BY: Sonny Bunch
Alex Tabarrok points us to this rather odd, ranty essay from Ursula K. Le Guin in which she argues that Amazon is bad because … it pushes new books. Or something. It’s kind of hard to grok Le Guin’s main point, to be honest. I think this might be it?
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. …
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 ['Best Seller'--see what she did there? --SB] 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.
Le Guin’s real problem is with “growth capitalism,” which, apparently, Amazon embodies. But her argument is, frankly, bizarre. As Tabarrok notes over at Marginal Revolution,
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).
I honestly have no idea what Le Guin is going on about here. It’s never been easier to be a consumer of non-BS books. I literally could not tell you the last time I bought a book on a best seller list of any variety. But every month I’m picking up a niche book or three from Amazon. Here are the last five books I’ve ordered:
- The Alteration, by Kingsley Amis;
- Red Book and the Great Wall, by Alberto Moravia;
- Personal Views: Exploration in Film, by Robin Wood;
- The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World, by Armond White;
- Girl, 20, by Kingsley Amis.
Three of those are in print, two aren’t. None of them are particularly of the moment. None of them are topping any “BS” list. The odds of me finding all five in my local bookstore are exceedingly slim (only two of five Barnes and Nobles in my area have both Amis books in stock right now, for example; I’m not even given an option to see if Personal Views is in stock anywhere). Yet I was able to obtain all five within days of ordering them thanks to that voracious capitalist enterprise, Amazon.
Even odder is Le Guin’s focus on being able to buy what’s in print. In addition to serving as a fantastic place to find out-of-print used books, Amazon has led the way in digitizing books. In an ideal world, Amazon will make the notion of a book being “in print” entirely superfluous: you’ll be able to download anything ever published, anywhere, in an instant. Every writer’s entire bibliography will be available for instant perusal by the entire planet.
What more could an author want?Read Less