A representative of the Orwell Estate has thrown a punch at Amazon amid the retailer's ongoing fight with publisher Hachette, whose titles have been suppressed on the site amid hostile e-book pricing negotiations. Literary executor Bill Hamilton has likened the corporate giant to the Ministry of Truth, the oppressive organization responsible for creating propaganda in Orwell's classic dystopian novel "1984."
The slam is a response to Amazon's invocation of Orwell's 1936 essay "Review of Penguin Books," which Amazon referenced in a letter to readers to defend their tactics. The retailer wrote: “The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if ‘publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.’ Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.” The letter then analogized Orwell's argument to e-books, saying, "Well… history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."
However, as the New York Times, the New Yorker, Tech Crunch, the Guardian and others have noted, Amazon mischaracterized Orwell's quote and missed the irony of his words. The novelist wrote the opposite: he supported paperbacks.
"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. It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade," he wrote. With cheaper books, "Probably you will buy three sixpenny books and spend the rest of your five shillings on seats at the ‘movies’," he suggested, explaining, "Hence the cheaper the books become, the less money is spent on books. 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."
George Packer wrote in The New Yorker, "Amazon’s broader argument is disingenuous. Hardly anyone—certainly not the big publishers—is saying that e-books should be suppressed," instead, the current dispute is over how "the market and profits should be divided."
While Packer was hesitant to call Amazon's actions outright Orwellian, writing that the "poor, much-abused term should be reserved for special occasions, like North Korea," Orwell Estate literary executor Bill Hamilton had no qualms with characterizing Amazon as Orwellian. In a letter to the New York Times published today, Hamilton wrote of Amazon's campaign: "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'", he wrote. "It doesn’t say much for Amazon’s regard for truth, or its powers of literary understanding."
As Amazon continues to lose its cool, what's next-- deleting "1984" from its readers's Kindles? Oh wait, they already made that mistake back in 2009.
Here is Hamilton's full note, republished from the New York Times:
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