Maybe Amazon really is rattled by the whole Authors United phenomenon organized by Douglas Preston. The writers are encouraging their readers to email Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief executive, and tell him to stop holding books hostage as the company negotiates with Hachette Book Group.
Late Friday, Amazon unveiled Readers United, and encouraged e-book buyers to email the chief executive of Hachette, whose address was helpfully provided.
In introducing the group, Amazon made the same arguments it has been making in the last few weeks: e-books need to be cheaper and Hachette is robbing readers by preventing this from happening. It also provided a list of recommended journalism on the topic — a very selective list.
For readers who are not quite sure exactly what to write to Hachette, Amazon included a list of talking points. The first one is, “We have noted your illegal collusion,” always an ice-breaker in these sorts of chats.
The retailer argues that people against e-books are against the future, and talks about how the book industry hated cheap paperbacks when they were introduced in the 1930s, and said they would ruin the business when they really rejuvenated it. Unfortunately, to clinch its argument it cites the wrong authority:
“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.”
Could the Amazon Books Team, which is credited as the source of this post, have really written this? Because a moment’s Googling would have revealed that the team is misrepresenting this “famous author.”
First, when Orwell wrote that line, he was celebrating Penguin paperbacks, not urging suppression or collusion. Does Amazon, which early in its e-book days made copies of “1984″ vanish from Kindles after discovering it did not own the rights, really think George Orwell — of all people! — would want to suppress books?
Here is what the writer said in the New English Weekly on March 5, 1936: “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.”
Get it? He liked them.
But Orwell then went on to undermine Amazon’s argument much more effectively than Hachette ever has. “It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade,” he wrote. “Actually it is just the other way about … The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”
Instead of buying two expensive books, he says, the consumer will buy two cheap books and then use the rest of his 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.
The real problem, the writer argued in an essay a decade later, “Books v. Cigarettes,” was with the books themselves. They had a hard time competing against other media — a point people are still making in 2014.
“If our book consumption remains as low as it has been,” he wrote, “at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.”
An Amazon spokesman did not respond to questions about whether Orwell was really advocating collusion and not, you know, joking.