Home » Amazon, Big Publishing, PG's Thoughts (such as they are) » Up the Amazon with the BS Machine

Up the Amazon with the BS Machine

1 June 2015

From author Ursula K. Le Guin via Book View Café:

Amazon and I are not at war. There are vast areas in which my peaceful indifference to what Amazon is and does can only be surpassed by Amazon’s presumably equally placid indifference to what I say and do. If you like to buy household goods or whatever through Amazon, that’s totally fine with me. If you think Amazon is a great place to self-publish your book, I may have a question or two in mind, but still, it’s fine with me, and none of my business anyhow. 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.

Best Seller lists have been around for quite a while. Best Seller lists are generated by obscure processes, which I consider (perhaps wrongly) to consist largely of smoke, mirrors, hokum, and the profit motive. How truly the lists of Best Sellers reflect popularity is questionable. Their questionability and their manipulability was well demonstrated during the presidential campaign of 2012, when a Republican candidate bought all the available copies of his own book in order to put it onto the New York Times Top Ten Best Seller List, where, of course, it duly appeared.

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.

The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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

Consistent in its denial of human reality, growth capitalism thinks only in the present tense, ignores the past, and limits its future to the current quarter. To the BS machine, the only value of a book is its current salability. Growth of capital depends on rapid turnover, so the BS machine not only isn’t geared to allow for durability, but actually discourages it. Fading BSs must be replaced constantly by fresh ones in order to keep corporate profits up.

. . . .

Once it’s less read and talked about the BS is no longer a BS. Now it’s just a book. The machine has finished with it, and it can depend now only on its own intrinsic merit. If it has merit, reader loyalty and word of mouth can keep it selling enough to make it worth keeping in print for years, decades, even centuries.

The steady annual income of such books is what publishers relied on, till about twenty years ago, on to support the risk of publishing new books by untried authors, or good books by authors who generally sold pretty well but not very well.

That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.

Link to the rest at Book View Café and thanks to Loretta for the tip.

PG has read several of Ms. Le Guin’s books and enjoyed them, but must observe that “in print” is becoming less relevant by the day.

Indie authors don’t presently have and, PG believes, are unlikely to experience any problems keeping their books “in print.”

The only authors PG encounters who can’t find their books (or their royalties) are those yoked to traditional publishers whose minions regularly generate circumstantial evidence of substance abuse or dementia.

If you want to find what’s working, vibrant and innovative about the book world today, you’re advised to look toward Seattle rather than New York.

Amazon, Big Publishing, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

117 Comments to “Up the Amazon with the BS Machine”

  1. She seems to be attributing to Amazon the front table bestseller model that originated decades ago. I wonder if she went into (book buying) hybernation back during the Carter administration and only came out recently.

    “The ADS is strong with this one.”

    • Trash and replace? Amazon doesn’t trash books or take them out of print. Trad pubs did that. Or did Ms LeGuin forget that little Trad Pub/Bookstore deal to rip off covers for returns and to TRASH the now-coverless books that didn’t sell? Amazon doesn’t do that. So, who is trashing books?

      (I will add that, as a bibliophile, that practice gives me the shudders. Wasted books. WASTED books. Why not give them to schools, libraries, shelters, hospitals…?)

      And who let books go out of print in ye good olde days? Hm. Let me see. Who? Who?

      I know I had authors whose backlist I wanted and couldn’t find–had to hunt down used books. If those authors (or their children/grandchildren) had the lifetime+ rights, instead of the publishers, they could have paid someone to format, add a cover, and then epublish the books so folks like moi could buy them.

      And as a bibliophile buying books with my allowance from childhood, and a once or twice weekly bookstore-date regular, it seemed to me that the bookstore system, as pleasurable as it was, had a limited selection, those sacred few getting best placement, and many of the SF titles I wanted not in stock.

      Trad publishers and bookstores controlled what readers got to see in a store, hence what they got to browse, hence what they got to buy (unless they wanted to wait a couple weeks for a special order.)

      Amazon publishes whatever is out there and lets readers decide what they want to buy. Amazon lets the author put up the book page and modify it or take it down.

      I haven’t heard from any of my self-pubbed writer friends of Amazon taking their book down and “unprinting” it. Maybe that will happen in the future, but it’s not happening now. So, how do they trash a book? If you want it, and a publisher or author sets it there for sale, it’s THERE for sale–to anyone who wants it.

  2. Er… what? Amazon’s model is, and always has been, to make it possible for a reader to buy any book they want to buy* as easily as possible.

    There is no reason that an ebook ought ever to go out of print.

    *with a few exceptions related to erotica and legal restrictions.

  3. I’m not sure which is sadder–that Ms. Leguin doesn’t understand that I, and many others, are buying beloved books that are over a century old and not “in print” through Amazon or that she doesn’t understand that someone like me doesn’t have to be a bestseller to make money with my stories.

  4. Amazon IS the only (or at least primary) source for books publishers decided to let go out of print bc the few copies sold didnt pay for warehousing them. Please explain how OOP has anything to do with a retailer?

  5. I use a service called Createspace so I control if my books are in print or not. In fact, my print books are now bringing in more than my eBooks. Guess it’s time to move to audio.

    I’m glad I can do these things. I’m glad I don’t have to rely on anyone else. Self-sufficiency, it’s a wonderful concept.

