Amazon picks on Orwell in latest ebook salvo against Hachette

WASHINGTON Sun Aug 10, 2014 9:35am IST

A box from Amazon.com is pictured on the porch of a house in Golden, Colorado July 23, 2008. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Files

A box from Amazon.com is pictured on the porch of a house in Golden, Colorado July 23, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking/Files

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The plot of the Amazon-Hachette battle over ebook prices just acquired a strange literary twist.

Amazon is asking readers to help in its running dispute with Hachette Book Group by emailing Hachette's CEO. But it may have missed the mark when it picked on English writer George Orwell to make its point.

In a message from the Amazon Books Team on a website (www.readersunited.com/) on Friday evening, Amazon.com Inc reiterated its arguments for cheaper ebooks, and suggested people email Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch. The company published Pietsch's email address and listed key points people might want to make.

In its message, also emailed to writers who publish directly on its Kindle e-readers, Amazon compared the advent of ebooks to the arrival of paperback books in the 1930s. It said many in the literary establishment and book trade were similarly suspicious about cheaper reading and the assault on hardback books. It put Orwell into the anti-paperback camp.

"If 'publishers had any sense, they would combine against them (paperbacks) and suppress them.' Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion," Amazon's message said.

However, as the New York Times pointed out on Saturday, the internet retail giant seems to have misread Orwell, who was famed for his anti-totalitarian views and unlikely to seriously advocate suppressing books.

Orwell's suggestion appears ironic - he was implying that paperbacks were doing so well that publishers not selling them were bound to be upset.

Amazon took its Orwell quote from a review of Penguin paperbacks in the New English Weekly in March 1936, in which the author said, "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."

Orwell, best known for the novels "1984" and "Animal Farm," was not completely sold on cheaper reading. He noted that paperbacks were good for readers but not good for the book trade or for writers. "In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema."

Officials at Amazon and Hachette did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Amazon says pricing ebooks at $14.99 or $19.99 is too expensive and unjustifiable in most cases. It argues that lower priced ebooks sell more and so ultimately generate more revenue, and more royalties for authors.

In its dispute, Amazon has delayed deliveries and cut discounts on some books published by Hachette, the fourth-largest U.S. book publisher, owned by France's Lagardere.

(Reporting by Frances Kerry; Editing by David Gregorio)

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