish or English that I can actually enjoy.

69 Ted Craig June 9, 2015 at 8:56 am

Libraries purge books on a regular basis and are especially brutal with works of science fiction.
See: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/lb/documents/weedingbrochure.pdf

70 Richard Besserer June 9, 2015 at 9:42 am

That’s because most books are garbage. Even among those that aren’t, few remain relevant enough to be worth keeping for long.

A classic has been defined as a book that outlives its author. Most don’t. Even the best living authors have plenty of work on their CVs that are no longer widely read and that often even they would prefer were forgotten.

71 Pshrnk June 9, 2015 at 11:09 am

Sturgeon’s law

72 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:22 am

What we really need is a modern, commercial version of a postal library. i.e. A pre-streaming Netflix for books.

Why hasn’t that model succeeded? Any thoughts?

73 Axa June 9, 2015 at 9:42 am

I’ve found many pleasing reading material here: http://www.archive.org

74 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:50 am

Yes, that’s a great site. But for online material.

There’s lots of copyrighted material, that still cannot be posted online, and costs a bomb to buy on Amazon. I’ve seen books listed at $300 a copy.

I am sure they are lying unread in some library and I would gladly pay $20 plus shipping to have access to that book for a week.

75 Ricardo June 9, 2015 at 9:52 am

I have always assumed the cost of postage was prohibitive.

76 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:58 am

For the $20 books, yes. But not if the book is listed for $200, or worse out-of-print.

Libraries do have some version of an Inter Library Lending Service but it seems slow, archaic and accessible mostly to academics.

To me it seems there’s a ripe market to monetize this. I’m sure Libraries wouldn’t be sad to earn some extra revenue from their dead stock.

77 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 9:57 am

Also, Amazon marketplace is one of the best places to find used books around. Between it and abebooks, you can find almost any out of print book you could possibly want. The internet is helping used books stores keep out of print books alive; to think otherwise is just willful ignorance.

78 enoriverbend June 9, 2015 at 10:38 am

I encourage you to also check out BookFinder.com, a metasearch site for used books and now owned by Abebooks itself (which in turn was acquired by Amazon).

79 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 11:49 am

I’ve used bookfinder occasionally, but it’s a super ugly website and 99% of the stuff I’d eventually buy were abebook listings.

80 Albigensian June 9, 2015 at 10:40 am

Amazon has changed the nature of the used-book market in much the same way as eBay changed the collectibles market: it’s no longer necessary to browse in physical stores for something when one can just select what one wants online.

That’s a convenience for readers, but maybe not so good for authors as authors receive no royalties on the sale of used books, and the sale of used books may cannibalize the sale of new copies of the same book.

81 William Newman June 9, 2015 at 11:45 am

“maybe not so good for authors as authors receive no royalties on the sale of used books”

In the long run it tends to drive up the value of the new books in a way that benefits the publishers and thus incentivizes the publishers to pay more to authors. It’s complicated, of course, and there are various frictions along the way. But in the somewhat simpler situation of used cars, I vaguely remember seeing serious people try to quantify the effect of a reputation for reliability flowing back from the used car market to the new car sticker price for famously reliable brands like Honda and Toyota, and estimating that it was a serious amount of money, comfortably on the high side of an extra thousand dollars per new car. (And that seems consistent with my anecdotal experience of how new car buyers make their decisions.)

82 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 11:51 am

Authors didn’t get royalties from used book sales before Amazon either. Used book stores have existed for a long time; Amazon is just another avenue for that.

83 Nigel Lawson June 9, 2015 at 8:21 am

Don’t overlook the possibility that she isn’t necessarily interested in the most economically efficient system.

A key point to consider is that *If there is no competition on price, there is competition on quality*.

