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Amazon stumbles with Kindle 1984 flap

If your company is like most, you worry a lot about how you are coming across on the Internet. Most companies that weren’t born on the Web come off a bit old-fashioned sometimes, especially when it comes to things like company policies and practices. It’s especially scary when you realize that even those cool companies don’t always get it right—Amazon has one of the best integrations between these two arenas, and even they make missteps. How well do your business policies and practices translate to the online world, or how well does your online experience transfer outside of that arena?


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I’m an Amazon fangirl from way back–I started shopping with Amazon in 2000 and have loved the convenience and service. I brag often about their top notch service and customer-friendliness and how they serve as a model for a modern online business and clearly I’m not alone in my admiration. As an avid reader, I was this|close to getting myself a Kindle for my bookish adventures but decided to wait a bit and see what was done about some of the noted downsides–the lack of color (how to read Gaiman’s Sandman in black and white? Gah!) and the unclear implications of the digital ownership. Also, as an Amazon seller I often resell copies of books once I’ve read them–it made little sense to me, and less dollars, to sink money into a digital book I couldn’t resell if I chose too. Finally, the catalog is still smaller than it will be once it has had some time to mature. I figured that I’d give it some time for the technology to mature and then see whether I wanted the Kindle 6.0 when it was out.
The debacle recently of Amazon recalling 1984 confirmed my reluctance to be bleeding-edge adopter of this tech. In sum, Amazon unknowingly (one assumes) listed for sale a version of George Orwell’s 1984 that it should not have; the copy it offered was not legally available. When this was brought to Amazon’s attention, the retailer acted quickly to recall all the books and issue a credit. Without engaging the customers involved. This response was quite heavy-handed, and raises all kinds of questions about whether that capability should exist, or can be trusted. Just imagine if the control and use of such capability could be used by modern-day book-burners – a book could literally vanish overnight if it didn’t meet that group’s standards.
So while I love Amazon, I’m saddened by their clumsy handling of this (as it seems Jeff Bezos is as well). First, I would not argue that illegal media should be available–it is proper for Amazon to obey the law. Second, obeying the law doesn’t mean disrespecting your customers–instead of a heavy handed recall, without acknowledgment of any personal investment the readers may have in their text, Amazon could have instead offered a customer choice – credit or replacement of the book with a legal copy of 1984, preserving reader notes, for example. Third, this highlights the fact that online business is just offline business faster–make sure as a retailer that your methods and procedures have been appropriately translated to the online world.
In this case, Amazon had the capability to do the digital recall but they also had the capability to provide a great customer experience in response to an inappropriate sale. Why did one capability win out over another? My guess would be that there was not a conscious recognition of the need to determine how these capacities would be used to support a new product line. With great power comes great responsibility; and recognizing the capacity to push out new text versions to correct typos and misprints would have perhaps led to some earlier decisions about how to use that capacity in more ambiguous cases.
Regardless, Amazon’s stumble is a cautionary tale for all of us. How well do your business practices transfer back and forth to the online experience?

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