Amazon launches attack on Hachette over e-book pricing

Has Amazon launched publishing's first AstroTurf campaign?

Amazon launched a campaign Friday night to counter the 900-plus authors who have signed an open letter supporting publisher Hachette. In a dispute over terms about the wholesale and retail price of e-books, Amazon has blocked pre-orders of Hachette print books, imposed artificial delays and made it more difficult to find the publisher's books in its site's search.

More than 900 authors -- many of whom publish with other publishers -- signed an open letter to Amazon appealing for fair treatment of Hachette's books. The signatories are loosely affiliated as Authors United; the letter will appear as a print ad in Sunday's New York Times and is online at

Clearly taking its cue from that open letter, Amazon launched its own headlined "A Message From the Amazon Books Team" late Friday. In it, it reiterates its claim that "e-books can and should be less expensive." A company representative confirms that the website is an official Amazon statement.

The URL is notable, however: It's

The fact that the mammoth online retailer has launched an official statement on a website appearing to represent readers might be called Orwellian doublespeak -- particularly since Amazon's statement leans heavily -- and misleadingly -- on George Orwell himself.

Amazon begins by citing the advent of World War II and paperbacks, saying that their debut was resisted by major publishers. Amazon writes, "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."

In fact, as the New York Times has pointed out, Orwell was suggesting a joke. He was all in favor of Penguin's cheap paperbacks, and the above quote is from a review of 10 of them that appeared in the New English Weekly in 1936.

Apart from using more colorful examples (Orwell, World War II), Amazon's statement is not saying anything new. It makes the case that e-books should be $9.99 (here's our analysis of what their numbers are and aren't telling you). It contends that Hachette has placed authors in the middle of the dispute -- one Amazon representative has even told Publishers Weekly that Hachette "should stop using their authors as human shields." (The Authors United signatories disagree, saying it is Amazon that has put authors in the middle).

What Amazon has done differently is issue a call to action. It calls on its supporters to e-mail the chief executive of Hachette, Michael Pietsch, and publicly provided his e-mail address. As many grass-roots efforts do, it suggests specific talking points to use.

But, despite its grass-roots-sounding URL, is an official Amazon statement. It may be the publishing industry's first AstroTurf campaign.

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