David Streitfeld’s Orwellian Shopping List, and Amazon’s Retort

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

A hot summer’s debate at The New York Times around ‘fake and illegitimate’ online book sales: Amazon asserts that in Orwell’s ‘a time of deceit,’ the truth may take more industry cooperation.

Near Los Angeles. Image – iStockphoto: Andrei Stanescu

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

The Times: ‘Straightforward Counterfeits’ and More
As Publishing Perspectives will remember, when The New York Times’ David Streitfeld wrote in June that “Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore,” resulting in what the Authors Guild said has been a surge of counterfeit books, the retailer responded at unusual length to defend itself and its intentions of consumer protection and quality assurance.

David Streitfeld

On Monday (August 19), the San Francisco-based veteran Amazon observer and journalist published a new piece in the Times, in which he recounts buying “a dozen fake and illegitimate Orwell books from Amazon.”

For book industry players and those who respect literature, the story is harrowing and illustrates how many in the books business see what Streitfeld earlier has described as “a kind of lawlessness” in how Seattle sells books.

And yet, once again, a Streitfeld piece has elicited a substantive response from Amazon, indicating at the very least that the vast tech company does not take lightly the sorts of weaknesses the reporter discerns in its work–and making a case to publishing people for a “single source of truth” on copyright status.

We’ll get to that Amazonian response shortly, and will first quickly survey some of the distressing details of what Streitfeld has reported this time.

In describing the bad editions of George Orwell books he was able to order from Amazon, Streitfeld writes that some “were printed in India, where the writer is in the public domain, and sold to me in the United States, where he [Orwell] is under copyright.

“Others were straightforward counterfeits, like the edition of his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London that was edited for high school students. The author’s estate said it did not give permission for the book, printed by Amazon’s self-publishing subsidiary. Some counterfeiters are going as far as to claim Orwell’s classics as their own property, copyrighting them with their own names.”

In cases of such illicit content, of course, rights holders are being stiffed, as Streitfeld reminds us, and the readership is being sold bogus and often badly corrupted work. “After all,” he writes, “if you need a copy of Animal Farm or 1984 for school, you’re not going to think too much about who published it. Because all editions of 1984 are the same, right? Not always, not on Amazon.”

“Today, there is no single source of truth for the copyright status of every book in every country that retailers could use to check copyright status. Retailers are dependent on rights holders.”Amazon Statement

He lists reader complaints of changed wording, sometimes “near gibberish” instead of Orwell’s magisterial prose. There’s a case, he says, in which the word faces was changed to feces, and regular occurrences of missing “chunks of pages.” Titles are changed at times, Streitfeld writes, in one  case from Animal Farm: A Fairy Story to Animals Farm: A Fair Story, and he cites another case in which the first word of Homage to Catalonia is changed to Homepage.

Indeed, a lot of what Streitfeld describes in these bogus editions is remarkable as much for how small and random the changes seem to be as anything else. In that “edited for high school” version of Down and Out in Paris and London, for example, the bowdlerized result removes “my chicken” from Charlie’s call to a young seduction victim, “Come here, my chicken.” Can it possibly have been of much concern that a modern high school student might encounter the phrase “my chicken” in this context?

None of this is acceptable. Particularly in an age in which truth itself is under a furious assault by political forces in the United States and many other parts of the world, the protection of every author’s and publisher’s work is mandatory.

And Streitfeld is correct when he writes that the arrival of the biggest seller of books in history has presented an unprecedented challenge in which counterfeiters can profit from their ability to cheat us all: “Until recently,” Streitfeld writes, “improving Orwell was not a practical business proposition.

“Then Amazon blew the doors off the heavily curated literary world. No longer was access to the marketplace determined by publishers, booksellers, or reviewers.”

While Amazon is the company that has, he’s right, made it possible for “even the most marginal books” to be “suddenly available to everyone everywhere” from the most earnest but artless authors (self-published or from the trade), it also can enable the chicanery of ruthless forgers.

Books people struggle with this perhaps more than lawn mower manufacturers or apparel makers. As Faber & Faber’s director of digital and new business Henry Volans once said during a conversation in London, “Publishing has taken the digital disruption rather hard.”

But indeed, the books world has much to defend. The actual integrity of a culture’s written word is under new forms of assault.

 Amazon: ‘Dependent on Rights Holders’

Publishing Perspectives has been provided by Amazon with a response to Monday’s Streitfeld article. At least part of this response was given to the reporter on Sunday and is mentioned in his story.

A spokesperson has this to say on the record in response to Streitfeld’s listing of the faux Orwell volumes he was able to buy from Amazon. What’s at issue in this comment is the problem of how the same book can go into the public domain at different times in different markets, according to the copyright regime of each country:

“The books in question are authentic titles provided to us by publishing houses and distributors for sale in our US store.

“However, there is an issue of differing copyright timing between countries and sometimes even different titles within the same country.