    • Exactly. The LeGuin rant is confused and confusing. Mind you, Amazon has made it childishly simple to publish anything and lots of people now write fast to sell quickly to people who like certain types of books. These authors have become very successful due to Amazon.

      For me, not so much, but I am still “in print” not because of my publishers but because of Amazon.

      • I totally do not understand her rant AT ALL. In fact, so many authors are winning back their rights from traditional publishers, putting their backlist up for purchase on Amazon, and doing really well. How does she not know that? What cave is she living in?

        • It’s got me scratching my head, too. Can she be this totally misinformed about how Amazon works? About how self-publishing works? She should have a firm grasp of how traditional publishing has worked for decades, right?

          • I’m afraid so. She’s traveled this road before and come across as not really up to the challenge of reporting on the CURRENT state of publishing.

  6. Much as I respect Ms. Le Guin, most of that is so wrong it is difficult to parse the wrongness. She is apparently totally unaware of the large number of authors who are selling their backlist through the evil Amazon. She is apparently unaware (or has forgotten) that the whole best seller syndrome predated Amazon and is not THEIR modus operandi in the least. THAT was the doing of brick and mortar stores and the big publishers.

    Digital books are not trashed and replaced. They stay on the shelf forever.

    • If anything, Amazon has been *undercutting* the bestseller-focused business model since day one by promoting midlist, backlist, and used book sales.
      And that is before factoring in CresteSpace and KDP…

  7. 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.

    This is just so full of wrong, I don’t know where to begin with it and since it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry, I won’t bother.

  8. Smart Debut Author

    Nurse Smith, It seems that Ms. Leguin has wandered off the grounds again. I received a call that she’s standing near the freeway in her bathrobe, shouting at passing cars about some scary bald man. Can you please go fetch the old dear back and calm her down with a cup of warm milk?


    • Somewhat cruel, methinks… But then I’m an old person so I’m sensitive to the diminished capacities image. 🙂

      • Smart Debut Author

        Yeah, appreciate the heads-up — I should have used different imagery. My mockery of Leguin’s intellectual dishonesty was 100% intentional; the ill-considered stereotyping that accompanied it was not.

        • 🙂

        • It’s the intellectual dishonesty that is the real issue here. Not the old person shouting at kids to get off the lawn.

          She starts by saying that she is not at war with Amazon and then goes on to say it will destroy the world. Her argument as to why, good books will disappear, is completely false. Then, of course, there is the slathering of snob sauce all over it, with the implication that the masses shouldn’t have access to popular fiction. (Why do they eat burgers when they could have filet mignon?)

          But onward to the intellectual dishonesty. She starts by saying the NYTimes bestseller list (key to old school publishing) was fixed and rigged. So if the old system was already rigged, why is Amazon bad? Nor can she possibly claim that the old system kept every book in print forever or didn’t publish trash. So what exactly is Amazon doing that is different than the old system? If the argument is that Amazon is simply doing more of the bad stuff, what is the alternative she proposes? She has none except a return to the old corrupt system. (That just happened to benefit her by paying to put her books into bookstores.)

          How can someone who has come from a life of self-admitted social/economic advantage not admit, even in passingly, that Amazon and self-publishing gives opportunity to new diverse voices from from less advantaged backgrounds? And more choices to readers who might not want what is on the rigged NYTimes bestseller list?

          This simply proves what Clay Shirky said about the war against Amazon, that it is just elitism. That is, if you can’t get excited about writers and readers having more choices, “… you’re kind of an ass****.”

          • Spot on.
            I’m sorry for the folks who had high opinions of LeGuin but me, while I enjoyed EarthSea, I never had a particularly high opinion of her. The result of early interviews I read.

            I *always* thought she was at risk of drowning in a rainstorm.

          • No, that’s not fair. Dishonesty requires a knowledge of reality that is completely missing in this instance. And you’re assuming a silver-spoon existence simply because you dislike the message.

            Once a debate gets to this level it’s no longer a debate or discussion, it becomes a character assassination. We’re Indies. We can do better than this.

            • It *is* elitism.

              Whether she honestly believes that crap or simply repeats it because it is the dominant paradigm in her circles makes no difference on the ground. Either way, she lives in her own world miles “above” the people buying the “wrong” books or making money writing the “wrong” books.

              Years ago she struck me as a snob.
              Her recent diatribes merely document it beyond doubt.

    • OK, dat made me laugh.

      It’s so sad, too. She was once a pioneer. Now, she sounds like a confused dinosaur.

      A science fiction author of her stature should really sound more in touch with the evolution going on in her own pond and clearly see the looming tomorrowland of it. Or heck, just how stuff works in the now.

      • Sooner or later, most visionaries fall behind. I remember seeing an interview with Bill Gates a few weeks ago and the reporter asked him what his vision of the future was. His response was mostly, things will get faster…
        I was hoping to hear something about retinal projection or holographic interfaces but…

  9. She’s just upset that her publisher can no longer ‘claim’ what a ‘best seller’ is without first selling them. (as in bad old Amazon won’t say something’s a best seller if it isn’t yet …;-) )

    • She’s not doing too badly: her top ranked book (LEFT HAND…) is running #10,418 today.

