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What Would George Orwell Think About the Amazon versus Hachette Dispute?


On August 14, 2014 The New Yorker published an insightful commentary by American journalist, novelist and playwright George Packer on the dispute with Hachette publishers over e-books. The article, entitled "Amazon vs. Hachette: What Would Orwell Think?", framed the dispute in the context of George Orwell's ideas about changes in the publishing industry during the 1930s. From it I quote the first few paragraphs:

“ 'Review of Penguin Books' might qualify as the single most obscure thing that George Orwell ever wrote. It was published in the March 5, 1936, issue of New English Weekly, when the writer was thirty-two years old. Like other struggling novelists, Orwell was doing a lot of reviewing to get his name in print, and, in this case, he’d undertaken the thankless task of reviewing a batch of ten Penguin paperbacks, sold at sixpence apiece, including such immortal titles as The Owls’ House,' by Crosbie Garstin, and “Dr. Serocold,” by Helen Ashton. A few years ago, when I was compiling a two-volume edition of Orwell’s essays, 'Review of Penguin Books' would not have made the long list even if I’d remembered that it existed. All the stranger, then, that this eight-decade-old trifle surfaced last weekend in the business dispute between Amazon and Hachette and, from there, moved onto Twitter and into theTimes.

 "For the past four months, Amazon has been making it hard for customers to buy Hachette books while the two companies fight over e-book terms. A group of nine hundred writers signed an open letter that appeared in Sunday’s [New York] Times, calling on Amazon to leave authors out of the contract dispute. The Amazon Books Team preëmptively replied by creating a Web site called (In politics, this is known as “grasstops”—a fake-grassroots campaign created by special interests.) The Web site provided Kindle customers with talking points to help convince the C.E.O. of Hachette to 'stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks.'

"Members of the Amazon Books Team—they aren’t stupid—unearthed Orwell’s 'Review of Penguin Books' and quoted its first sentence: '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.' In 1936, mass-market paperbacks were a new technological innovation, as e-books are now. Orwell thought that cheaper books would not lead to higher revenues, because buyers would spend less money on books and more 'on seats at the ‘movies.’ ' Readers might benefit—publishers, booksellers, and authors wouldn’t. Amazon chided Orwell for his shortsightedness: '[W]hen a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books—he was wrong about that.' No one could miss the analogy to the e-book revolution and its critics.

"The Times jumped in to mock Amazon for missing the note of irony in Orwell’s words. He wasn’t actually urging the formation of a publishing cartel, just pointing out the danger that cheap paperbacks posed for “the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller.” In fact, the advent of paperbacks left Orwell ambivalent. “In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema,” he wrote. Orwell didn’t have much of a head for business, and his powers of prediction sometimes failed him. In another 1936 piece, “Bookshop Memories,” he wrote, “The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” Around the same time, he argued that the Nazi threat wasn’t as dangerous as a war of the “imperialist powers.” (He changed his mind about that.) So maybe Orwell was wrong about paperbacks, too. But then, so is Amazon."

Reading Packer's complete article is highly recommended.

Ironically, in 2009 Amazon had previous run-in with Orwellian concepts when Amazon sent Orwell's e-books down the "memory hole." 

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