Suppose a law was enforced that every spoon must cost at least $50. This would be bad for consumers, and for efficiency. Most people want cheaper spoons that that. But what would happen to the *quality* of spoons in the market? With a floor on prices, you’d get ultra-lightweight titanium spoons, gyro-stabilized soup spoons, elaborately beautiful decorated spoons, spoons made with precious metal. If you’re a true spoon aficonado, if you think that a civilisation should not just be judged by mere efficiency but the wonderful spoons it bequeathes to posterity, you’d probably rather live in this world.

Few people think that about spoons. But many people think that about books, literature and art.

It’s entirely possible that Amazon’s encouraging of price competition satisfies consumer demand far more effectively than the near-cartels it replaced, but still lowers the *quality* of the books in the marketplace.

84 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:26 am

Good point. But one flaw: I don’t think the work produced by authors was ever responsive to the price in a way that spoons are.

i.e. Most (good) authors write, because they want to be read. The money their writing will bring in is mostly a secondary concern.

A widely sold spoon manufacturer does not get speaking engagements, receptions nor Nobel prizes.

85 Something Guy June 11, 2015 at 3:09 am

You wouldn’t get gyro-stabilized spoons or ultra-light titanium spoons. You’d get people making their own spoons, which would be of far lower quality than a 5 cent plastic spoon.

If you couldn’t afford entertainment (e.g. books) you’d sit around on your porch watching people going by and be bored out of your mind.

86 Luis Pedro Coelho June 9, 2015 at 8:21 am

From the original rant: “But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.”

This is just wrong, as a factual matter. With ebooks, it’s obviously wrong; but it’s also wrong for paperbacks as Amazon can (and does) do print-on-demand.

87 Jeff R. June 9, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Google Books has tons of old stuff that’s out of print that you can read, also, although I’ve never tried to read a whole scanned version of a book online. I can’t imagine it would be all that pleasant.

88 Derek Lowe June 9, 2015 at 9:10 pm

I read a scanned version of “Our Southern Highlanders” off Google Books that way – it wasn’t too bad, actually. A few scanning glitches along the way, but nothing that messed things up. And I’ve never seen a physical copy of the book at all.

89 J Mann June 11, 2015 at 9:53 am

A few years back, sci fi author Walter Jon Williams did something pretty cool. Apparently, he holds the digital publishing rights to a bunch of his out of print early work, so he (1) copied his own works from bittorrent; (2) re-edited them himself and (3) self-published on Amazon and the other e-publishing sites.

I couldn’t have been more delighted, and bought several works.

90 Benny Lava June 9, 2015 at 8:34 am

The quote by Ursula seems to be against low quality books rather than capitalism itself. Now maybe she is against capitalism, but I don’t really see it in this quote. Maybe Alex should take a lesson in writing from Ursula?

91 Ted Craig June 9, 2015 at 9:09 am

If you bother to click through the link, you’ll see that in the comments LeGuin admits her porblem isn’t with Amazon itself, but rather Amazon as “a super-manifestation of the growth-capitalism mentality that increasingly controls the big corporation-owned publishers, subjecting the autonomy of editors (and therefore writers) to the dictates of Accounting.”

92 Curt F. June 9, 2015 at 10:20 am

Then it makes even less sense. If she doesn’t care about “Accounting”, she could just self-publish her stuff for free. On Amazon. Or not. Either way, she would have complete autonomy and wouldn’t have to worry one iota about “super-manifestations of growth-capitalism” or even have to work with a “big corporation-owned publisher”.

93 Pending_Approval June 9, 2015 at 8:46 am

Funny how the Matador Cattle Company Professor of Economics at GMU fails to mention the significant investments of the Koch Brothers in Amazon and the plastics that make the kindle. Seems like disclosure is not a priority on this blog.

94 prasad June 9, 2015 at 9:17 am

LeGuin criticizes Amazon. Amazon makes the kindle. The kindle uses plastics. The Koch brothers invest in plastics. The Koch brothers have endowed a chair at GMU. Alex Tabarrok has this chair. So, when Alex criticizes LeGuin’s post he should disclose this chain.