      • I still have my old, old print copy of LEFT HAND. Routinely, college courses on SF use LHoD, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Women’s Studies/Women in Lit courses, do to. When a classic SF novel is rather commonly part of reading lists, it helps keep it up in sales.

  10. “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.”

    Because god knows that traditional NYC publishing has ALWAYS been a completely fair and level playing field and a completely open market where EVERY book in existence gets equal time in the sun! Every book. Completely fair. Forever.

    “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food.”

    YES…because Evil ZON, completely alone and under the direction of their dark Overlord, created the dopey, derivative, written-by-numbers, crowd pleasing bestseller! Awful bestsellers only began surfacing in 2007…everyone remember that.

    I’m just…wha…ahh…who the %$#@ does she think she’s kidding???

    I don’t care how brilliant her writing is, this lady is as delusional as it gets when it comes to Good BPH and Evil ZON comparisons.

    Did her agent or editor put her up to this? Seriously, I’m asking.

  11. Listening to a fiction writer analyzing economics is like learning theology from a goat.

    Update: At the OP, the first two comments are a hoot. The first one was from a writer agreeing with her about the evil Zon and how he had to turn to self-publishing and woe is he for having to market himself.

    The second one pointed out that all his complains had nothing to do with Amazon, and that he was able to publish and market his book because Amazon made it possible.

    No reply yet. (Checked out the guy’s website, and it looks pretty nifty.)

  12. I went and read the whole thing because I thought I must be missing something. But no, the point really does appear to be that books have a short shelf life and it’s all Amazon’s fault. I… what?

    B&N and Borders gave books a short shelf life and fed the blockbuster culture. eBooks in general and Kindle books in particular have brought back the backlist and the midlist. I honestly thought these things were obvious and pretty much indisputable, but I guess not.

    I don’t think the issue she’s concerned about really has to do with whether something is in or out of print, so much as how available it is. True story: over the weekend I wanted to reread a specific section of Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon, because reasons. I went to see if by chance the Kindle price wasn’t ridiculous. There was no Kindle price, because it’s not available for Kindle, although it’s still in print in other formats. Fine. I pulled the paperback off my shelf. I read it for 3 minutes before I got a headache because I couldn’t adjust the font size on this feature-poor paper device, and decided it wasn’t worth it.

    That pretty obscure title is still in print, and what good is that? How many brick and mortar stores are stocking it? How many libraries are giving it precious shelf space? Why, if it weren’t for evil online retailers, it’s almost like nobody would be able to get it at all!

    And it’s inaccessible to one of what I’d guess is a pretty small pool of current readers, because of somebody’s steadfast refusal to adapt to changing technologies and markets.

    • I wanted to reference a quote in a Laurie Colwin book. Out of print. Had to buy a used paperback from abebooks, an Amazon company, just for that one line (and struggled to find it without a search function).

      It’s obscene that Laurie Colwin is out of print, btw.

      • May I humbly suggest a Google phrase search for out of print books? I’ve found that Google having scanned so many books may have the phrase you seek online, or even the whole book available in digital form on Google Books.
        This is a partial way to find out if someone is plagiarizing your work too – but only partial because the content of books for sale on Amazon and some other ring-fenced online bookstores are not included in the search parameters.

    • There’s a good point for AG to get behind for a new contract clause: any book that is not made available in electronic formatting within a month of the print book and kept available in an easily downloadable format –the rights immediately revert to the author.

      They’ll get those ebooks up there fast if they are at risk of losing digital rights. 😀

    • “Floating Dragon” is available from Openlibrary.org, although it’s currently checked out.


    • Yeah, I was going to get Peter Straub’s “Ghost Story” on Kindle and was surprised it wasn’t available.

      Can’t figure that one out.

      • Try this: it takes exactly 3 seconds for an online search to find a 16 volume set of Straub novels. (And maybe 30 seconds to download. I’m not a fan but at that size…)

        All you need is his name and one other word. That easy.

        A lot of those books the tradpubs refuse to release in ebook form are already “published” by very non-traditional channels. This is an age of “I want it” and if legal channels don’t meet the wants, there are alternatives.

        • Ah, the Konrath Doctrine. Make your stuff easily available and affordable and no one pirates. (Except, of course, the few obsessed with pirating.)


          • And hoarders are irrelevant: they wouldn’t have bought it and the odds they might read it are near zero.

      • I think I still have an old paperback of that one around here.


  13. I clicked through and read the entire OP also, thinking I was missing something. But no. I was not.

    Ms. LeGuin’s assertions seem so strange to me. She rants about the NYT bestseller lists and then somehow dives from there to Amazon. I’m not seeing the connection.

    Big publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores together created the book as produce syndrome: on the shelf for 3 weeks, then landfilled, then out of print.

    Amazon and ebooks and POD means that a book can be available forever.

    • “Amazon and ebooks and POD means that a book can be available forever.”

      Sure. The inventory costs are effectively zero. Amazon’s S3 storage (with full Amazon data center connectivity) is $0.03/GB/month, and that’s what they charge retail customers.

      They can make probably make money from a book that sells one copy every hundred years or so. 🙂

    • POD can also bring back books. I’ve brought back two published in 1856 (well, I’m working on the second one now, coming later this year), and a book that appeared in one edition in 1926 then vanished.

  14. 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.

