English: Picture of George Orwell which appear...

George Orwell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Orwell predicted a state where technology is used to control the general populace. What he may not have foreseen is how purveyors of tech would twist his own words to control public opinion, as Amazon did over the weekend in its latest PR salvo against publisher Hachette.

“Orwellian” is already a frequently misused term when applied to oversight of the digital environment, but Amazon has managed to take that to the next level.

The online retail giant, whose roots are firmly planted in pioneering the delivery  of ebooks through its popular Kindle devices, is engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of readers with Hachette, publisher of popular authors like David Baldacci and media icon Robin Roberts.

With typically uncompromising tactics, the tech behemoth is seeking to squeeze the price of ebooks down still further and faces push back not only from Hachette, but from a group of more than 900 authors, big names and small, who see Amazon’s moves as exploiting its dominant position in their industry.

That group brought a petition to the pages of the New York Times on Sunday, encouraging readers to email Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos – who also now owns the Washington Post – to demand fair treatment of authors. Having previously pulled Hachette titles from its digital shelves in a bid to strong arm its way to agreement with little success, Amazon rolled out a more subtle argument this time, citing the positive impact that lower prices would have on encouraging readers.

In a clumsy attempt to suggest that even our most beloved authors are aligned with their industry interests, a response from Amazon quoted Orwell out of context regarding his negative sentiment at the advent of paperbacks, stating confidently “Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.” Unfortunately it failed to note that the writer was writing with tongue firmly in cheek, having in a previous sentence celebrated the move forward of Penguin’s more accessible paperbacks and suggesting that other publishers would be put on the defensive. And later in the very same essay from which Amazon pulls its supposed smoking gun, Orwell goes on to undercut the company’s assertion that cheap books are good for either the industry or readers.

Amazon’s “good for the people” argument holds little water when contrasted with its position in the marketplace. In terms of online retail, the tech giant is racing towards a dominant position that even the likes of Google and Apple will find tough to challenge, and its actions reflect a tenacious desire to kick away the creative ladders that it used to get up there. As this case develops, Amazon is also withholding pre-orders for certain new DVD titles in an attempt to win another battle, and even telling Federal regulators where to go in a disagreement over it app store purchase policy.

This is not a company with any qualms about using its juggernaut status to roll over those it disagrees with. Unfortunately for publishers and authors, this juggernaut is headed straight for them and threatening to flatten profit margins that are already wafer thin following years of price erosion. Consumers have ample options for reading access, whether physical or digital, paid or free, bookstore or library.

Meanwhile, authors have only the limited revenues from those books that they do sell, which is Amazon has its way will be driven down to a bare minimum . It can maintain these ‘loss leaders’ as it sells so many other high margin items, but writers have neither the diversity or volume to bear such a cut.

If it truly cares about a culture that cares for reading, Amazon will channel its efforts into supporting authors and encouraging them to create future classics, rather than twisting  the words of their predecessors to use against them.