In dismissing Amazon’s Orwell quotation, Laura Miller misinterprets Orwell herself

There she goes again.

Salon’s Laura Miller has penned the latest in a series of tirades against Amazon, this one summing up the squabble thus far and taking issue with Amazon’s quotation of Orwell’s discussion of paperbacks in its “Readers United” letter explaining that lower prices were good for everyone.

We’ve already discussed Miller’s biases in some of the links above, but the most interesting thing has to do with her understanding (or lack thereof) of the Orwell quotation. Miller writes:

To top it all off this month, the retailer posted an open letter at the url for something called Readers United. Bitingly sarcastic, the letter indicted the “literary establishment” for resisting Amazon’s efforts to set e-book prices at $9.99, invoking George Orwell as one such defender of the establishment, noting that in a 1936 article Orwell called on publishers to “suppress paperback books.” Oh, Goofus! The Orwell quote Amazon used was promptly revealed to have been taken out of context, and on top of that reminded many observers of an earlier scandal in which Kindle owners who’d bought Orwell’s “1984″ had their copies erased from their devices. Contrary to Amazon’s assertion, Orwell was in fact endorsing paperbacks. His literary executor sent a letter to the New York Times likening Amazon’s letter to the “doublespeak” employed by the totalitarian Ministry of Truth in “1984.”

It wasn’t Orwell but Mark Twain who said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” but it’s a quotation that would be remarkably appropriate in this case. There’s also an element of G.K. Chesterton, who once explained that people are more likely to believe something if it goes against conventional wisdom, even if the conventional wisdom is correct.

You see, if you read the whole quotation (which Miller apparently didn’t), you’d see that Orwell was absolutely dead-set against the new, cheap paperback books that were making as big a splash in his day as e-books are in ours. He thought that the availability of cheap books was going to destroy the publishing industry as people spent less money on books. (Does this sound at all familiar?) Oddly enough, we still do have a publishing industry all these decades later, even though publishers are now just as sure cheap e-books will destroy it as Orwell was then about paperbacks.

But all these people looking for any excuse to bash Amazon are happily grasping at the same sort of straw as those who insist Shakespeare’s “kill all the lawyers” was actually meant as an endorsement of lawyers because it was a villain who wanted to do it. (Spoiler: It wasn’t.) If someone says Orwell actually loved paperbacks, they’ll take their word for it without bothering to do the research themselves.

And it’s also worth remembering that Miller was herself published by Hachette, a fact she didn’t feel was worth mentioning until people complained about it in the comments. The fact that her further reading list only includes commentators who agree with her is just the icing on the cake.

I can’t help thinking Orwell would probably be amused at this turn of events. It shows just how easy it is to mangle someone’s words to make them say whatever you want…and that people, even powerful, well-read journalists, would rather believe what they want to believe than actually bother to do the research.

About Chris Meadows (4151 Articles)
TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.

12 Comments on In dismissing Amazon’s Orwell quotation, Laura Miller misinterprets Orwell herself

  1. Timothy Wilhoit // August 26, 2014 at 9:50 pm //

    “His literary executor sent a letter to the New York Times likening Amazon’s letter to the ‘doublespeak’ employed by the totalitarian Ministry of Truth in ‘1984.’”

    Interestingly enough, the word “doublespeak” is never used in 1984. The word was contrived as a combination of “Newspeak” and “doublethink.” George Orwell condemns cheap paperbacks in his essay. To say otherwise is doublethink.

  2. Perhaps Teleread needs to consider a name change. It’s becoming so partisan in this dispute that “AmazonRead” might be more apt. And I might add that, if Orwell was against cheap books–or more likely the cheapening effect of cheap books–he was against Amazon.

    Amazon’s other tactics aside, I can’t understand why a site devoted to ebook publishing defends the Scrooge of ebook retailing. It makes no sense.

    Amazon that pays the lowest authors royalties in the industry. They’re half what Apple pays outside the $2.99-9.99 range and, taking into account that inflated download fee, about 10% less inside that range. Don’t those at Teleread get ticked off that Amazon wants to tell them what price they should price their ebook? I guess not.

