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, Cloud, Security, SMBs, Tech Industry


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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