“Today, there is no single source of truth for the copyright status of every book in every country that retailers could use to check copyright status. Retailers are dependent on rights holders to tell them where they have the rights for each title and for how long. Without a single source of correct information, this is a complex issue for all retailers–a number of the books in question are for sale in the stores of several other US book retailers, from independent bookstore Web sites to large chains.

“We work with rights owners to quickly resolve questions about what publisher has what rights in each geography because only the rights holders know the disposition of the intellectual property rights to the works that they represent. We have removed these titles from our US store, and we have informed the publishers and distributors who listed them.

“We believe that a single source of truth for the copyright status of every book in every country would help all booksellers.”

What Streitfeld and Amazon together are exposing, then, may be a need for a central international registry of published works’ copyright status that can support the burgeoning book publishing industry with a reliable test of copyright status.

Would that mean that an illegitimate copy of a book could be caught every time? Probably not.

But neither can any level of vetting succeed in catching all counterfeited content. Streitfeld points out, “If Amazon vetted each title the way physical bookstores do, it would need lots more employees.” And even a good hands-on examination might miss faces changed to feces in an otherwise expertly produced copy of a book.

But what’s undeniable is that the sheer load of inventory has exploded.

In 1998, Bowker’s Books in Print—a compendium of active titles on the US market as revealed by ISBNs—cited 900,000 titles. Today. Books in Print “sees” more than 40 million titles. Put another way, there are now some 40 books for every one book you might have spotted 20 years ago.

At the same time, Streitfeld has put his finger on a problem in how Amazon at times displays its consumer reviews of books. “Amazon sometimes bundles all the reviews of a title together,” he writes, “regardless of which edition they were written for. That means an unauthorized edition of Animal Farm can have thousands of positive reviews, signaling to a customer it is a valid edition.”

In comments made on background by the company, Publishing Perspectives has determined that Amazon knows clearly the complaint Streitfeld is making but may not be convinced that exact matches of reviews to a given edition would prevent problems. There are, for example, consumers who might complain about what they consider to be poor-quality printing in a book that nevertheless is an authentic work.

“Until recently, improving Orwell was not a practical business proposition. Then Amazon blew the doors off the heavily curated literary world.”David Streitfeld, New York Times

And Amazon is correct that it’s not alone in carrying some of the precise bad Orwell editions that Streitfeld has pointed to here. Some of them can be spotted on competitors’ sites, including those of Barnes & Noble and the independent powerhouse Powell’s. Needless to say, a determined counterfeiter may find it pays well to spread his or her tawdry work to as many points of sale as possible.

Streitfeld writes that Amazon.com did remove the counterfeit editions he flagged, as well as public domain editions of books not in the US public domain.

Nevertheless, he’s not wrong when he writes, “Orwell’s reputation may be secure, but his sentences are not.”

In truth, it might help the US industry to work with Amazon in the realm of fraud detection—provided the retailer is willing—to see if there’s a way to create some official registry of actual world copyright status for booksellers to use in testing the validity of a given edition. Whatever the bookseller is seeing in metadata at this point doesn’t seem to be preventing what Streitfeld sees as potentially rampant foul play.

The Authors Guild reports good cooperation from Seattle in working on problems the guild’s member-authors run into sometimes in working with Amazon. Perhaps an organization like the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) led by Brian O’Leary could look into the development of some of the data centralization that Amazon’s developers believe could strengthen their ability to spot bad material.

Others this morning are noting that blockchain technology could have some application here if a genuinely stable and reliable form of “attribution ledger” can be created to stand as a central touchstone of ownership and information. As Publishing Perspectives readers know, this is something that Prescient Innovations CEO Roanie Levy and her team in Toronto have been working on developing.

Update: 11:38 a.m. ET August 20: To help represent the kind of response that many in the industry will have to Amazon’s stance, we’re adding here part of the comment from Michael Cader today in his edition of Publishers Lunch, published shortly after this story. Cader refers to Amazon’s arguments as “worthy of a child. Both in the statement and on further background they complain that it’s hard, that other people do it too, and that it’s somehow your (the industry’s) fault for not having a universal catalog of every right throughout the world. It all ignores the fact that this is a problem of Amazon’s own creation. Their ‘global store’ initiative that started in mid- to-late 2017–which makes the default to sell everything everywhere, unless someone actively complains about rights issues–directly aligns with the explosion of infringing book editions.”

And yet, what Streitfeld’s big articles on the subject this summer are revealing is not only that these issues are deeply serious and hard both to catch and correct, but also that the world is not headed backward in terms of the profound impact of online retail. As he noted in his earlier piece, more than half the books sold in the United States today are estimated to be going through Amazon’s channels. There’s no reason that this won’t intensify.

And Amazon is a company itself in near-continual evolution, development, and discovery of its own potential not only in retail but in the tech space. The retailer has had only a comparative blink of time to create and improve itself, compared to the proud, long history of publishing.

Bill Hamilton, agent for the Orwell estate, tells Streitfeld that a counterfeit work of Orwell turns up weekly. Do we need a better signal that publishing and retailing need to work together?

More from Publishing Perspectives on Amazon is here, and more from us on bookselling is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.