Amazon misrepresents Orwell and takes on Disney, as the pricing war intensifies (+video)

In a statement about its dispute with publisher Hachette, Amazon cited '1984' author George Orwell – while failing to understand the author's words, critics charged. Meanwhile, Amazon appears to be entering into a dispute with Disney.

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    The logo for Amazon.com is displayed at a news conference, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011 in New York.
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Things took a strange, some may say Orwellian, turn, in the Amazon-Hachette standoff over the weekend, with a slew of new developments that have only served to intensify the impasse in the publishing world’s toughest battle of the moment.

It began Friday with the unveiling of a new group, Readers United, to counter Authors United, the group of writers started by author Douglas Preston to pressure Amazon.

Under the auspices of Readers United, Amazon published a letter attacking publisher Hachette, which included Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch’s email address and implored readers to contact him directly, with a list of suggested talking points.

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“We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices,” reads Amazon’s letter. “We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.”

The letter reiterated a series of arguments Amazon has been making recently: that, because of the absence of shipping, handling, and printing costs, “e-books can and should be less expensive.” It also argued that e-books are only 1 percent of the revenue of Hachette’s parent company, so the publisher should agree to Amazon’s demands with little financial impact.

Amazon and Hachette have been locked in a months-long battle over e-book pricing, with Amazon arguing that prices should be lowered to $9.99, while Hachette is pushing for higher prices. The duel has become public, with Amazon removing pre-order buttons and discounts from Hachette titles. The outcome of this conflict is important and will determine pricing with a series of other publishers with whom Amazon is negotiating new terms later this year.

Which is why all eyes were on Amazon and its strongly-worded letter this weekend. In its letter, Amazon compared e-books to the advent of paperback books and discussed how paperbacks were originally hated when they were introduced in the 1930s.

“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,” the Amazon team wrote in its letter.

Not quite. It turns out Amazon misrepresented Orwell.

In fact, as The New York Times quickly pointed out Saturday morning, Orwell actually said, “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." He did go on to suggest that it was "a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade," adding, "The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”

In other words, Orwell was not opposed to paperback books and was, in fact, ambivalent about lowering book prices. 

Oops. 

Not surprisingly, Amazon’s Orwellian gaffe has been roundly mocked.

“This perceived slur on the memory of one of the 20th century’s most revered truth-tellers might prove to be one of Amazon’s biggest public relations blunders since it deleted copies of '1984' from readers’ Kindles in 2009,” writes the NYT.

“Altering Orwell’s words to fit your agenda seems rather ... Orwellian,” Josh Centers, a tech writer, said in a Twitter message. 

Glenn Fleishman, a technology journalist, addressed Amazon directly via Twitter: “He was using irony. It’s a literary device. You sell books. What is wrong with you.”

Gaffe or no, Hachette CEO Pietsch responded to emails sent from Amazon supporters with a letter of his own, also released to the news media.

“This dispute started because Amazon is seeking a lot more profit and even more market share, at the expense of authors, bricks and mortar bookstores, and ourselves,” Mr. Pietsch wrote.

He went on to say that more than 80 percent of Hachette e-books were already priced at $9.99 or less and added that Amazon's “punitive actions are not necessary, nor what we would expect from a trusted business partner.” 

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the group Authors United ran a full-page ad in the New York Times with a petition signed by about 900 authors accusing Amazon of “singl[ling] out a group of authors for retaliation,” a reference to Amazon’s tactic of removing preorder buttons from many Hachette titles as a negotiating tactic.

This is unfolding as Amazon appears to be entering a similar pricing battle with yet another supplier, this time Disney.

In a clear echo of its battle with Hachette, Amazon is not accepting pre-orders of forthcoming Disney DVD and Blu-ray titles like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Maleficent.”  

The move shows that Amazon is willing to take aggressive measures across the industry – including harming its own image or short-term sales – in order to strengthen its negotiating leverage and protect its pricing preferences.

"It's rare in physical retail to have contract disputes become so public. Most retailers just aren't willing to hurt themselves by cutting off sales," Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester Research analyst, told The Wall Street Journal. "Amazon has demonstrated that they're not going to be the one to blink in these negotiations."

She added that the Hachette and Disney standoffs "should be a golden opportunity for retailers to take back market share from Amazon they have lost.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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