NEW YORK, N.Y. – The literary executor of George Orwell’s estate is accusing Amazon.com of committing an Orwellian crime: doublespeak.
In a letter published this week in The New York Times, Bill Hamilton criticized the online retailer for “turning the facts inside out” by alleging that the British author known for the novels “1984” and “Animal Farm” had urged publishers in the 1930s to join together and stop the rise of paperbacks.
“I’m both appalled and wryly amused that Amazon’s tactics should come straight out of Orwell’s own nightmare dystopia, ‘1984,’” Hamilton wrote.
Amazon and Hachette Book Group have been locked in a nasty standoff over terms for e-book sales, with Amazon removing pre-order buttons, reducing discounts and slowing deliveries for many Hachette releases. Amazon has defended its actions, saying that it is fighting to keep e-book prices low, ideally around $9.99 for new releases, a rate Hachette and other publishers fear is unsustainable.
In a message posted last week on its website, Amazon likened publishers’ objections to concerns about paperbacks in the 1930s. The retailer cited a 1936 Orwell essay in which he wrote of paperbacks that if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.”
Amazon stated “George Orwell was suggesting collusion,” a reference to the 2012 government lawsuit alleging that Apple and five publishers, including Hachette, had conspired to raise e-book prices. All five publishers settled out of court and a federal judge in 2013 ruled against Apple.
But Hamilton and others say that Amazon quoted Orwell out of context, and that his words were meant ironically. Orwell had been praising some new releases from Penguin, which had recently launched its now-famous line of paperbacks.
“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,” Orwell wrote.
An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday.
Orwell’s admiration of paperbacks was tempered by the kinds of misgivings — objections Amazon believes are unwarranted — that writers and publishers today have about e-books, a market dominated by the Seattle-based retailer. Orwell called it “a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade” and worried that a “flood of cheap reprints” might “cripple the lending libraries” and “check the output of new novels.”
“In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema,” he wrote.
Amazon has engaged before with the words of Orwell. In 2009, it deleted some digital editions of “1984” and “Animal Farm” from customers’ Kindles after learning that unauthorized versions were being sold. Amazon issued a statement at the time saying it was protecting intellectual property, but also promised to change its policy.