    This falls into the “not even wrong” category. The first sentence is stuck in the mid 20th century understanding of industrial production and mass merchandizing. The advent of the web, ecommerce, etc. is in the process of completely reversing that trend. The second sentence is fed by the myths of later 20th century publishing. Like:

    The steady annual income of such books is what publishers relied on, till about twenty years ago, on to support the risk of publishing new books by untried authors, or good books by authors who generally sold pretty well but not very well.

    This was never true. They relied on the income, but those weren’t the reasons.

    • Absolutely. Also, it ignores the fact that Amazon loves to have exclusive material that appeals to small audiences. This is the whole long tail thing. They are not interested in just having best sellers, but having millions of titles, many of which might only appeal to a small group. Their business model is making sure they have “everything” a reader might want. Not that they sell a lot of the same stuff you can get from other places (which is actually the traditional publishing model). They go out of their way to support small markets, including obscure books that only appeal to a few readers.

      • It is how they differentiate themselves from B&M and other online vendors.
        For example, a while back OVERSTOCK tried to start a price war with Amazon to remind people that “Hey, we sell books, too!”. They needed to do it because, while they do sell a fair amount of books, the books they sell are pretty much the same books you can find anywhere else; Amazon, Rakuten, B&N, maybe even Costco.

        It is a good part of the reason why the Agency Conspiracy fortified Amazon’s market positioning and (effectively) killed interoperable epub in the US (as a serious challenger to Amazon); it left the generic ebookstores in a generic position where they all sold the same books as Apple and B&N at the same prices. Amazon sold the same books…and more, thanks to KDP…

        There are many places to buy Patterson and Child bestsellers but very few places where you can hope to find Chad Oliver’s SHADOWS IN THE SUN or Laurence Mannings THE MAN WHO AWOKE. Amazon being one is a big part of why they’re the first stop for many book shoppers. And very often, the last stop.

  15. You have to read between the lines….

    Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.

    The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food.

    — She doesn’t think that popular books are any good.

    Amazon uses the BS [Best Seller] Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.

    — she doesn’t like Amazon’s recommendation method. It recommends what’s popular, and she doesn’t approve.

    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

    — publishing houses now only care about what’s popular, not what she thinks is good, and she doesn’t approve.

    Its [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.

    — she’s blaming Amazon for the consumption habits of it’s customers. They seem to be buying books she doesn’t approve of. Rather than blame actual readers (which she comes close to doing in the final sentence), she blames the store that they buy from.

    The “in print” references are red herrings. It’s likely she considers paper the only valid reading medium. What’s more at issue here for her is that people are buying books she doesn’t approve of, from Amazon, which is then circling back around to tell their customers what is popular, which she also doesn’t approve of, and then conflating purchasing behavior with the store where it occurs, Amazon.

    tl;dr — she thinks people are reading trash, and it’s all Amazon’s fault for letting them buy it.

    • And as I pointed out in my comment at the website (assuming it’s still there), a century ago, people bought hundreds of thousands of copies of books by Marie Corelli and Hall Caine, when Henry James was lucky to sell ten thousand.

      Even in the ’60s and ’70s, the big books were by James Michener, Jacqueline Susanne, and Harold Robbins.

      It’s not like readers’ tastes were noble and rarefied and then preferred “50 Shades” and Bigfoot erotica thanks to Jeff Bezos.

  16. Out of print, is probably a dead phrase. Looking through the history of literature I often find recommendations and those are usually “old books”. I find them in “used paperbacks” on Amazon or Goodwill. I’m liking paperback, it fits my hand.

    When I want it fast then online at Google helps me find a URL where these types of books hang out, sometimes on line and others times used in paperback.

    I don’t feel Amazon as an evil empire and on a scale the old publishing would outweigh anything Amazon evil.

  17. Another Institutional-Author defending the Institution of Gate Keepers and Big Publishers, and attacking capitalism and free market that is ruining her Institution’s Cartel.
    There is a huge difference between an Indie Author and a Institution/Trad Author. Indie Authors understand the business and the market, Trad Authors do not. As the Trad Publishers are telling their underlings: don’t bother your little heads with the business aspects of publishing. Good advice keep writing your novels, and don’t write about things you don’t know.

  18. Wow, just… wow. This article is so sad, and misguided. It drives home to me my suspicion that there are actually two camps of writers. Not indies versus trad, but between those who use their writing to make a living and those who don’t. By those who don’t, I mean those who believe writing is a sacred calling, an art form, a special something –not a product!– and the world does not appreciate their sacrifices or suffering.

    Those in the “don’t” camp might be brilliant, popular, award-winning and even earn the occasional fat contract and big advance. What they don’t get or don’t want to get is the changing marketplace.

    One of my clients (who most of you would recognize) is firmly in the first camp. He makes his living with his writing, and has for over 50 years. He’s won major awards, made every best seller list there is to make, had movies made from his novels, and been published all over the world. But to him, it’s making a living. Even in his late seventies, he writes. If he can’t get the publishing deal he wants, he self-publishes. He is reissuing his extensive back list in every format–print, digital, audio, and translations–whenever he has the rights to do so. It makes business sense to him to connect with his readers, so he’s active on social media. He sends out newsletters. He makes appearances wherever and whenever it makes sense. He never whines about the changing market–he changes with it. He never disparages readers by accusing them of being mind-numbed idiots who can’t tell the difference between McDonald’s and filet mignon. He would never dream of demanding the world stop because he far preferred things the way they used to be.

