Saturday, August 9, 2014

A surprising number of writers fail to see that Amazon's Readers United used an Orwell quote correctly, or More evidence irony is dead

I got the infamous Amazon/Kindle Direct Publishing/Readers United letter, read it, and shrugged. My position hasn't changed since I wrote that the butcher and the meat market are fighting, and they both say they're doing it for the cows.

But an astonishing number of people are claiming Amazon misquoted Orwell. (I noticed this at io9's A New Chapter In The Amazon/Hachette Battle, then saw many more examples when I googled in search of Orwell's full quote, including posts at the New York TimesTechcrunch, and Gawker.)

You can read the full letter at An Important Kindle request, if you wish. Here's the relevant bit:
With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution — places like newsstands and drugstores. 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.
Here's the full version of the Orwell quote: “The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them."

Orwell was exercising his sense of humor by saying that if publishers had any sense, they would do exactly what publishers are trying to do in the ongoing fight with Amazon. Hachette and the other big publishers are showing that they now have the "sense" to "combine against" Amazon's demand for cheap ebooks "and suppress them." Publishers want to be able to price books as expensively as they please. The textbook market is a fine example of what happens when publishers have a captive audience: university texts can cost as much as $300.

While I'm sure there are other sensible comments out there about the Orwell quote (or at least, I pray there are), the only one I've noticed was John E. O. Stevens' comment at Amazon Gets Increasingly Nervous | Whatever:
Re: the Orwell quotation. That is taken from a review of Pengiun reprints in 1936. Orwell also says that “In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema.” He was torn about a market of cheap reprints rising up. Contrary to the way that Amazon contextualizes his remark, Orwell wasn’t talking about something utterly new; cheap books had been around for awhile. He was referencing a particular use of the book type. Orwell’s comment reflects the bookselling economy of his time; he was worried about writers getting paid even as he said that the Penguin books were “splendid value for sixpence.” Orwell thought this trend “would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade.” He’s really ambivalent, not some snarling enemy of inexpensive books. Amazon did Orwell a disservice by using that quotation the way they did.
I think there's less ambivalence in that than John does. Orwell was a socialist living in a capitalist society. He would look at the current fight and know exactly why well-paid authors who are dependent on big publishers are throwing fits in the service of the people who send them checks twice a year.