Why Does Ursula K. Le Guin Hate Amazon?

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.


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