    Ms. le Guin is struggling not with Amazon, but with her readership. I imagine at one point she was able to take it for granted that her publishers would find her readers for her. I’m sure they did. When you’re a big dog in a very small kennel, it’s easy to stand out from the pack. That’s no longer so, and will never be so again. She doesn’t understand that Amazon makes life easy for customers. If there is blame to assign, then blame Amazon for being the everything store and putting their customers first. Readers no longer have to scour dusty used book stores or thrift shops to find the books they want. Readers no longer have to wait to find the books they can afford. If Ms. le Guin wanted to make a living, she’d be using Amazon, exploiting them for all they’re worth, to make her writing widely available and increase her readership.

    Like I said, sad, just sad.

    • Sounds like Lawrence Block.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      They keep issuing LeGuin paper books in the Fiction section of the bookstore, with bland “look at the chick book” covers; and her Kindle titles are overpriced. So I keep trying to remember that I should go look for them at the library, but I usually forget.

      (Here’s her author page. The fantasy YA books have fantasy covers, and a few sf books have sf covers, but look at the current cover for The Left Hand of Darkness! The publishers aren’t even trying to say what the book is about! It looks like a fluffy Christian devotional instead of a novel about aliens who don’t think about sex the way humans do. And all the other covers also look like somebody with a couple bland landscape stock photos, instead of Groundbreaking, Mindwarping Work of Science Fiction.)

      They also don’t seem to have her books set up in any categories, like “Science Fiction.”

      • Ack! Sorry I looked at the new covers. These look like part of an online seminar that explains how to kill your sales with bad / genre-inappropriate cover art. So sad that her publisher is treating her magnificent work in this way.

      • She wrote Catwings. I loved that book when I was younger. It’s a pity it’s not on Kindle. It’s a great book that young readers would like I bet. She’s missing out.

        • I love Catwings! Checking the link above it looks like there is a Kindle edition now – but that must be new. There wasn’t when I wanted to buy them not so long ago. I ended up with a used set.

      • Wow. That is sad, and insulting.

  19. I missed how AMAZON’s bestseller lists are worse than the notoriously-easy-to-scam (and routinely scammed) bestseller lists in: the New York Times, USA Today, … I’ll save some time and just say everywhere.

    There are companies which GUARANTEE they will get you on the list of your choice – for a price. A quite reasonable price if it means that much to you. Or is worth that much to you.

    And I don’t trust anyone whose advertising revenue comes from the booksellers and publishers – too much of a chance for a conflict of interest.

    If the bestseller lists at Amazon were provably biased, we would have heard lots and lots of screaming by now from those pesky indies who keep popping their heads into all the statistics available.

    IIRC, the NY Times peeled off the immensely successful books such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games – the REAL bestsellers – from their venerable list, so these books (which REALLY sell) wouldn’t bias the Times’ vaunted results.

    I’m sorry it’s Ms. LeGuin. But she’s dead wrong. And if she’s being manipulated into this, shame on them.

    • Yes, the NY Times created the Children’s list because Harry Potter kept filling up the “real” list.

    • I missed how AMAZON’s bestseller lists are worse than the notoriously-easy-to-scam (and routinely scammed) bestseller lists in: the New York Times, USA Today, … I’ll save some time and just say everywhere.

      It’s very simple. Ms. LeGuin spent decades building enough ‘literary’ cred to game her way onto the Times and similar lists. She spent half her career trying to prove that she didn’t have those awful genre cooties and wasn’t one of those nahsty pulp writers with their rocket ships and rayguns; and in the end succeeded. And now somebody has the nerve to come up with a bestseller list that actually reflects sales, and all her hard-won reputation and insider know-how aren’t needed there.

      It’s a slightly more sophisticated version of the railway firemen, who went on strike against diesel locomotives because nobody needed them to shovel coal anymore.

      • But… why the heck would the railway firemen strike against diesel locomotives? Wouldn’t striking against the thing that’s replacing you only speed up the pace of technological disruption? It… it makes no sense!

  20. I used to admire her so much. I just feel bad for her now. She has either become so isolated that she has just one voice in her ear…a vile and despicably dishonest one…and believes everything that pours forth, or she is losing her wits, which would make me very sad.

    In order to preserve my fond memories of her earlier work, I think I’ll have to skip any further missives from her desk.

    • “…think I’ll have to skip any further missives from her desk.”

      This. Ms. Leguin’s Pub Biz commentary has, sadly, been added to the DNR list along with Good-Ereader articles as nothing good ever seems to come from it.

  21. Amazon provided the solution to problem she is complaining about.

    • You’re exactly right, and that’s what is so bizarre about this. A legendary futurist who is completely unaware of what is happening in her own world. I think I just got the idea for a novel.

  22. That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the [BIG PUBLISHING] model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.

    Fixed it for you. Well, except for competitive pricing in many cases.

    Big Publishing and the chain bookstores are the ones to blame for the blockbuster mentality. Amazon wants to sell EVERYTHING. They don’t care if a book sells one copy in ten years, they won’t take it down (make the book “out of print”).