    Imagine a Dickens novel in which the orphans actually like those who feed them on gruel. “Please sir, not so much, I can survive on just half a bowl.” That’s Amazon.

  3. Orwell was against cheap books because he believed they would destroy the publishing industry and he was wrong.

    So if Orwell would have been against Amazon, he would have been wrong to be.

    Publishers today are against cheap books because they believe they will destroy the publishing industry…

    Doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out that, like Orwell, they’re probably also wrong.

  4. That’s a great leap of logic, Chris. It does not follow that because Orwell was wrong about the publishing industry he would have been wrong to be against Amazon. There are many reasons to be “against” Amazon; pricing of ebooks is but the symbol chosen to represent all of the reasons.

    @Michael Perry: Good point. Unfortunately, TeleRead has become a shill for Amazon and is very quick to question the integrity of anyone who doesn’t kowtow to the Amazon line. To my way of thinking, which TeleRead would definitely consider flawed, price is not the only issue. But on TeleRead, price is all that matters.

  5. “It does not follow that because Orwell was wrong about the publishing industry he would have been wrong to be against Amazon.”

    You’re being either willfully obtuse or you don’t understand the argument. Chris is talking about, and responding to, the *particular* fact that Amazon’s email was being bashed by Miller for failing to understand the Orwell quote, when in fact, the quote was used entirely correctly. By extension, Orwell would also be wrong if one were to apply the argument to ereaders and today’s publishing industry–which is the point.

    Yes, someone somewhere could have valid reasons for disliking Amazon, but those someones would be better served by using the arguments that apply to their actual position and not misappropriating those that don’t.

  6. The Orwell quote is, at best, a faulty comparison – whether he was actually for or against paperback books. Its use adds an artificial gravitas, a short cut for people who want to agree or disagree without thinking through the actual issues. It’s a slight of hand in a magic show – misdirection, smoke and mirrors – to beguile readers.

    Amazon claims books sell more copies when prices are lower. This might be true, I don’t know, but does it result in readers spending more money on books in total? Or does it just give Amazon a bigger piece of the revenue pie or more control over customers?

    For me, I like books – or anything – to cost less but will the cheaper prices help produce more books I want to buy and read? I’m not going to be happy reading the literary equivalent to Two Buck Chuck in wine.

  7. @Greg M. “…but does it result in readers spending more money on books in total? Or does it just give Amazon a bigger piece of the revenue pie or more control over customers?”

    Their data maintains that, at lower prices, more books are sold, resulting in greater revenues for Amazon, the publisher, and the author. By definition, readers will spend more money, as they understand that they are getting more value for their dollar.

    Amazon has also suggested that the split between the three parties should be Amazon 30%, Publisher 35%, Author 35% (note that Publishers disagree and give their writers 17.5%), so their “piece of the revenue pie” is no greater or lesser than it was before. Price is an absolute number, revenue in this case is a percentage.

    “I’m not going to be happy reading the literary equivalent to Two Buck Chuck in wine.”
    It’s a fallacy that cheaper prices will lead to the End of Art as we know it. If you’ve been following so far, then cheaper prices mean more sales which equals more revenue for authors…how do you figure your favorite writers will walk away from that? The only way that might happen is if the Hachettes of the world refuse to pass on some of that revenue to their authors…kind of like they do now.

  8. I’d just like to note that Two Buck Chuck (which actually costs three bucks, at least around here) really isn’t that bad. Yeah, maybe it’s not got all the high-end flavor notes of wine that costs $50 a bottle, but it’s not vinegar or rat poison (or even MD 20/20) either. It quenches the thirst, it carries alcohol, and it doesn’t taste terrible; what more would the average person who’s not a wine snob want?

    (There’s actually a pretty decent comparison to self-published books there if you look for it. Snooty literature connoisseurs like to look down on them as the Internet’s slushpile, cheap but you get what you pay for—but lots of other people seem to be quite happy buying and reading them.)

