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.

1984 and Polictics and the English Language. 
National Journal
Laura Ryan
Aug. 13, 2014, 7:01 a.m.

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.

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.”

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.

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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