    No one knows exactly what Amazon does to the algorithms that create the best seller lists, but their aim is to show what is truly popular. Free books are penalized. Sudden spikes are flattened out. So the lists are “fixed” in that sense, but they are far FAR more accurate than something like the NYT Bestseller list.

    Amazon doesn’t care if 10,000 copies of one book sells or 1 copy of 10,000 books. They make money either way.

    All of her complaints, except for readers being able to buy whatever they want, are about Big Publishing.

  23. I was under the impression that the real culprit here was an IRS rule that changed the accounting status of books, maybe twenty years ago or so. In effect it makes publishers either remainder or destroy a whole lot of books if they don’t sell well within the first year, rather than warehouse them. I don’t recall the details, but I believe it has something to do with the exciting field of amortization of losses. Maybe someone here knows more about it?

    • I somehow doubt the IRS forces publishers to destroy books. Now, that they choose to do this for profitability is one thing. The rules may make this more profitable. It doesn’t force. They are still the ones trashing books.

      • No, it doesn’t literally force them to destroy books. You will note I didn’t use the word “force”. But like all industries, taxation regimes can indeed create or destroy best business practices all on their own. The previous tax status of printed books had encouraged warehousing books for a long time. The new status encouraged the opposite. For a business, and especially a corporation duly bound by law to due diligence for shareholders, the effect was indeed to force major publishers to destroy a lot of books, even if that was neither the intent or the written content of the rule change.

        • It’s a bit like the massive sales offers you see on cars at the end of each year so the car lot doesn’t have to pay extra tax on them. Rather than crash sell, publishers prefer to burn …

          • Except selling cars at a big discount is great for consumers and it doesn’t destroy the cars (I would be as outraged if they were crushing cars to junk them, thereby wasting resources that could be put to good use).

            The trad pubs talk about being the guardians of literature and culture. Well, trashing brand new books is not guardianship. I find it repulsive.

            • Oh, I agree, but you have to remember who you’re dealing with here. These are the nurturing back-stabbers that take all they think they can get away with from those that make them the money in the first place — you wouldn’t expect them to sell their special snowflakes for less than they demand for them would you?

              These are the spoiled brats that would rather break a toy than be forced to share it.

        • Gross Simplification Alert.

          I think the change had to do with the timing of expensing the production costs.

          If a manufacturer spends $100 to produce 100 units, he recognizes $1 in expenses each time he sells one book. If he has 63 units sitting in a warehouse, that’s $63 in expenses he hasn’t taken.

          To recognize that $63 in expenses, he has to write off the units. For books, I think that means crunching them.

          Given the low marginal cost of printing one book, it makes financial sense to get rid of them.

          I think the IRS change brought publishers under the system outlined above. Prior to that, they had some sort of exemption.

          Who is forcing them? Probably the external auditors, if they are doing their job.

          • It’s my understanding that it was not the timing of the expensing, but the valuation of unsold copies. Prior to the Thor Power Tools decision (so I have been told by folks in the business) publishers carried their unsold inventory on the books at the cost of production. After that decision, they were forced to carry it at the price at which they sold the books to wholesalers. In effect, they were deemed to have earned their entire profit on the book at the time of manufacture, and not at the time of sale. Given that up to half of the books in their inventory never sold, or were returned for full credit (which amounts to the same thing), this was a ludicrous burden to impose upon them.

            They eventually got round this silly ruling by keeping the unbound signatures in one pile and the covers in another, and only binding small numbers of copies as they were required. That way, the books in inventory were treated as parts for tax purposes, and not as finished products.

            • Thanks for filling in some of the details. I think both Terence and Tom have at least part of it right. I know timing was important, which is why they had to dispose of inventory within a short time period or face an increased tax bill. I hadn’t heard of the trick of keeping covers and text separate, but I suspect that’s not done much anymore. Most books are cheaply printed in China and sent here, and if they don’t sell in the first year, they are mostly destroyed. So I don’t think there’s a cheap mechanism for keeping them on hand and then attaching the covers later. POD is probably in the process of replacing midlist printings. But I also wonder if this whole problem is at least part of the reason why midlist authors who depend on a backlist are going through such hard times, and why publishers are looking for fast and big bestsellers who can sell lots of books fast and then be trashed in favor of next year’s book.

            • Whatever effect the changes in tax law might have had, they simply exposed a lot of wasteful spending. The publishers were printing a lot more books than they knew would sell. This was a deliberately inefficient system, not a method of keeping old books in print (though it had some of that effect).

              The real purpose of overprinting books was to flood bookstores and keep out other players. Bookstores could return unsold books for a full refund, basically giving them an incentive to fill shelves with books from big publishers, rather than small presses that couldn’t afford such waste.

              The second advantage was covering up the fact that the publishers where printing a lot of books, for reasons of snobbery, nepotism, and influence peddling, that they knew would not sell regardless. They would do a large run of a book by a politician, or literary darling, and they had a system in place to move thousands of those books around the country, put them on selves, and take them off and hide them, so it wasn’t so obvious there was a very limited market. They could promise the politician their book was in every bookstore, even though they and the bookstores knew no one would buy them.

              To maintain this system required a lot of overprinting, shipping, warehousing and pulping of unsold books. (Not to mention ripping off the writers of popular genre fiction to pay for it all.) It was wasteful regardless of the tax issues.

