Amazon goes agitprop: What they said vs. what they mean

Amazon goes agitprop: What they said vs. what they mean

Summary: Amazon and book publisher Hachette have begun a propaganda war against each other. Now, Amazon is reaching out to readers and authors. We interpret Amazon's comment and go behind the bluster.


UPDATED: Spelled Hachette wrong. Fixed.

For the past few months, Amazon has been at war with one of the largest book publishers, Hachette. Amazon is trying to force Hachette to adjust its book prices to under $10, but Hachette has thus far refused. Actually, to be fair, Amazon has been at war with publishers over pricing for years, but this is the latest battle in that prolonged war.

So, Amazon took action by delaying shipment and refusing to sell some of Hachette's books. This is big because some of our favorite authors are effectively blocked from selling their books.

The battle took a new turn this weekend to an old form of political communication. Back in the communism days of the Soviet Union, the Otdel Agitatsii i Propagandy (the USSR's department of agitation and propaganda) produced all forms of pamphlets, movies, posters, and other propaganda in an attempt to win hearts and minds. This was called agitprop. This weekend, both Amazon and Hachette went agitprop.

Hachette's authors (presumably with the coordination of Hachette) took out an ad in the New York Times, calling for Amazon to yield. You can read the piece by the Hachette authors at

Amazon sent a letter out as well. A version of it is at the creatively named and is addressed as "Dear Readers." I was emailed a copy that was addressed as "Dear KDP author" because I have a Kindle book available on Amazon. Both letters are identical.

Below, I've reprinted the Amazon letter and then interpreted it for our audience by helpfully providing CliffsNotes (or, I guess, DavesNotes), so you can really get inside Jeff Bezos' head and know what the Amazon folks really mean.

Let's get started, Comrades.

What they said: Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

What they mean: Ebooks are here to stay. Readers love Kindle books. This kind of disruption isn't new, so you darned well better get used to it. Plus, by mentioning World War II, maybe you'll think it's patriotic to buy ebooks.

What they said: With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons.

What they meant: Those darned greedy, elitist publishers.

What they said: They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution — places like newsstands and drugstores.

What they meant: Yes, ebooks are killing bookstores today, but since bookstores have been in cahoots with elitist greedy publishers forever, they deserve whatever happens to them. Pay no attention to the fact that Amazon has been putting bookstores out of business since the 1990s.

What they said: 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.

What they meant: Ignore the fact that the LA Times says Orwell was joking. Think Orwell. Think Orwellian. Think thought police. Those publishers are telling you what you can think. Big publishers. Big Brother.

What they said: Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

What they meant: We don't understand this line either, but Bezos made us put it in. You know he owns the Washington Post, right? Well, that's probably why those Authors United folks bought an ad in the New York Times and not the Washington Post.

What they said: Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment.

What they meant: Elitist publishers and elitist authors hate ebooks. Yep, they hate them. Ignore the fact that they just want to set their own market prices, in reality, these publishers are Luddites. They're fighting against the future, itself.

What they said: Amazon and Hachette — a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books.

What they meant: Hachette is the big company who hates ebooks and the future. Ignore the fact that Amazon made something like $74 billion last year. We're waaaay bigger than Hachette, but we want you to think of them as the evil big business.

Vhat? You think this is all they said? Turn to next page, Comrade. Turn to next page.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at

Topics: Amazon, Censorship, Cloud, Tech Industry, SMBs


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Who do Amazon think they are?

    Amazon are just a distribution channel - they don't get to decide what is sold in the market and how much they can buy it off the owners for.

    The publishers of the actual material decide what distribution channels they will use and how much they charge.

    If Amazon don't like it, they can bugger off, I used their Kindle reader ONCE, and would never buy another book in their proprietary format anyway (actually it remind me of when apple, microsoft and the music studios decided they were going to put DRM on all the music that was sold, and we saw how that ended up.

    Just give it to me in a PDF that I can buy off anyone on ebay, and let the market work out what the price should be!
    • They are a for-profit company.

      No one invests in or runs a company to NOT make money.

