Before her death in 2016, the legendary Ursula Le Guin gave a short acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in which she outlined the problems with modern publishing. At that stage of her career, she could safely issue the criticisms without fear of financial repercussion, but the observations were nevertheless poignant. They rest firmly on the role which capitalism can play in diminishing the value of literary art by commoditizing various genres for mass market efficiency. Some particularly biting lines are as follows:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.
Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”
One cannot deny the truth in those words. The more that technology advances, the less substance matters, and this can be witnessed across various mediums. A person with great content on YouTube will swiftly get buried by the excess of “corporate friendly” channels letting our dopamine-hungry brains feast on countless jump edits and sound effects. Movies with independent or unique origins are disregarded, while studio money pours into toxic remakes, and the coarse boredom of social justice slinks into genres where it was always present, albeit with class and subtlety.
Books are no exception to this rule. As others have observed, the idealized vehicle for publishing success has become a pantomime of the same writing style and setting, regardless if it lacks originality. Even the famous fantasy series popularized by an unknown homeschooler relied on heavy borrowing from the Star Wars movies, to a degree that is almost comical. But it still sold, because publishers are more interested in what fits the market than anything resembling genuine art. It’s not a stretch to say that Paolini would have been laughed out of the room had his book done something truly beyond the bounds of “comfortable” prose.
Le Guin went on:
“Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.“
I believe in this case Le Guin was referring to Amazon, and rightly so. The compounding growth of Bezos’ bright-eyed promotion of publishing hides a more sinister reality: Amazon’s attempt to form an effective sales monopoly and reduce current royalty rates. Part of the approach involves encouraging authors to publish with Kindle Create, a clunky and unhelpful software designed to coral authors into the Bezos marketplace indefinitely:
Ultimately, it is hard to say what the future will hold. Perhaps Le Guin is right, and change will arise. For myself, I know that my hesitation in publishing fiction as opposed to non-fiction (and especially self-help), stems from a recognition that the themes depicted in my stories would be swiftly dismissed, if not entirely deleted, from the Amazon platform. But that is the tragedy of being a writer: you can’t help but write, even if the outcome is a pittance. It is an extension of the soul, and not doing so feels tantamount to betrayal of the spirit.