              As much as the tax changes might have forced publisher’s hands, I think what also happened is that now that the publishers are owned by huge corporations, which demand better accounting, the waste of the system can’t be tolerated just to indulge the NY literary scene. Also, the fact that bookstores (and the NYTimes) aren’t the only way people learn about books anymore, has also undercut the logic of moving around books no one wants. It’s too easy for people to find what they want on Amazon. These days they aren’t likely to be tempted by something they don’t want just because it’s on the front shelves.

    • I know that Texas charges a significant tax on the inventory that a publisher has at the end of the year. I know of one board game company that realized that they would save massive amounts of money by shifting to PoD (or close to it) instead of traditional print runs and warehousing the results until they sold.

      So if something isn’t selling rapidly, and you are going to have to pay taxes on what you haven’t sold every year until you do sell it, there’s a very large incentive to destroy unsold items just before you are going to have to pay a tax on them.

    • Here’s some book specific details along with some simplified accounting for examples. http://www.sfwa.org/2005/01/how-thor-power-hammered-publishing/

      My teen book binging started in 1979 and I remember being able to find “new old stock” books on the shelves all the time. I’d walk out with the latest $2.95 Del Ray blockbuster trilogy installment, but I’d also walk out with a $1.25 Fritz Leiber or a 95 cent Andre Norton that had been printed five or ten years earlier. It was how I read most classic fantasy, but by the late 80s, that just didn’t happen anymore. I suppose that could equally be the lack of computerized accounting as publisher held inventory, but either way it has nothing to do with Amazon (or the previous bugaboo Borders).

    • My recollection is that it had to do with an inventory tax.

  24. Traditional publishing is an Omelas that tortures ninety-nine to benefit one. I’m glad to have walked away from it.

  25. Yes, there’s tons wrong with this, but LeGuin is still my hero. Nothing can make The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness unwritten.

    Who knows what we’re going to be complaining about a few decades down the road…

  26. Translation: I’m not selling enough books. My market share is down. I’m published with a Big 5 publisher, so obviously Amazon is at fault.

  27. If an indie author says that with the help of Amazon, we are eating the lunch of the Big Pub authors, the prevailing hypothesis in response is that the indie author has no clue what she is talking about and certainly doesn’t have any enough evidence and whatever evidence they do have is being misinterpreted.

    So it’s nice to read the occasional Big Pub author lamenting that their lunch is being eaten by Amazon. (The indie authors just end up with the crumbs, presumably.)

  28. For one of the only times in my life, I actually replied to an article like that (I’m usually very good at refraining). I wish I would have written it in draft so as to avoid the errors caused by quick typing into a small box, but I just had to do it.

    Most of the comments point out the fallacies, but there are a few who are supportive of what she says and I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what they’re upset about. Especially since one of them appears to be ashamed to be self-pubbing…on Amazon.


    • My view is, let these angry trad writers have their 12% of net royalties. Just means more room for the very authors they think are destroying literature.

  29. Ms. Le Guin… So wrong. So sad. Enough to make this fan cry.

  30. My biggest complaint with Le Quin’s rant?
    My bookshelves are not peppered with Shaztkin titles.


  31. Give the woman a break. She’s 85 years old. Amazon has more or less become a boogeyman for why things aren’t as good as they were way back in the day.

  32. L Rita St Claire

    There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.
    —Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Sadly, Ms. Le Gruin refuses to believe the truth.

  33. Dear Ms LeGuin,

    I have read almost everything you have ever written, so I feel justified in asking you this question:

    When was the last time you walked into a bookstore and found The Left Hand of Darkness /stocked/ on a shelf?

    US bookstores may be different, but here in Australia most bookstores do not carry it. They do not carry Gifts either.

    Yet if you go onto Amazon, as I just did, you will find The Left Hand of Darkness in at least 4 separate editions, new and used, paperback and hardcover. You will also find Gifts. In fact, I ordered Gifts from Amazon despite the prohibitive postage because it was the only way I could get the book here in Australia.

    Getting back to Left Hand of Darkness, the only version I could not find [on Amazon] was an ebook version. If you and your publishers were to provide an ebook version, I could guarantee that it would never, ever ‘go out of print’. I could further guarantee that generations in the future would still be reading your writing.

    Will the print book-only versions guarantee such longevity? I hope so, but I doubt it. And that makes me sad because Left Hand of Darkness was like a hundred watt light bulb going off in my head. It had a similar effect on my daughter, but how many other young readers know of it these days?

    Amazon and ebooks give us immortality. What more can any writer ask?

    Yours sincerely,
    A.C. Flory

  34. …Um…


    Here is–quite honestly–how I equate these kinds of writers. They’re like my parents, who are so technophobic they REFUSE to let me (and I’m the one who pays for their cell plan) get them smart phones that would be INFINITELY easier for them to use (and see the screens of) than the bottom-of-the-line, no feature flip phones they have. Every time my dad kills another phone and I have to get him a new one, if it’s not exactly like the old one, it’s months of blaming the phone for every single problem he has with it.

    In other words, PEBCAK: Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard.

    Instead of looking at this “brave new world” that is NOT going to retreat and embracing it and learning from it, there are authors who are bound and determined to try to drag everyone else back into the dark ages ONLY because of their inherent fear, because THEY don’t understand the new system.