This is parody, right?

95 Alex Tabarrok June 9, 2015 at 9:43 am

Just to be clear, I hold the Bartley J. Madden Chair, it is not endowed by the Kochs.

96 Go Kings Go! June 9, 2015 at 4:01 pm

But that chair is made with Koch-infused plastic. Q.E.D.

97 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 10:00 am

Yes, it’s a parody of prior_approval

98 Alex Tabarrok June 9, 2015 at 10:08 am

Oh yes. Sorry, it’s hard to distinguish the real thing from the paraody! 🙂

99 Krigl June 9, 2015 at 11:09 pm

Poe’s Law claims yet another victim. When will the madness stop!

100 Norman Pfyster June 9, 2015 at 10:00 am

Yes, and the name suggests whom is being parodied.

101 KJP June 9, 2015 at 12:43 pm

I’m pretty sure Pending_Approval is a parody account of Prior_Approval

102 KJP June 9, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Ha, that’ll teach me for not refreshing a page I opened hours ago

103 Brian Donohue June 9, 2015 at 11:05 am

new favorite troll. well played.

104 Jeff Burton June 9, 2015 at 8:59 am

Part of this argument is about status – it’s hard to underestimate the pride of accomplishment that traditional authors have in being “published”. Having an old-school publisher anoint one’s work is heady stuff. And now comes Amazon, which has raised up a whole generation of self-published writers whose works didn’t pass through the Great Filter. Self-publishing has gone from a joke to another sort of admired Horatio Alger success story. This has to be infuriating to members of the old guild. Like taxi medallion holders in the age of uber.

105 charlie June 9, 2015 at 9:07 am

Hmm, not sure it is status.

Authors don’t work for booksellers. They work for publishers.

Out of the “thousands” of books of hers for sale, she only gets a royalty on a few.

And yes, it is a variant of the average is over argument.

(the worse abusers are still textbooks)

Technology might provide an answer, as it would be very easy for amazon to add a royalty percentage on used books.

106 Ted Craig June 9, 2015 at 9:10 am

Amazon doesn’t sell many used books itself and adding a royalty percentage would probably destroy the margins for the sellers who do use Amazon (and no, Amazon would not pick up the tab).

107 charlie June 9, 2015 at 11:07 am

Looking at her best selling book, amazon lists:

18 used copes
33 “new” copies but unclear how many are from actual publishers.

I’ll grant you from a dollar persecptive actual new books and/or kindles may be higher. From the number of books?

We do know that Amazon markets (3rd party sellers) are well over half of amazon US sales revenue.

108 Jeff R. June 9, 2015 at 12:22 pm

Yeah, that probably shouldn’t be overlooked. Likewise, if a major publisher was willing to give an advance, that was a sort of like membership in an exclusive club, but again thanks to the erosion of the major publisher’s market share, I believe the amount of book advances these days are way down unless you’re J.K. Rowling or whomever. Has to rankle.

109 The Devil's Dictionary June 9, 2015 at 9:07 am

People of mediocre intellect and little life experience will always read mediocre books. Fifty shades of grey and that sort of crap. Amazon may have strengthened the position of bestselling literary rubbish—in respect I can agree with Le Guin. On the other hand, I bought a lot of out-of-print literary gems on Amazon. The argument that Amazon has improved variety is true as well.

I use Amazon rather frequently, yet I enjoy much more to spend my time here https://www.waterstones.com/bookshops/piccadilly

110 Ricardo June 9, 2015 at 9:55 am

Waterstones is invaluable for anyone doing the Monopoly Pub Crawl.

111 Tom Davies June 9, 2015 at 9:21 am

Speaking of tails and their length: Why is it that video streaming services (and video selling services such as iTunes and Google Play) have such a small back catalogue?

