Capitalist publishing stifles originality

Anyone who’s read Ursula K. Le Guin’s National Book Awards speech last year will be reminded that capitalism stifles creativity.

When a book makes it big, suddenly there’s a crushing avalanche of new and similar books published and blurbed as the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games, or whatever the recently famous title is, and if you’re really lucky, a combination – ‘Twilight meets The Hunger Games‘.

Oversaturation of the market is a real issue. Genre fatigue is becoming a thing now. Young adult paranormal romances and dystopia have been published to death, while 50 Shades is currently irritating long term BDSM fans. Many of these “readalike” books are so similar they border on repetitive. More than I care to count are hollow imitations riddled with sexism and misogyny. This discourages readers from exploring the more nuanced and older books in the genre, dismissing them based on what they’ve seen in the glut of new releases.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the 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 quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

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 ebook 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 and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Ursula K. Le Guin

Originality is often a disadvantage in 21st century publishing. No one wants to take a chance on something there may not be a market for – it’s all about greed these days. Avarice trumps everything else. In the world of business, there’s this term called a ‘unique selling point,’ sometimes referred to as a USP.

Unique Selling Points (USPs)… is the thing that makes your business different from anything else out there – the reason customers will come to you not them. Identify and plan at least five clear USPs that define exactly what you offer that the broader market doesn’t. (Source: Smarta)

This flies directly in the face of the readalike publishing philosophy where editors are actively commissioning books based on the straitjacket of similarity rather than uniqueness. It’s almost absurd. Sadly, genre mashup manuscripts have little chance of making it past the slush pile of traditional publishing. Originality is rejected with such regularity that the public is literally being deprived of what could be innovative, bar-raising work. And that’s where self-publishing comes in; to meet demand by bypassing draconian gatekeepers.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. 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, and very often in our art—the art of words.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Only superstar authors can guarantee that almost anything they write will be published, but how many of them actually use their power to break new ground? James Patterson churns out the ideas, but doesn’t necessarily write the books his name is splashed across. He literally releases dozens of new novels per year. At such a rate, I highly doubt they’re quality original works worthy of winning “all the awards”.

Of the famous authors I read, very few have maintained their output to a high standard, in fact, many have produced books of declining quality. Janet Evanovich and Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, wield ironclad control over their work due to their enormous selling power. However, many ardent fans have long given up reading their books because, at times, it seems like they plagiarize their own material – seemingly lifting entire sections out of the old to place in the new, which is just plain lazy, not to mention tedious.

For Suzanne Collins though, it did feel as if Mockingjay suffered due to the overwhelming pressure of reader expectations and a desperate need to fulfil them, to placate the global audience and head-off unanimous criticism. Of course, you can’t please everybody, and in trying to do so, you often lose sight of the goal; to write a good book. To meet every expectation isn’t a wise thing to do anyway; it’s predictable, too much of which is a bad thing. You can keep an audience happy without giving them everything they think they want, though it requires skill and good judgement on where to draw the line.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Ursula K. Le Guin

More than anyone else, voracious and insatiable readers are craving diversity in their reading material. And unless you’re well-connected, it’s difficult to find and consume books to feed that desire. That’s if they’ve even been published.

Image: Literary Ames


3 thoughts on “Capitalist publishing stifles originality

  1. Interesting. Ta for posting. Would be quite a dispiriting read if I hadn’t already realised that everything ULG said is true. My crime novel has a mixed race female heroine – not that I should be revealing that as the reader is supposed to work out for themselves which character they should be backing – but I don’t think that was the reason I was rejected by lit agents. Unfortunately there is very little guidance out there on how to write a synopsis. I should have tried to get mine read over by an industry insider before sending it out. An unconvincing synopsis from an unpublished author landing on the desk of a ‘hard-working’ (hmmm) agent is going to go straight in the bin. But that’s cool, it gives me control over my project.


    1. Sean, your comment made me rejoice as I’m a mixed race female myself.

      Good luck with your crime novel. We need more culturally and racially diverse protagonists out there.


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