Amazon vs. Hachette Gets Orwellian

George Orwell Photograph by AP Photo

In recent months, the long and bitter negotiating standoff between and Hachette has seemingly managed to pull in every living author on the planet. So perhaps it’s appropriate that, as the dispute continues to drag on with no signs of a ceasefire, it is now pulling in deceased authors as well.

Everybody please welcome: George Orwell.

The dispute took a turn toward the classics over the weekend, when Authors United, a group of writers, including John Grisham, Robert Caro, and Stephen King, bought a full-page ad in the New York Times criticizing Amazon for its tactics in the fight.

Amazon quickly countered by forming a group called Readers United and publishing an open letter to readers, criticizing Hachette. For good measure, the letter dropped a George Orwell reference in an apparent attempt to demonstrate that throughout history, in the face of publishing disruptions, even the most renowned authors can sometimes adopt reactionary positions that eventually prove to be wrongheaded.

Or something.

Already, Amazon’s interpretation of Orwell has come under attack from various sources alleging that the giant retailer grossly twisted Orwell’s words. And it’s probably just a matter of time before we’re all debating what a close reading of Shakespeare, or Molière, or St. Augustine would tell us about the universal truths of e-book pricing.

Orwell aside, both Amazon and Hachette are now coping with unwelcome developments on other fronts that could legitimately hurt them in their ongoing dispute with each other.

Last week, for instance, Hachette revealed that its planned acquisition of the independent publisher Perseus had fallen apart. The timing couldn’t have been worse. By acquiring Perseus, Hachette would have broadened its portfolio beyond big, popular mass-market titles, bulked up its nonfiction and academic offerings, and, in general, increased its market share. All of which would have given Hachette significantly more leverage in its negotiations with Amazon and other retailers. Now Hachette once again looks wounded—which is not a particularly enviable posture to take when negotiating with Amazon.

At the same time, Amazon has its own troubles brewing. Over the weekend, various news reports revealed that Amazon is now blocking preorders of certain Disney movies on DVD, drawing comparisons with the dispute with Hachette. Whether the situation with Disney will grow into a similarly acrimonious battle remains to be seen. But there’s plenty of risk involved for Amazon. It’s one thing to feud in public with James Patterson. Getting into a public relations street fight with the house of Mickey Mouse, Yoda, and Captain America would seem to be significantly more hazardous.

In the meantime, readers interested in exploring for themselves what Orwell had to reveal about the economic challenges facing writers might want to reread Down and Out in Paris and London. The Kindle version of the book is currently on sale from Amazon for $7.98.

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