Wesley MurchisonFriday,22 August 2014

The Snap:

Amazon has admitted that the standoff with Hachette isn’t ending anytime soon. The Seattle-based company has dug in its heel, going so far as to encourage customers to purchase Hachette books from competitors. The latest news has writers in Germany taking a page from American authors and writing a letter to Amazon decrying the company’s negotiation tactics.

The Download:

To the victor usually goes the spoils, but in this war of words over the price of words it’s important to make a full account about what isn’t being said as much as what has been written. Nothing illustrates this as much as Amazon’s partial quote of George Orwell.

“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.”

Amazon’s argument is that e-book prices should be cheaper than printed copies and that Hachette is afraid the inevitable supplanting of print by electronic editions will reduce their profits to the point of making their business unsustainable. They draw on a historical analogy, comparing Penguin’s mass-market paperback editions and the hardcover publishers that feared them. Amazon tried to show some tact on the subject by conceding that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” However, the Amazon erred by employing such a galvanizing icon of political literature as George Orwell.

The failure for the online retailer to notice the irony in Orwell’s words has been exhaustively covered. Over at TechCrunch, John Biggs wrote, in arguably the most Amazon-friendly piece, “Getting Orwell Wrong,” that “only a fool or a businessman would twist that quote so completely.” The more staid, impartial journalism of the New York TimesBits blog forfeits the zinger for a well-reasoned argument, concluding that Orwell’s opinion puts the author squarely on Hachette’s side of the kerfuffle.

“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,’ [Orwell] wrote. ‘Actually it is just the other way about … The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.'”

The chorus builds across the Internet with every major news outlet and various bloggers chiming in. Amazon’s response to Authors United’s New York Times ad backfired. The consensus against Amazon’s misquote reaches its apex while simultaneously getting endorsed as officially Orwellian as is possible. The literary executor of Orwell’s estate, Bill Hamilton, wrote in a response to the New York Times that Amazon “quotes Orwell out of context” and is “as close as one can get to the Ministry of Truth and its doublespeak: turning the facts inside out to get a piece of propaganda across.”

Hamilton’s criticism seems to lack brevity. His neglect to call Amazon’s tactic “Orwellian” like everyone else might be because he agrees with George Packer over at The New Yorker.

“Amazon has its own corporate lexicon, its own uses of language. Warehouses are ‘fulfillment centers,’ algorithmic recommendations are ‘personalization.’ I won’t call it Orwellian, because that poor, much-abused term should be reserved for special occasions, like North Korea. But it’s a style conducive to cheerful deception, and Orwell would have seen straight through it.”

What Amazon’s misquote and historical analogy hide is the full details of the negotiation with Hachette. In addition to the dispute over the price of e-books, Amazon is trying to raise the percentage of sales it receives per transaction.

It keeps framing the debate as one over price. In politics, what Amazon is doing is controlling the debate by framing the argument as one of common sense and going on the offensive. They’ve been successful at rallying the troops, that is, their most loyal readers and self-published authors, by using average-Joe logic: of course e-books should be cheaper than printed copies. That’s obvious.

One theory, put forward by Jake Kerr, is that Amazon is trying to make e-books so low margin as to discourage competition from the likes of Google and Apple. The problem is, however, they need to do this without taking a loss, which is why it’s in Amazon’s interest to exact 50 percent share of an e-book sale rather than the previously negotiated 30 percent. True, it’s only speculation, but a possibility that, if it comes to pass, would solidify Amazon’s hegemony in the market — a fate nowhere near the totalitarianism famously depicted in Orwell’s 1984 novel, but nonetheless frightening to many authors, publishers and, surely, some readers.

However scary this prospect is, made all the more horrifying by the hyperbolic shouts of Orwellianism, it still ignores the root problem in the price negotiation between Amazon and the big-five publishers. Amazon is right to point out their investment in technology. The Kindle reading device was a game charger. No other technology company went at the market with as much fortitude. They’ve advanced the e-book file formats and developed their own standards. Their e-ink readers are top-sellers and their first Android-based tablets were primarily focused on selling their digital content that at the time was predominately e-books. So when Amazon says that Hachette is against technology what they really mean is that the publisher is against Amazon, the company. An economic model that breeds proprietary technology, market and company as one restricts free and open competition. For that reason, Amazon is wrong. There isn’t a single syllable in history that rhymes with this battle over the production and distribution, hence control, of e-books.


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Hat Tips:

Digital Book World, New York Times, Amazon Book Team, TechCrunch, Bits Blog, Salon, The New Yorker, Jake Kerr, Image Credit: Flickr*


*converted to black and white

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