October 7, 2014

What is it with Amazon and George Orwell?


Somehow, Amazon always ends up twisting Orwell's words.

Somehow, Amazon always ends up twisting Orwell’s words.

Amazon has had a rough time with George Orwell in the past. Now even pro-Amazon bloggers are misquoting the author. 

It started in 2009, when the retailer deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindles of readers who had purchased them. It was an embarrassing blunder, in part because it was itself somewhat Orwellian. Some users didn’t realize that Amazon had the power or ability to access and make changes to their devices. “I never imagined that Amazon actually had the right, the authority or even the ability to delete something that I had already purchased,” one affected reader told The New York Times. All of a sudden, the Kindle looked like a telescreen.

Two months ago, Amazon tried its luck again and quoted Orwell in a statement about its ongoing dispute with the publisher Hachette. This time it wasn’t an accident. Orwell was meant to close a damning argument about the publishing industry’s historical inability to recognize what’s best for it. In the 1930s, the argument went, everyone in the publishing industry believed that the paperback book was an existential threat. Orwell was then trotted out to prove the point: “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.’” But Orwell and the publishers were wrong: paperbacks actually “rejuvenated the book industry… making it stronger.” 

Orwell and the publishers were certainly wrong about the paperback. But Amazon was dead wrong about Orwell, whom it had badly misquoted. The New York Times‘ David Streitfeld quickly recognized the blunder

 When Orwell wrote that line, he was celebrating paperbacks published by Penguin, not urging suppression or collusion. Here is what the writer actually said in The New English Weekly on March 5, 1936: “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.”

Things only got worse from there. In context, Orwell not only contradicts Amazon’s argument about paperbacks, he contradicts their entire business model, arguing that cheap books do not mean that people will buy more books or spend more money on them. “The cheaper books become,” he wrote, “the less money is spent on books.” Soon after, Orwell’s literary executor joined in, writing a letter to The New York Times that characterized Amazon as Orwellian: “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. 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.”

Amazon may have learned its lesson—it hasn’t invoked Orwell since. But its supporters apparently haven’t learned much from its mistakes. Yesterday, Barry Eisler, a pro-Amazon blogger who publishes books on an Amazon imprint, quoted Orwell in a piece attacking the reporter who first noticed that Amazon had mangled Orwell’s take on paperbacks, David Streitfeld. It was meant to be damning. Once again, Orwell was there to seal the deal:

 There’s a word for that kind of uncritical coverage. No, not journalism.

Or, as Orwell put it, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” By this definition, is there a way to conclude other than that Streitfeld has been doing Authors United’s PR work?

And once again, Orwell never said that. In fact, no one knows who did—or even if anybody did. It appears to be a variation on this quote: “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” That quote is frequently attributed to William Randolph Hearst, but it looks like he didn’t say it either. According to Quote Investigator, it first appeared in 1937 and was attributed to the anonymous “editor of a big-circulation newspaper.”

Here’s the funniest thing about Eisler’s error, though: the Orwell quote is hyperlinked. Clearly, Eisler thought he was providing attribution. But that link takes you to a Wikiquote Talk page, which are used by editors to sort out issues and verify facts. Two years ago, editors concluded that Orwell didn’t say anything about journalism and public relations. If Eisler had spent a few seconds actually reading his own link, he would have realized the same thing.

But people make mistakes. To err is human. As George Orwell famously said, “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.