I would have thought that putting every DVD ever pressed on iTunes would not cost a lot, but I can’t seem to find my favourite Carry On films on any of them…

Is it the regional distribution terms under which these films were originally distributed? I’m in Australia, and I can imagine that some local TV station owns the exclusive rights to show these movies at midnight… but I don’t know.

112 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 9:41 am

Have you tried Netflix? I was really impressed what kinds of obscure movies it carried. I really had to try hard to find something not in Netflix’s catalog.

113 Ricardo June 9, 2015 at 9:57 am

Try ebay too. Sometimes you can find DVDs from old shows that aren’t of “commercial” quality, so they aren’t officially available, but are nevertheless quite watchable.

114 ibaien June 9, 2015 at 9:28 am

her argument clearly seems to be against disposable culture, with amazon merely named as an accessory.

115 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 10:23 am

Disposable culture? Like buying pulp sci-fi magazines in the 50’s and 60’s and then tossing them when you’ve read them?

116 ibaien June 9, 2015 at 10:32 am
117 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 12:08 pm

I’m not sure what you’re trying to show here, nor am I certain what the general complaint is. Great books are still being written, so surely that’s not it. Maybe that the public is no longer reading these great books? Maybe that’s a complaint, but you’ll have to define “public” and also tell us why we should care. Obviously consumption is going to shift somewhat to movies and TV (and the last decade has undoubtedly been the best decade of TV ever), and bestsellers will also change as the price of books comes down (how much was a hardback in 1960 compared to today?).

118 John Hall June 9, 2015 at 9:47 am

The only Le Guin books I’ve ever bought or read, I got on Amazon.

119 Richard Besserer June 9, 2015 at 10:00 am

I suspect the old woman’s back catalog just hasn’t sold as well as she hoped it would.

Most books aren’t kept in print very long because most books are not worth reading once, never mind twice. Few remain relevant for long. Most of Le Guin’s back catalog hasn’t been widely read for a long time because, like much of sci-fi, most of it amounts to thinly disguised tracts based on a dilettante’s understanding of now very dated fashions in anthropology, sociology and psychology. I wonder when was the last time Le Guin herself read most of it, except by accident or to prepare for a lecture.

If Amazon has an easier time of it helping book buyers separate the wheat from the chaff, bully for Amazon.

120 Derek Lowe June 9, 2015 at 11:15 am

“thinly disguised tracts based on a dilettante’s understanding of now very dated fashions in anthropology, sociology and psychology”: that’s uncomfortably accurate, especially for a lot of stuff from the 1950s and 1960s (even though the stories from those eras are generally different in style and tone). In the 1950s, you see relics like General Semantics, references to Freud, Jung, Sullivan and other psychotherapy ideas, worries about Madison Avenue, the Organization Man, and the Lonely Crowd. Then as the 1960s come on, it’s happening young people and their wisdom, consciousness expansion (like, wow), ecology, etc. For stories about the future, science fiction is often soaking in the concerns and fads of its own era.

Of course, I grew up reading anthologies of the 50s stuff back in the 1970s, so I still have a lot of affection for it. . .

121 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 12:15 pm

I love that very aspect of it simply from an entertainment through anthropology standpoint. A.E. van Vogt’s invocation of General Semantics never made any sense, but it was fun. Barry Malzberg’s thinly veiled attacks on the US space program as a hyper-masculine expression of national insecurity were some of the best sci-fi novels of the 70’s.

122 charlie June 9, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Oh, come on it. Next thing you’ll be saying that self driving cars were just a stupid fad of the oughts.

123 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 1:22 pm

most of it amounts to thinly disguised tracts based on a dilettante’s understanding of now very dated fashions in anthropology, sociology and psychology

That’s not a description of The Lathe of Heaven”.

Seven of her works vended on Amazon have been reviewed more than 200x by readers, so someone is consulting them. Nadine Gordimer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer are not doing any better on that metric (for most listed, a great deal worse). Amy Tan and Jonathan Franzen have received more reviews on their most prevalent work, but have produced fewer works in that category.

