Amazon Attacks… George Orwell

BOY, this is weird.

The online bookseller, in an attempt to tackle its critics, has been quoting George Orwell WAY out of context. A New York Times story gets at the whole messy business.

In 1936 Orwell told a British paper: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” The Times picks it up from here:

Orwell then went on to undermine Amazon’s argument for cheap e-books. “It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade,” he wrote, saying that the opposite was true.220px-George_Orwell_press_photo

“The cheaper books become,” he wrote, “the less money is spent on books.”

Instead of buying two expensive books, he said, the consumer will buy three cheap books and then use the rest of the money to go to the movies. “This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller, it is a disaster,” Orwell wrote.

I give St. George points for prescience here — even if it took a while for his prediction to come true.

Amazon, by the way, is now going up against Disney as well. (They’re the new Hachette.) Stay tuned.


Orwell’s literary executor has sent the following not to the New York Times in response:

To the Editor:

Re “In a Fight With Authors, Amazon Cites Orwell, but Not Quite Correctly” (Business Day, Aug. 11):

As you point out, Amazon is using George Orwell’s name in vain: It quotes Orwell out of context as supporting a campaign to suppress paperbacks, to give specious authority to its campaign against publishers over e-book pricing; and having gotten as much capital as it can out of waving around Orwell’s name, Amazon then dismisses what was an ironic comment without engaging with Orwell’s own detailed arguments, which eloquently contradict Amazon’s.

This is about as close as one can get to the Ministry of Truth and its doublespeak: turning the facts inside out to get a piece of propaganda across.

As the literary executor for the Orwell estate, I’m both appalled and wryly amused that Amazon’s tactics should come straight out of Orwell’s own nightmare dystopia, “1984.” It doesn’t say much for Amazon’s regard for truth, or its powers of literary understanding. Or perhaps Amazon just doesn’t care about the authors it is selling. If that’s the case, why should we listen to a word it says about the value of books?

London, Aug. 11, 2014


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