George Orwell estate 'appalled and wryly' amused at Amazon's 'doublespeak'

'This is about 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,' Bill Hamilton, executor of the Orwell estate, said. Amazon recently wrote a letter criticizing publisher Hachette, with which it is engaged in a battle over e-book prices, and took out of context an Orwell quote about paperback books.

Toby Melville/Reuters
Laura Wood of Skoob Books poses with a copy of George Orwell's '1984' in central London.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for Amazon in its e-books pricing battle with Hachette, the latest round of which saw Amazon misquote and misinterpret George Orwell, the Orwell estate has spoken out against Amazon.

“This is about 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,” Bill Hamilton, executor of the Orwell estate, pointed out in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times.

The gaffe began last weekend when Amazon wrote a letter criticizing publisher Hachette in its months-long standoff over e-book pricing. In the letter, Amazon compared its battle over e-book pricing to the fight publisher Penguin had when it introduced cheap paperbacks in the 1930s.

Here, it quoted, or misquoted, 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'," wrote Amazon. "Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion."

Except he wasn’t.

In fact, Orwell’s full quote was: “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.” He went on to say 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 supportive of paperbacks and ambivalent about lowering book prices.

The irony was so biting, it was amusing.

“He was using irony. It’s a literary device. You sell books. What is wrong with you,” tweeted Glenn Fleishman, a technology journalist.

Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell prize, called Amazon’s misinterpretation “dystopian and shameless.”

The deepest embarrassment, of course, came when Orwell’s own estate spoke out against Amazon.

“Amazon is using George Orwell’s name in vain,” began Hamilton’s letter to the editor. “It quotes Orwell out of context as supporting a campaign to suppress paperbacks, to give specious authority to its campaign against publishers over e-book pricing; and having gotten as much capital as it can out of waving around Orwell’s name, Amazon then dismisses what was an ironic comment without engaging with Orwell’s own detailed arguments, which eloquently contradict Amazon’s.”

As he went on, he delivered a final blow to Amazon. 

“As the literary executor for the Orwell estate, I’m both appalled and wryly amused that Amazon’s tactics should come straight out of Orwell’s own nightmare dystopia, '1984.' It doesn’t say much for Amazon’s regard for truth, or its powers of literary understanding. Or perhaps Amazon just doesn’t care about the authors it is selling. If that’s the case, why should we listen to a word it says about the value of books?”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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