124 Art Deco June 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm

most of it amounts to thinly disguised tracts based on a dilettante’s understanding of now very dated fashions in anthropology, sociology and psychology

That’s not a description of The Lathe of Heaven

Seven of her works vended on Amazon have been reviewed more than 200x by readers, so someone is consulting them. Nadine Gordimer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer are not doing any better on that metric (for most listed, a great deal worse). Amy Tan and Jonathan Franzen have received more reviews on their most prevalent work, but have produced fewer works in that category.

125 buddyglass June 9, 2015 at 10:02 am

I can believe that the way in which a good is produced, marketed and sold can affect the cultural perception of that good. Maybe “books” (and by extension “literature” in general) are less treasured and revered now by virtue of the success of the capitalistic machine in making them cheap and ubiquitous.

126 B.B. June 9, 2015 at 10:11 am

I will give Le Guin something. It was not until I read “The Dispossessed” that I understood the romance of communism. There are no reasons to love communism and hate capitalism, it is purely a gut-response, an emotional reaction. That sci-fi novel got me inside of the mind of someone with such a romance.

Those of us who don’t like communism need to understand that theories, facts, and figures will never overthrow an emotional romance. You can’t reason someone out of a position that she wasn’t reasoned into to begin with.

That romance helps explain the infatuation of so many intellectuals with Lenin, Castro, Che, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh. When one little god fails, they go off looking for another god.

“The Dispossesed” did for capitalism what “The Birth of a Nation” did for race relations. In both cases, we have cause to question the intellectual integrity of the artist.

127 Ricardo June 9, 2015 at 10:20 am

You might enjoy Daniel Klein’s The People’s Romance.

128 Paul Zrimsek June 9, 2015 at 10:53 am

The fate of Tirin in that book– an artist whose work was suppressed because the pretending-not-to-be-authorities took a dislike to it– should serve as a cautionary tale to the writers struggling under the yoke of Bezos. They could do a lot worse.

129 Derek Lowe June 9, 2015 at 11:19 am

A number of Le Guin’s works have had a similar effect on me. Her big, spread-out, sharing-and-caring communitarian family stuff shows up a lot, and to me, it’s as alien as anything to be found on another planet.

130 albatross June 9, 2015 at 12:05 pm

The interestingly weird society in The Dispossessed wasn’t communist, it was anarchist, apparently modeled on Kropotkin’s ideas.

131 Paul Zrimsek June 9, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Jack Vance’s Wyst: Alastor 1716 includes a deft parody of LeGuin’s syndicalist utopia.

132 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Well there’s a market for it. I remember reading one commentor on a sci-fi blog complaining that China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station trilogy didn’t end in a successful communist revolution.

133 JonFraz June 9, 2015 at 3:34 pm

I could never get into “The Dispossessed”. It seemed to sacrifice plot for axe-grinding. Sort of an Ayn Rand novel of the Left.
You could occasionally hear some distant axe-grinding in the Lathe of Heaven and even in Earthsea, but those at least had some solid plotting and characters.

134 TOJ June 9, 2015 at 10:15 am

“dump it, sell the next thing”

Not sure Amazon has any real incentive to do this. Unlike a physical bookstore, it doesn’t need to sell the book for space, as long as it thinks it’s going to sell eventually.

135 Chris June 9, 2015 at 3:53 pm

There are still costs to carry inventory.

136 carlolspln June 9, 2015 at 8:34 pm

yes, its closer to ZIRP as its ever been [working capital]

http://www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/interest-rate 😉

137 rjh June 9, 2015 at 10:35 am

I’ll try rephrasing her complaint in more traditional economic and financial terms.

1) Amazon has drastically cut the profits and somewhat cut the revenues for publishers.
2) In response, the publishers have drastically cut the services that they offer to authors, as well as cutting staff and other expenses.