    Of course, I’m more of a beer person than a wine person, and I quite enjoy those big cheap “Boatswain” store-brand beers Trader Joe’s sells, when I can get up there to snag some of them. But they’re not as well-known (or alliterative) as Two-Buck Chuck.

  9. I’m more of a beer person myself: I almost used Pabst Blue Ribbon as the analogy, but like way Two Buck Chuck rolls on a tongue. And you don’t have to be a beer snob to shun Pabst.

    As to Matthew’s comment that cheap prices don’t always mean poor quality, well, maybe so now and then, but on average (at least by my sampling) the lower priced books tend towards less polished and refined writing. But, yeah, some people like the cheap books just as Pabst Blue Ribbon was popular among the poor college students who just wanted beer – any beer – to drink while partying.

    Whether it’s Two Buck Chuck, Pabst, or cheap books – there is a limit to how much a person can consume. And once full, the buying stops. Using myself as an example, I read 100 books per year. If all books cost $12.99 I would have a yearly expense of about $1,300. If books cost less, I could buy more, but not read more:

    At $9.99 I could get 130 books = 30 unread
    At $7.99 I could get 162 books = 63 unread
    At $4.99 I could get 260 books = 160 unread
    At $2.99 I could get 434 books = 334 unread

    It seems clear to me that I would spend less if the costs of books dropped too low. There is no way I’d buy 434 books per year every year. So what is the sweet price point that would increase my spending? I don’t know. To be fair, not every book I buy cost $12.99, so the numbers may not be “true” to life. But it does make me question if the costs less per book would pan out to spend more.

  10. @ Greg M.

    As always with numbers, they can played with.

    You have your average price set at 12.99, what if books went up to 14.99 and your yearly budget was still $1300? You could only buy 86 books instead of 100. You would miss out on reading 14 books. Would that be killing literature when people cannot access books? Is this not what the big5 did it collusion with Apple?

    At an extreme example if I only read one book a year. I don’t think that I would pay $1300 for it.

    It is not just about you and your statistics.

    The data out there is that if books are cheaper, people actually spend MORE on books overall. Revenue is bigger for the book industry, which means authors get more overall or there are more people writing, which is what I get from reading other websites out there. More and more writers can now live off their writing passion.

  11. Now, what Amazon has said and many people out there seem to prefer to ignore is that books compete against all sorts of entertainment.

    If I have a annual budget of $2000 to read books, play games, watch movies, listen to music, etc, then that one Monday night when it is cold and wet, do I get a video rental or a book? Do I spend my money on that $15.99 book, the $12.99 book, the $9.99 book or the video rental for $6.99? It has to entertain me and I still have to look after the budget for the family.

    New releases by a famous authors for $15.99 are just way out of many people’s budget. The book industry misses out on a sale and those monies go to another industry.

    This is what many people forget to take into account. Amazon does have all the data on what is bought by their customers and how much they spend. All the rest are just guesses and unfounded assumptions.

    I don’t even know why people are getting so worked up over what Orwell said and what he meant. It was a different era with different lifestyles and purchasing options.

  12. @Hayden

    Amazon and Hachette and Hugh Howey all play with numbers. Every one plays the numbers to best suit their needs. It’s hard for me to say who’s right or wrong.

    I like buying ebooks from Amazon: it’s better than Apple or Kobo, based on my experience. While I would like books to cost less, the price is rarely a deal breaker, and I have to realistic, and understand that everyone – reseller, publisher, and author – all need a piece of the pie if I want to enjoy books. The low price higher sales volume tactic might work now and then for the Two Buck Chuck crew, but I remain doubtful of its sustainability elsewhere. Amazon does thrive on low margins high volume sales, but books – per title – exist mostly on low volume per title and author.

    Should prices be as high as Hachette allegedly wants? Probably not. Can publishers survive with most ebooks capped at $9.99? That I don’t know – but they seem to be fighting very hard to avoid it. Is there a good common ground? I suppose common ground is a passé concept in modern business.

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