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    Amazon engages in war of words

    NEW YORK — Amazon must be spooked by the idea of writers massing against it, because over the weekend it launched its own counterrevolutionary force.

    The retailer created a group called Readers United to pressure Hachette, the nation’s fourth-biggest book publisher. It is a direct response to Authors United, created by the novelist Douglas Preston to pressure Amazon to stop withholding books from sale as it negotiates with publishers over e-book prices.

    The confrontation is, some people in publishing argue, a struggle over the future of reading in our time — or at least the future of Amazon and the big New York publishers, starting with Hachette.


    Authors United ran an advertisement in The New York Times on Sunday, supplying readers with the e-mail address of Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos. Amazon’s plan for action mimicked Preston’s. In a Web posting and a letter sent out to its Kindle authors, Amazon asked people to write to Hachette’s chief executive, Michael Pietsch, and provided an e-mail address.

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    Just to make sure the letter writers stayed on message, Amazon offered a list of talking points. The first one, alluding to the 2012 Justice Department antitrust suit against Hachette, was, “We have noted your illegal collusion,” always an icebreaker in these circumstances.

    Amazon then repeated its argument that e-books should be less expensive, and charged those who think otherwise with trying to thwart history. And it provided a list of recommended reading, most of which was written by people published by Amazon.

    Hachette declined to say how many e-mails Pietsch was receiving, but said he would be replying to all of them with a letter of his own. The letter, which was released to the news media, said more than 80 percent of the publisher’s e-books were $9.99 or less.

    “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,” Pietsch wrote.


    Amazon declined to say how many e-mails Bezos was receiving. Writers who wrote him said they received no immediate reply.

    The freshest part of Amazon’s call to arms was the history lesson. It recounted how the book industry hated mass-market paperbacks when they were introduced in the 1930s, and said they would ruin the business when they really rejuvenated it.

    Unfortunately, to clinch its argument, it cited the wrong authority:

    “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.”

    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.


    A moment’s Web searching would have revealed to the Amazon Books Team, which is credited as the source of the Hachette post, that it was wildly misrepresenting this “famous author.”

    When Orwell wrote that line, he was celebrating paperbacks published by Penguin, not urging suppression or collusion.

    Amazon’s post gave Orwell a big weekend on the Internet. “Altering Orwell’s words to fit your agenda seems rather . . . Orwellian,” Josh Centers, a tech writer, said in a Twitter message.