It’s quite rational for an author the complain about having their net income cut substantially. Authors used to get lots of “free” editorial, typesetting, advertising, marketing, and financial services (e.g., advances) from the publisher. Now it’s hard to get those services. Le Guinn describes this in terms of the symptoms, but that’s normal. People who take big pay cuts or lose their jobs tend to be flamboyant about the event.

On a larger scale this reflects a major societal trend toward risk shifting. The old publication system put most of the risk on the large well capitalized publisher. The publisher took the investment risk of paying for editorial, typesetting, etc. They no longer have the high profit margin, so they only invest in the short term mass market easy sell stuff that Le Guin complains about. This same trend is showing up in other industries.

The new system puts the investment risk on the individual author. This kind of risk shifting needs an accompanying societal change. Individuals are not well positioned to accept large risk. Deal with that problem and many of the authors’ complaints will fade away.

138 triclops41 June 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm

I’m not sure I agree with calling it “risk shifting” in most of these cases.
For most would-be authors, the alternative to DIY publishing is not full service publishing from a big publisher like in the halcyon days, it’s… nothing.

139 Albigensian June 9, 2015 at 11:06 am

I can still remember living in a small town where the only local “bookstore” was a few revolving racks of paperbacks in the front of a drugstore. A jobber periodically updated this, but one would surely never expect to find anything that wasn’t expected to sell quickly.

(My other negative physical-bookstore experiences involve supercilious bookstore clerks, who felt compelled to tell me that what I was buying was junk (or offensive in some way) and really, would I reconsider?)

LeGuin seems offended that to Amazon a book is just another product and not some exalted artifact, recommended and transferred to the customer via reverent, trembling hands. Which does put her in an odd place, as most readers don’t much care about what booksellers or publishers think, so long as the marketplace provides a wide variety of interesting works.

If there is a conflict it would be that if Amazon ever does become a true monopsony publisher/bookseller, it might have the potential to alter the publishing world in ways antithetical to the interests of readers and/or authors. But that’s not the case now, and it’s not what LeGuin is kvetching about. Mostly she seems unhappy that readers buy books from this huge impersonal megabusiness instead of from Ye Olde SF Bookstore-Collective.

Sometimes the future’s just not what it used to be, is it? Perhaps Amazon could provide a cats-in-the-window Webcam.

140 Urstoff June 9, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Elite that profits from the elite status of art dislikes democratization of art. I think we’ve heard this before.

141 AnthonyB June 9, 2015 at 11:42 am

An old, tainted (but eloquent) take on “made to sell and sell quickly”:
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/241052

142 pushpa June 9, 2015 at 11:48 am
143 prior_approval June 9, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Does Marginal Revolution make this person feel more, or less, appreciated than Le Guin?

Cranky old woman still ashamed at hiding her name when getting published in Playboy – her actual name of Ursula being concealed using ‘U’ (from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters), or a cheap spammer?

144 Joey_33 June 9, 2015 at 12:41 pm

I think a lot of this is non-responsive to the argument, but the final point is sound – Le Guin should not look for artistic appreciation from her commercial distributor. How has Amazon / the new market affected her appreciation in the circles (critics, readers, fellow author’s, etc.) that should provide it? Except for the fact that Amazon has allowed so much more content to be produced (which is not at all the author’s argument), I cannot imagine its effect has been anything but positive.

145 pongogogo June 9, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Alex,

Have you not misread her? I don’t think her quibble is with the variety that amazon offers, or the fact that books are treated as a commodity. From the first paragraph:

“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.”

I think it’s more to do with the fact that the bulk of people select books from the best seller list, which Amazon almost exclusively controls. Noticeably, they also own Good Reads, which functions a bit like an indie book store recommendation.

I think it’s clear that this doesn’t constitute an attack on capitalism.

146 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 1:37 pm

So you think she’d be happy if Amazon got rid of their Bestseller List?

