Even since I started this blog I’ve wanted to write about George Orwell’s essay ‘Books v. Cigarettes’, but always lacked a way in. That is, until today; and we’ll get to the reason for that in a minute. For those not familiar with the piece, Orwell wrote it in 1946 in answer to those who think books are too expensive. Totting up how much he paid for them, Orwell gives a final figure of £25 spent on books over each of the preceding 15 years. This is a figure significantly less than the £40 he estimates to have spent on alcohol and cigarettes. The essay finishes with a typical piece of Orwellian plain-speaking:
‘If our book consumption remains as low as if has been, at least let us admit that it is because reading is a less exciting pastime than going to the dogs, the pictures or the pub, and not because books, whether bought or borrowed, are too expensive.’
‘Books v. Cigarettes’ remains a timely piece of work even 70 years after being first published. It’s especially current given the debate around the pricing of ebooks, and whether they should be less expensive than their paper counterparts. The reason I returned to Orwell’s essay today was thanks to Amazon, and an email from them with the ominous title ‘Important Kindle Request’. You can read it for yourself right here (on the slightly bizarre ‘Readers United’ website).
If you don’t want to wade through it (and it is awfully long, by email standards), allow me to summarise: essentially, there is a dispute between Amazon and an American publisher, Hachette. Amazon have refused to sell Hachette books via their website because of a commercial disagreement. Amazon further believe that Hachette’s ebook prices are too high, and should be significantly lower. Their email – sent to all self-published authors who make their work available via Amazon – is an attempt to get them to email Hachette, make their feelings known, and make the publisher back down.
That’s the brief version; there’s a bunch more material online, if you’re so inclined to read it. This has been rumbling on for some weeks, and I’ve been half listening to the argument but haven’t thus far been inclined to choose sides. Why should I? Hachette, as an old-school ‘traditional’ publisher, are no doubt trying to keep their margins, and maintaining ebook prices at an artificially high level. Amazon appear keen to take out any significant competition in the book market, so they have more influence on how much books cost. I don’t believe they’re doing this out of any altruistic motives, or a desire to build ‘a healthy reading culture’, whatever their email might say.
But that’s not what really annoyed me about it. Normally, I delete emails from Amazon without reading them. They’re usually discounts for items I still can’t afford, or recommendations for books I don’t want. What made me read this email rather more carefully were the words ‘famous author George Orwell.’ Referring back to the introduction of cheap paperbacks by Penguin in the 1930s, Amazon quote him thus:
‘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.’
Later on, they take him to task:
‘It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.’
Now, the instant – the second – I read this, I was suspicious. Suppressing books doesn’t sound like the committed-anti-fascist, lived-as-a-down-and-out, fought-in-the-Spanish-Civil-War Orwell that I’m familiar with. Naturally, I wanted to check the original source of the quote – and thanks to some helpful fellow Facebookers I did just that in less than five minutes. The lines come from Orwell’s review of a batch of Penguin paperbacks, first published in the New English Weekly on 5 March 1936. You can find the whole article here (on the excellent Vintage Penguins blog); when you read it, you’ll notice that Orwell’s view of cheap books is a lot more ambivalent than Amazon would have you believe.
For a start, Orwell immediately recognises the benefits of cheap books for the reader. ‘The Penguins are splendid value for sixpence,’ he begins; later he comments ‘in my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books.‘ Doesn’t sound like someone who wants to suppress them to me – more like one of Amazon’s relentlessly upbeat cheerleaders, maybe the one who came up with the ‘Readers United’ website. The problem is, the publishing industry isn’t just about readers – and Orwell knows that where there is a benefit, there must also be a cost.
‘It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade,’ he states. ‘If books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them, because you don’t want as many as ten; your saturation-point will have been reached long before that… Hence the cheaper the books become, the less money is spent on books. This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.‘
This is Orwell getting to the very heart of Amazon’s email, some 80 years before the event. Amazon would have you believe that, with cheap ebooks, everybody wins. ‘The pie is simply bigger,’ they affirm (rather simplistically) in their email. The fact that they are using sales figures in the hundred of thousands (figures which most authors can only dream of) is problematic; nor do they say why the ebook price should be set at $9.99. Why not $5.99? As my maths teacher used to say, where is your working? If Amazon can misquote Orwell so spectacularly, what else are they hiding?
There’s clearly a lot more to the Amazon-Hachette dispute than first meets the eye. The timing of today’s email is interesting, given a number of high-profile (and traditionally published) authors have taken out an advert which will appear in the New York Times, and which calls on Amazon ‘in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.‘ There’s no doubt that this disagreement will continue to rumble on for some months to come, and the resolution (when and if it comes) will have implications for readers everywhere. But by misquoting a writer dear to many – and particularly myself – Amazon have scored a spectacular own goal, and alienated many who might have sympathised with them. Their email is a particularly Orwellian one, an adjective that is rarely used as a compliment – and certainly not by this particular reader.