      If you have any retirement (IRA, 401K), your money IS invested on companies like Amazon and your investment/retirement grows when companies are successful and grow.

      It's a business and business in this country DO buy based on volume based discounts.

      Amazon IS trying to get the product to market at a lower price to YOU the consumer.
      • Maybe More Money

        Have you ever tried to buy a used e-book? I am referring to legal ones and not counterfeits. While possible in some cases it is difficult. Used book stores and book selves in the companies break room really undercut an authors profits. Even libraries under cut profits., With e-books being cheaper and easier people will just tend to buy there own. In the long run it may actually increase author profits.

        You still need publishers but they may be redefined. Many of the self published books really need to go threw an editor. Not just a program but a live person. The quality of many direct published e-books is terrible. I am not referring to content as much as presentation. I see publishers becoming something like a quality certification. Kind of like the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval". When you see there name they will show a certain level of quality. In the case of non-fiction they will also provide a level of trust in the facts. Different publishers will get a reputation as to the level of quality they represent. Some may even get a reputation of trash.
    • Spot on, techrepublic

      I'm a huge Amazon and Kindle (for PC) fan, prefer e-books over all other formats, because I want to SEARCH through the book. Can't do that easily enough, with a paper book, whether paperback or hardback. PDF would be preferred. Let the market determine the price, not Amazon. Frankly, given Amazon's structure, they make more if the books cost more, and pdf is how such books should be marketed.

      Or maybe that's why Amazon is getting into this? They don't want pdf to be the format? Don't they realize, that by hatcheting Hatchette, they drive down their own goodwill, and raise the spectre of pdf publishing?

      I'd go for pdf over e-book in a nanosecond, and would be happy to pay more, for it.
  • Strawman

    That's a list of strawman arguments.
    Buster Friendly
    • Well put.

      I had to look this term up, but it totally fits.
  • One issue...

    > Back in the day, distributors used to return unsold books to publishers, but tore off the covers so they couldn't be resold elsewhere. This destroyed publisher inventory. It was destructive, mean spirited, and made it difficult for publishers to repurpose their goods.

    One of the major reasons that bookstores 'strip' their unsold paperbacks is so they can't be resold. Distributors don't sell "on account;" all books are paid for up front. Those books can't be returned to the distributor or publisher, so they are effectively destroyed.
  • Methinks he doth protest too much

    Really, that was a lot of words attempting to dismiss an argument without having to resort to facts.

    Please address this item:
    Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution.

    That would imply that consumers are being harmed and forced to pay higher prices.

    Also, the fact that the recurring costs for "publishing" an e-book are near zero and that there's no resale market for them should be major points for setting the price of them.

    So, Amazon sets out some salient points and you attempt to dismiss them with snark and the rather ironic label of "agitprop".
    Robert Crocker
    • DOJ blindness

      I think the DOJ went after the wrong party.

      DOJ passed the monopolist right by when they went after the publishers and Apple.

      Amazon's presence in the market has always been to decrease the number of players and workers in the market. If they could nuke the entire industry to their own benefit they'd do so, even if their activities killed the guild-like system which developed nascent authors.

      Amazon is not a builder - they're strip-miners.

      Just ask anyone who owned ebooks from Mobipocket how they read their DRMed books now - Amazon killed the iDevice Mobipocket reader because the superior sales of iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads would've made their Kindle look marginal.
      • Strip-miners...

        Agree totally. There's much they've destroyed to cater to those (us) who just want to save a buck. Can't wait for the next disruptive thing to upset Amazon.
        Too-Tired Techie
        • LOL

          who in their right mind, actually makes a daily choice to pay more for products?

          For those of us who work hard for every dollar we EARN, we have total control of how we CHOOSE to spend our money.

          You may be ok paying higher prices for products, but I like to keep what I earned. I have no problem spending my money

          Your logic goes against common sense and the tradition of spending money wisely.

          Now if your the government or like the government, who is spending other peoples money, well sure, I fully understand the idea of throwing common sense out the window and overpaying for things.