PS. Do you (or does she? ) think that the Amazon Bestseller List is rigged? i.e. Are the titles on it not a reasonably representative sample of what is actually selling the most?

147 Katja June 9, 2015 at 2:54 pm

I think part of the reason she’s complaining is because Amazon doesn’t see her as a “big deal”. She as much says so at the beginning of the essay. I think she’s frustrated with the shift in focus of bookselling in general – that Amazon, in her opinion, is pretty much only going to promote what is “new and shiny” and they leave their backlists to fend for themselves. Backlist titles do sell, but much more slowly. In the old world, where there were more bookstores, most were forced to have a bigger mix of “bestsellers” (and I do agree that some of those lists, but not Amazon’s, are dubious) as well as backlist titles. If someone came into a bookstore, of course they would see the bestsellers, but she’s relying that in most stores, somebody there would have heard of her and start making recommendations. Amazon, of course, doesn’t do this, save for the “you might like/other customers have bought” banner across the bottom. Couple that with what rjh said, and I understand why she might be unhappy, although I don’t agree with her on it.

148 Rahul June 9, 2015 at 3:16 pm

My experience has been that the automated algorithms of Amazon, Netflix and Pandora make better recommendations than any salesmen I’ve encountered.

149 Katja June 9, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Weird, because I’ve been on Amazon for a decade and a half now, and their “recommendations” have been all over the board. I thought at first that this would “even out” a bit after having some sort of buying history, but I’ve never been impressed by it. Then again, it’s not like I’ve bought tons of stuff in any genre, so I think maybe Amazon is just guessing – hey, you bought a book in the category “historical fiction” – let’s throw a list of the top 5 historical fiction books at you. *shrug*

150 Rahul June 10, 2015 at 12:35 am

Are you on Pandora or Netflix? Wonder what you think about their recommendations.

151 Cooper June 9, 2015 at 5:16 pm

I’m with Rahul. Amazon has recommended tons of wonderful books to me that I would have never heard about otherwise.

Walking into a bookstore is not a great experience. They have a couple displays of best sellers and then row after row of alphabetical books by authors I’ve never heard of. There is no information on hand to tell me ahead of time if I’m going to enjoy X, Y or Z title.

With Amazon I can search for my favorite authors and see user-created lists of books similar to the ones I like. Then I can read reviews of every book to see if other people liked it. I can get a sales ranking to see how popular the book is and run a quick search to find other titles by that author. I can also check out lists of popular sets of books (buyers of A also liked book B).

The Amazon user experience for book-buying is second to none.

152 Axa June 10, 2015 at 8:34 am

This.

Perhap’s Le Guin is narrowly focused on the process (big banners for best-sellers in Amazon home page) and forgetting about results (people can buy the book they want with ease, even uncommon or out print books). It’s the old discussion of intentions Vs results. Small book shop owners may have great intentions…..and that’s all.

However, there’s an unmentioned contribution from other people. I don’t take book recommendations from book shop owners, ever. There is a book review section in every periodical publication, friends do recommendations, there are blogs where books are discussed (including MR). Why should I rely on the guy who sells books for a good recommendation? What kind of people go to a clothes shop asking to the sales people: “What should I wear?”

153 Thiago Ribeiro June 9, 2015 at 5:28 pm

I miss the neighborhood old bookshop and its kind owner, who allowed me to read everything I wanted, including the comics and SF books he used to store in the back of the shop (the big bookshops in malls did them in in the late 90s or early 00s), but I am ashamed to say I would not give Amazon, Abebooks and Estante Virtual (a kind of Brazilian Abebooks) up to get them back.

154 TallDave June 9, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Isn’t it natural an established author would favor higher barriers to entry?

