Amazon Books Team Invokes Orwell Incorrectly in War Against Authors

Earlier this week , author Douglas Preston—from his quaint-but-internet-connected summer shack on the coast of Maine—posted a letter imploring his readers to write Amazon's chief executive Jeff Bezos and demand that he stop taking books as hostages in its on-going negotiations with Hachette Book Group. Some 900 other authors, including the likes of Stephen King and Donna Tartt, have joined him in his call to action. Together they call themselves Authors United, and they've taken out a full-page ad in Sunday's New York Times to get their message out.

Now Amazon has drafted an epistolary army of their own: Readers United. On Friday night, in a letter that likens their services to the "radical invention" of the affordable paperback book, the company called upon their loyal customers to contact Hachette CEO Michael Pitsch, noting his so-called "illegal collusion," to plead, "Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks [sic]." The announcement argues that cheap e-books are the future, and George Orwell, champion of cheap books for all, would probably have wanted it this way.

Except actually, maybe George Orwell wouldn't have. As the New York Times' Bits Blog points out, the Orwell quote The Amazon Book Team cites to make its argument—"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.'"—was actually taken woefully out of context:

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.

What's more, he would have hated Amazon and the toll they might have taken on his livelihood:

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."

And really, the only way to ensure a booming business is to write and sell better books:

"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."

There are 117 results for "George Orwell" on Amazon at the moment, and many of those titles are free on Kindle; perhaps the Books Team should start reading?

[Photo Credit: AP]