LeGuin_Ursula_KWhile researching the piece I wrote about Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing advice earlier today, I found enough interesting material that I decided to make another post out of it rather than tacking on a one-paragraph by-the-way.

In July, Portland Monthly Mag had an interesting editorial take on Le Guin, covering a speech from 2014 at the National Book Awards ceremony in which she “coolly proceeded to torch her own publishers, the ‘profiteer’ Amazon, and the overcommercialized state of literature in general.” Here’s the whole speech courtesy of YouTube, including Neil Gaiman’s introduction:

In the speech, she speaks out against publishers’ sales departments being given control over editorial departments, her own publishers charging public libraries “six or seven times more than they charge customers” for e-books, and accused Amazon of being a “profiteer” who “tried to punish a publisher for disobedience.”

“We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art,” she said. “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit … is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

She went on to say that “Books are not a commodity. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.” She urged writers to resist the commercialization of their industry. Rather than profit, writers should seek after freedom.

In June, Le Guin herself wrote an essay on her Book View Café site complaining that Amazon is despoiling literature with the “BS Machine,” but she seems to be confusing the behavior of Amazon with the behavior of the publishers. (Which, judging from her take the above speech, probably isn’t surprising; they seem to be sharing the responsibility of overcommercializing literature, so it’s easy to see how she might ascribe the actions of one of them to the other.) She lays at the feet of Amazon things like adapting books into movies to steal attention away from the books, or letting books fall out of print, which are not things Amazon actually has a hand in (at least directly).

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.

She wishes that people wouldn’t buy books through Amazon, though she doesn’t have a problem with commodities such as household goods. She doesn’t even object to people self-publishing through Amazon; she says, “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.”

Nonetheless, many of the comments below the article are from people puzzled and hurt by her vehemence given that Amazon has made it possible for many self-publishing writers to make a living now. Apparently some of them were so hurt they resorted to name-calling, as the site ended up closing the comments after just two days.

I think, as do many of those commenters, that Le Guin does have some valid points about the overcommercialization of literature, but she’s pointing her gun at the wrong target. It’s the publishers who have been moved to put restrictive terms on library e-books, or more recently to manufacture best-sellers at the expense of their customers. I suppose you could paint Amazon as an enabler, making it possible for the publishers to become more commercial than ever before, but it’s not the prime mover behind all this in any event.

I suppose the crowning irony is that while Le Guin blames Amazon for what the publishers are doing, the publishers themselves are mad at Amazon for getting in their way, to the point where they will try to break the law to get ahead, or else get into months-long disputes over contract negotiations.

It’s tempting, but probably too patronizing, to ascribe Le Guin’s beliefs about Amazon’s place in the current book and e-book marketplace to a “generation gap.” Rather than try to claim she has “Amazon Derangement Syndrome” like so many of the name-callers did, I think it’s probably best to focus on the larger truths.

As a product of the publishing industry of several decades ago, Le Guin looks at the modern state of the industry and doesn’t like what she sees. And, well, I imagine a lot of people from those days don’t. Rather than try to slice up the blame, I think it’s fair enough to say she doesn’t like what the publishers and Amazon have wrought between them.

The important thing is for everyone to work toward improving the industry in their own ways—to seek after their own freedom, as Le Guin said in her speech. Le Guin herself sells some titles as DRM-free e-books or MP3s via Book View Café. I think that’s an idea we can all get behind.


  1. I don’t agree with everything she says, but publishers and authors do seem too focused on the business aspect of writing. How many times have I read advice to authors along the lines of treat your book like a business. Not all authors think that way. Nabokov, for example, thought of himself as an artist first. The business side of his books were palmed off to his wife. But it seems as if publisher’s and author’s aim at profiteering as put the Veras before the Nabokovs.

  2. What LeGuin refuses to consider is that the publishing business is a *business*. Profiteering is their raison d’être.
    They really have no choice because publishing only “artistic” titles won’t pay the bills and keeping the lights on at their Manhattan Offices (much less keep their transatlantic bosses hsppy) and without the “profiteering” “BS” titles they could never afford to publish the “literary” stuff she is fond of.

    She simply fails to understand that there isn’t enough money in litfic to keep even small presses in business, much less the big boys. Or that the freedom to publish “artistic” works will increasingly be *only* found outside the tradpub establishment; through writers’ coops, micropresses, and yes, Indie publishing.

    The industry has changed enormously and repeatedly since her heyday in the sixties and, apparently, she is only now starting to notice it.

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