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Book News: Petitions, Orwell And The Amazon-Hachette Fight

A quote from George Orwell escalates the dispute between online retailer Amazon and publisher Hachette.
A quote from George Orwell escalates the dispute between online retailer Amazon and publisher Hachette.

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

The dispute between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon has escalated yet again, with dueling petitions and a debate over the interpretation of a George Orwell quote. On Sunday, the group Authors United ran a full-page ad in The New York Times with a petition signed by some 900 authors accusing Amazon of "singl[ing] out a group of authors for retaliation" because the online retailer has removed preorder buttons for many Hachette titles as a negotiating tactic. In response, Amazon created a group called Readers United and urged its own supporters to email Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch (one of Amazon's suggested talking points: "We have noted your illegal collusion."). In the post about Readers United, Amazon compared reservations about e-books to the literary establishment's initial reluctance about paperbacks, writing, "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." Amazon has been roundly mocked for taking the quote out of context: In fact, Orwell said, "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." He did go on to suggest that it was "a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade," adding, "The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books." Hachette's Pietsch responded to Amazon supporters who wrote to him with an email (printed in full at Digital Book World) arguing, "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. Both Hachette and Amazon are big businesses and neither should claim a monopoly on enlightenment, but we do believe in a book industry where talent is respected and choice continues to be offered to the reading public."

Andy Thomason creates a classification of bad plagiarism excuses at The Chronicle of Higher Education, including the "It Was My Research Assistant" defense and the "How Do You Define Plagiarism?" defense.

At Electric Literature, Ursula Le Guin is interviewed by Michael Cunningham about genre and science fiction: "Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn't the same thing as superiority," she says. "Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older — essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery."

  • Notable Books Coming Out This Week: In Jess Row's novel Your Face in Mine, Kelly Thorndike is walking into a Baltimore market when he sees someone he vaguely recognizes. "I'm looking into the face of a black man," he says. "I'll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don't know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive certainty. I know this guy, I'm thinking, yet I'm sure I've never seen this face before." The man is Martin, Kelly's friend from high school – who, when Kelly knew him, was gangly, Jewish and undeniably white. Martin has undergone "racial reassignment surgery," and recruits Kelly, who works in public radio, to tell his story. The premise is headline-catching, but the subtlety and grace with which Row tells the story is even more remarkable. Before he runs into Martin, Kelly was living life as a complacent "Good White Person," the kind who knows very few black people but "mention[s], at parties, that rates of incarceration for black males are six times the national average." Drawn into Martin's world, Kelly dives into the raw, the bleeding, and the not-even-close-to-postracial state of race in America. We book reviewers are fond of calling books "brave," but Your Face in Mine is genuinely courageous.
  • Also coming out this week: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami and New Selected Poems by Les Murray.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.

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