Blame The Right Party: A Response to Ursula K. Le Guin on Amazon

Famed writer Ursula K. Le Guin published an essay on Book View Cafe called “Up the Amazon with the BS Machine.” ‘BS’ in this case stands for Best Seller, although I think that if it’s not also a clever play on the more typical meaning of “BS,” it should be. Her basic argument is that Amazon is to blame for the currently dominant model of mainstream publishing, which is to throw a bunch of books at the wall and see which ones stick to the Bestseller list, or at least sell strongly in a relatively short time after publication. The ones that don’t are quickly abandoned, going out of print. (And, if the work of first-time authors, often effectively torpedoing that author’s career.) You can read her essay, which I quite liked, here:

You can also see some discussion of the post on The Passive Voice:

While I agree with much of what Ms. Le Guin says (and would like to take this opportunity to thank her for the many wonderful books of hers I have enjoyed) I don’t quite understand why she thinks that Amazon’s model somehow encourages books to be abandoned. For many authors, Amazon is all about “the long tail.” Once published on Amazon, a book can stay there, if current trends continue, more or less forever. And it may find its audience months, or years, or theoretically even decades later. (Though obviously we don’t have decades of data on e-publishing.)

It is publishers who remove books from print. If I publish a book digitally, there it stays on Amazon until I take it down. If I publish one through CreateSpace, it will be available, in print, for either readers to buy directly or retailers to buy wholesale, until I take it down. Since reputable digital e-tailers don’t charge to make digital books available through their stores, there are very few reasons I can think of why any publisher would take a digital book “out of print.” And of the ones I can think of, exactly zero of them are in any way incentivized or encouraged by Amazon. If I’ve missed something, I would be glad to discuss it.

Leaving aside digital, the only way a book can go out of print is if the party responsible for printing it decides not to print any more copies. Since CreateSpace doesn’t do that (nor does Lightning Source or any of the other true Print On Demand providers) the concern only applies to traditional publishers. They have been (in)famous for playing games about when a book is or is not in print (and thus the rights might revert) for decades, although they certainly seem to have gotten worse about it in the relatively recent past. I respectfully suggest that if Ms. Le Guin is concerned with the current business model of traditional publishing – “print, push, punt,” to coin a phrase – she should address her concerns to them, not to Amazon.

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