Amazon Goes ‘Orwellian,’ Fails Literature 101

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In case you missed it, Amazon is currently going through something of a rough patch.

The company recently started very public fights with Hachette, Disney and some of the world’s most popular novelists in an attempt to drive down prices on books and DVDs — all while warning investors that it lost $126 million in the second quarter alone and that its total 2014 losses could be close to one billion dollars.

Its latest offense, however, is a classic in the annals of corporate messaging obfuscation.

In short, the company truly earned the grossly overused label “Orwellian” for misquoting (who else but) George Orwell himself.

Last week, Amazon launched a project called “Readers United” to fight author Douglas Preston, whose effort to combat the company’s pricing pressure campaign has earned the support of bigger names like Stephen King, Scott Turow and Lemony Snicket. The company even called Preston “rich”, arguing that he and, by implication, his colleagues don’t appreciate the troubles of the struggling writer (as if Jeff Bezos somehow does).

In the letter to Kindle users that doubles as the project’s homepage, Amazon compares its bullying behavior to the advent of the paperback — a move that pushed prices down and, Amazon argues, ultimately benefited the industry. The note actually lists the email of Hachette’s CEO Michael Pietsch and encourages readers to email him in order to increase the pressure.

To make its case, Amazon quotes Orwell’s reaction to paperbacks, writing:

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.

No, he wasn’t.

As David Streitfield of The New York Times pointed out over the weekend, there’s a good reason Amazon didn’t use the full quote: Orwell was making the very opposite point.

“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…The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books…for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller, it is a disaster.”

Slightly different in context, isn’t it? Using a partial quote to rewrite history is something we would expect from a politician…or the kind of PR professional that everyone loves to hate.

Pietsch responded with his own letter, writing that Hatchette believes “in a book industry where talent is respected and choice continues to be offered to the reading public.”

So we will see how this drama plays out. But we can’t say we have a whole lot of sympathy for the world’s biggest bookseller right now.