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From Dickens to Amazon: A Brief History of Literary Feuds From Dickens to Amazon: A Brief History of Literary Feuds

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From Dickens to Amazon: A Brief History of Literary Feuds

Amazon's feud with Hachette rages on, but it isn't the first—and won't be the last—fight over the value of books.

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(Flickr/Cory Doctorow)

Amazon and publishing house Hachette have gone to war over book prices, and their feud is escalating. Amazon is holding presold Hachette titles, and Hachette is retaliating with a public appeal to readers to turn on the online giant.

At the heart of the dispute is e-book prices. Amazon wants to lower them to $9.99, while Hachette wants to keep them at a higher price. Hachette authors broke their silence on the feud last weekend, telling Amazon to stop halting sales of their books . 

 

But while the battle over pricing is among the highest profile of the Internet age, it is hardly the first time the literary world has duked it out over who profits from the written word. History is full of high-profile authors squaring off against their publishers and booksellers over who takes home the pay.

Here are some wordsmiths who've taken on publishers—and one Brit who squared off against all of America.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN

A kerfuffle over copyright ultimately paid off for J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Publisher Houghton Mifflin held publishing rights to Tolkien's trilogy in the U.S.. But in 1965, Ace books–a popular publisher of paperback science fiction–exploited a loophole in copyright law to print a paperback edition of the trilogy. This did not sit well with Mr. Tolkien, who loathed paperback, according to Kirkus Reviews.

 

The fantasy series was gaining popularity in the U.S., and Tolkien and his publishers feared losing out to Ace, which was not paying any royalties on its cheaper edition. Tolkien personally wrote notes to fans to discourage them from buying the Ace edition, telling them, "that Ace Books is a pirate, and asking them to inform others."

But he eventually revised the series and acquiesced to allow Ballantine Books to publish an authorized paperback edition in the U.S. In the back of this book was a personal message urging readers to boycott the Ace edition. The backlash against Ace was fierce and, eventually, Ace gave up and agreed to pay royalties to Tolkien and to stop printing the book.

Tolkien not only got what wanted from Ace, but the commotion helped elevate Lord of the Rings to cult status. After Tolkien reached a truce with Ace, he wrote in a letter, "I am getting such an advt. from the rumpus that I expect my 'authorized' paperback will in fact sell more copies than it would, if there had been no trouble or competition."

CHARLES DICKENS

If Charles Dickens had a penny for every American who loved him in the 19th century, he would have been a very rich man. Unfortunately for him, American publishers did not have to pay royalties to non-U.S. citizens at that time. Newspapers made fortunes selling pirated editions of Dickens's tales for pennies, but Dickens got only the glory.

 

At first, this was enough for him. When Dickens traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 1941, he said, "There never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds."

But the relationship between Dickens and America quickly soured over royalties. According to The Economist, the British author used his visit to advocate for copyright reform, and talking about money at the dinner table did not sit well with his American hosts. The press turned the public against him, presenting him as a greedy man.

After returning to Britain, Dickens practically swore off America. In one letter, he vowed to, "never from this time enter into any negotiation with any person for the transmission across the Atlantic of early proofs of anything I may write, and that I will forego all profit derivable from such a source." He published an unflattering picture of the U.S. in American Notes, and then went on to publish Martin Chuzzlewit, a satire of American manners and culture.

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But time heals most wounds—and eventually six kids and a bad marriage compelled Dickens to return to America on a speaking tour. He gave up his copyright campaign, instead cashing in on his popularity for speaking fees. He granted a Boston publisher exclusive rights to his last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and made a public plea to Americans to not buy pirated copies.

GEORGE ORWELL

And now Orwell—or at least his words—have been dragged back into today's battle between Hachette and Amazon.

Amazon enlisted Orwell to punctuate its argument against Hachette, saying the literary legend would have taken its side in the dispute. "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."

But Amazon missed the point. In 1935, Allen Lane created Penguin Books because he believed that cheap, good literature should be more widely available. For sixpence, the same price as a package of cigarettes, almost anyone could buy authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.

Publishers and booksellers were skeptical about the plan, but within 10 months, Penguin sold more than a million books. Some authors welcomed the "Paperback Revolution." George Bernard Shaw said, "'If a book is any good, the cheaper the better."

But Orwell presented a nuanced opinion on the matter. "The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them," he wrote in 1936 review of Penguin Books.

"It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way about," he added. "The Cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books."

But two years later, upon hearing that Penguin was considering publishing one of his books, Orwell told author John Common, "I hope they'll do so, because though I don't suppose there's much dough in it, it's the best possible advert."

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