    Or, because they know they don’t have the skills to survive and thrive in the new world order of publishing. They have no desire to maintain a web presence of any kind. They have no desire to try to change how they do things. They don’t understand why, when they were perfectly happy with the gatekeepers who allowed them to thrive under the old system, they should have to change the way they did things. The way they did things worked for them.

    That’s my .02.

  35. I did it. I succumbed to responding to a post that just made me want to connect head to desk. Some of what I posted on the original blog:

    Ms. Le Guin,

    I would respectfully disagree with many of your points in this blog post. You seem to blame Amazon for many things that they had no part in. I am not a total Amazon fan: they seem to treat their distribution center employees no better than the average Wal-Mart, and that needs to change. But they are not at fault for the things you ascribe to them.

    For starters, most of the big publishers are now controlled by parent companies demanding profitability. Midlist authors aren’t as profitable as the big best sellers, like James Patterson or the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Parent companies want money, and they want it yesterday. … That has nothing to do with Amazon, that’s a price publishing has paid for being bought out by non-publishing companies.

    And let’s look at the copyright restrictions placed on books published by the big houses. Because they control the rights, an author cannot easily get her book in print again. That requires contract amendments, etc. Again, that’s a big business problem, not an Amazon problem. …

    You only fleetingly mention the big chain stores in your post. They did a great deal of damage to the small booksellers before Amazon came along. With moneyed agreements with the publishers, they could move more books than the smaller stores could, so of course were favored by the publishers. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, the numbers of small independent bookstores has started to increase again, due to their ability to connect directly with readers, while Barnes & Noble struggles.

    I have worked in a public library for more than 20 years. It used to be incredibly difficult to find old books for readers, unless we could find it in a library somewhere in the country. Now we have the ability to find copies from just about any age, either in libraries or for purchase, thanks to the changes brought about by Amazon. How is that NOT good for readers?

    Finally, the claim that Amazon controls what we read? That blame instead goes to the “gatekeepers”, the publishing houses that denied most people from sharing the stories they had to tell. … I have stopped reading many series I used to love, because the plotlines are tired and the same things happen every book to the main characters. And yet these series continue to be produced and favorably reviewed. I can’t explain why that happens, but it makes me mad when these books are held up as “good” and others that are so much more original and well crafted are labeled “bad” just because someone published them on their own.

    Again, I’m not saying Amazon is an innocent business. I’m just asking you to place blame where it correctly resides, instead of following the easy big business path of blaming everything on a company that has learned how to do one thing really well: sell things people want, in a way that is easy for them.

  36. Thorsten Mücke

    The market power of Amazon increases the importance of marketing and leads to a much higher selection between best sellers and long tail. That’s all she’s saying, isn’t she? I don’t see any critique on Amazon or e-books or self publishing. I see a critique on a best seller orientated books business. She only describes the effect and the consequences of it.

  37. What LeGuin fails to understand is that the distribution channels that let her books reach their relative handful of readers only exist because genre and bestseller readers keep those channels open. Litfic sales aren’t enough to sustain even online bookstores, much less B&M stores.

    The very books and readers she deprecates are the only thing keeping her in business.

  38. She’s a funny one. Still like her stuff.

    If Amazon was a non-profit, whose purpose was to make a wide selection of books, old and new, best-seller and niche interest, available, she would be all for it. But it is profit-driven, so that means she is conflicted about it.

  39. A sad coda to the illustrious career of a great author.

  40. I have read and enjoyed one of her books too. However:
    Quote: Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism. endquote

    I think MOST of us think we are writing a potential best seller. We are all certainly HOPING it is somehow a best seller. And books still take a long time to write. Maybe there are authors who churn out books and can count on being a best seller, but they are few and far between. Even big name authors with marketing behind them can’t count on hitting a given number of sales/profit–and it still takes time to produce the book, edit the book and so on.

    It’s hard to be “discovered” by readers–then and now. Making out like all best sellers are somehow junk and worthy books are overlooked the way she did in the article does not do her proud.

  41. A little thought-experiment…

    Let’s just carry Ursula, trad. publishing, Turow, et al all the way out.

    Let’s say the print book is gone, dead, no longer a single copy on the planet. The literary community is dead, gone, reduced first to a 1 cent bin, then to complete and utter obscurity.

    Then what?

    We figure out how to continue telling and sharing our stories, that’s what. Whatever the next format is, might not even be an “ebook” (maybe no more Kindle or Amazon) as we currently know it … we will tell our stories.

    All of this talk about “books as commodities” (which they are, but the stories don’t have to be), the “trad. publishing industry dying”, etc… take the focus off of what is truly important…

    The story being told itself.

    I don’t care how a story gets distributed, I just want to immerse myself in them, read (listen, watch) stories told by others (fictional or non-fictional). I don’t care who sells them to me (if selling exists in 50, 100, 300 years).

    Amazon and traditional publishers mean NOTHING to me, so long as I can immerse myself in stories.

    So get the stories to me … your voracious reader. As an author, it’s YOUR responsibility to do so. Do whatever it takes to share the stories you write, become your own best distribution channel.

    But share your stories. People need to read them, because they serve so many purposes, no matter what price they are being sold at.

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