155 Krigl June 9, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Hmm, I’m curious how would LeGuin feel about accessibility of her works in the paradise of her lunacy come true, where I had to spend my childhood. That was Czech translation of “The Word for World Is Forest”, appearing in the excellent SF compilation “Experiment člověk”, courtesy of my mom’s library or the devastated copy with missing pages in the local public library. In the bookstore? Forget it.

156 doodyontheright June 10, 2015 at 11:22 am

LeGuin is a wealthy, out-of-date, old woman, and as such, subject to occasional fits of ranting about “endangered feces” or whatnot. I have never bought so much niche or classic lit as on my Kindle — 5 novels by Thomas Hardy for $0.99, I’ll spring for that, and read it, too (currently on the 3rd in the set). I also buy what she thinks of as trash on my Kindle — I buy books by authors who would never have been published back in LeGuin’s glory days — gasp! indie published books! Variety is the spice of life and I thank G-d frequently for the access Amazon gives me to books and authors from all times and places on this planet.

157 freethinker June 10, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Online booksellers like amazon are a boon in India. You Americans will be astonished to learn that most universities in India, even those situated in small towns where there are no book stores anywhere within 200 to 300 kilometers, don’t maintain a bookshop since most of the students ( even if they are affluent or get hefty scholarships) and academics ( who these days are paid well in PPP terms) think that it is a sin to buy books . Obviously, it does not make sense to have a bookshop to cater to a handful of customers . Online bookstores to the rescue: students and faculty in small-town campuses who in the bad old days would travel hundreds of kilometers for purchasing books now they get them at their doorstep . A professor who buys lots of books told me that in her daily visit to the temple she “profusely thanks the deity for flipkart ( Indian online retailer) and amazon.in ( Indian branch of amazon ) “! I laughed and she said she meant it seriously.

158 Lawrence Krubner June 11, 2015 at 12:57 am

This is mis-stated:

“Variety has gone up for every person even as some measures of geographic variety have gone down.”

Total variety declines as variety for each person increases. This was implicit in the graph model that Clay Shirky built in 2003, and of course, research on this issues goes back much further:

http://www.shirky.com/writings/herecomeseverybody/powerlaw_weblog.html

“But people’s choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past. Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.”

He later developed the point, explaining that even if a person’s choices expand from 100 to 1,000, the 1,000 is increasingly the 1,000 preferred by others, and so, increasingly, everyone ends up seeing the same 1,000.

So total variety declines even as individual variety increases.

159 DHM June 11, 2015 at 11:35 am

That ability to buy niche books (and thus, the ability of niche authors to bypass the gatekeepers of sci-fi at TOR books) is probably one of the things LeGuin hates most about Amazon.

She’s opining her low opinion of those tasteless Amazon buyers within the context of this year’s Hugo brouhaha and the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies upset, an interesting little skirmish in the culture wars. In response, employees at Tor have been going on record attacking other sci-fi authors, one went so far as calling some of their own authors and the readers who read their books neo-nazis, reprehensible, racist, misogynist, and homophobic- and amazingly, she still has a job.
More here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/plwa4u4

160 Bernard Yomtov June 11, 2015 at 9:56 pm

I would say that she is right up until the last sentence, maybe the last two.

Surely no one imagines that Amazon regards books as other than one more item to sell.

No book has value in itself, only as it makes profit.

Who thinks this is untrue with respect to Amazon?

161 Zach June 14, 2015 at 2:03 am

Le Guin has this entirely backwards. Amazon is far more accommodating to a reader with niche interests than small bookstores.

Looking at my own recent purchase history on Amazon, I see three Egyptology books, a novella, a niche sci fi book, a book on the natural history of plants and climate, a neurosurgeon’s memoir, a mass market sci fi book, a history of the Third Reich’s rise to power, another niche sci fi book, a history of Pan Am…

The mass market sci fi book would probably be in a medium size bookstore. The history of the Third Reich would probably make a large Barnes and Noble. The other nine books would be basically inaccessible when I was growing up unless you lived in New York and knew where to shop.

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