          Currently the US is 17.5 Trillion in debt. At some point our self increasing credit limit will cease to stretch.
  • You know, authors are paid royalties

    off the selling price of books. So, I guess the lesson here is that idealists will shout all day about how artists should be compensated fairly for their work. Until they have to actually open up their wallets to do it.
    • The royalties authors get are miniscule

      maybe close to 5 percent of the selling price. The vast majority of the selling price is consumed by the bookstore, the distributing company, and the many departments of the publisher (printing, editing, legal, etc.). I believe authors should get a 95% royalty on e-book sales; a $3.00 e-book would probably give them more than a $30.00 hardback.
      • Royalties for ebooks are 70%

        for many titles. You can thank Apple for that.
        • But only to the publisher...

          @baggy, those are royalties back to the entity Apple (or Amazon) has a contract with. If it's a publisher, then they go back to the publisher and then a very small chunk of that is sliced off for the author. This is why many authors are considering self-publishing for ebooks. They get a vastly larger percentage share, although they lose the promotional value sometimes (but not always) provided by a name publisher.
          David Gewirtz
      • Author royalties

        On print books are normally based on wholesale price, not retail. So a book selling for $30 might have a wholesale price of $15-20, so at best, the author gets $1.00. Unless you are a Stephen King or Tom Clancy-type author, that's not going to make you much. The average novel published by a major house will sell around 10,000 copies. I can tell you that writing a novel will use much more than $10,000 worth of time, blood, sweat, tears, and coffee.

        Authors need to get a minimum of 20% on print, and 40% on e-books. Also, e-book pricing does need to drop. I've seen many major novels where the e-book is HIGHER than the paperback. That is outrageous. Shipping, packaging, and print costs alone are nearly 1/3 of a book's retail price. Consider that the publisher can sell directly to a retailer with no other distribution channel than ONE MASTER FILE, and e-books are crazy cheap.
        Iman Oldgeek
  • I didn't realize this was a fictional propaganga story

    Talk about garbage and a childish/irresponsible attempt on the "Writers" attempt to demonize Amazon with the use of communist inference.

    This is NOT an objectively written piece. Farthest from it. It smells more like like an Obama campaign/marketing speech IMO.

    There ARE other options than buying from Amazon if one so chooses. Since Amazon has huge purchasing power, then they should have the opportunity to negotiate for volume based discounts.

    We live in a capitalist society and Amazon is a capitalist run business.

    IMO, Demonizing a business is from the playbook of an irresponsible adult-child that can't debate with a calm/rational demeanor or with just the FACTS.
  • Pretty disgusted with this opinion piece

    It's a sad day for ZDnet and a lowering of their credibility. At least with me.

    I will still visit the site, but will also continue express my opinion and hope others continue to do so as well.

    As a free nation, everyone should be free to express their opinions and allow others to do the same.
  • I got the same message from Amazon

    I have a KDP account, and have received the same email message from Amazon. I'm not published yet, but ultimately I want to be. This whole affair strikes me as something that does more damage to the authors who produce the products sold by publishers and distributors, than to those companies themselves. Given this, and given that authors have come down on both sides of the issue, what is to be done?

    I like David's solution - let Amazon sell Hatchette books, and let the market have its necessary effect on the prices. If price elasticity is real, the prices should go down - if they're too high. If buyers figure that the prices are justified, then the prices may well remain constant. Do this, and the producers - the authors - are able to continue to write and produce what is at issue here, books. At the moment, all I see is a mess.
    • Not that I disagree ..... I do disagree

      Basing this on a very very small sample ..... maybe ;)

      I buy ebooks - lots of them ...BUT!!! I shop by price. I'll wait for a sale instead of buying outright. Most consumers however, do not (knew that marketing class was good for something?). If they see the hardcover cost is generally the same as the ebook cost, knowing they want their reading gratification now, not later, will knuckle under, feeling powerless in establishing cost unless they punish themselves via denying the "gotta have now" syndrome, will buy it no matter.

      So, allowing the sale of Hachette's books while this dispute continues to establish the price is not really a benefit today, and could be utilized to set the precedent for tomorrow.

      Those of us who do care about cost at the expense of personal gratification, agree with the tactic Amazon is employing. For the most / some part.

      chuckle ;D