Irony Impaired: Amazon Pulls Kindle Versions of 1984, Animal Farm

Amazon entered the “Do you like the color of my blinders? I think they’re just the right shade of beige.” school of marketing with their legally justified yet hilariously ironic pulling of 1984 and Animal Farm from the Kindle (Commentary via NYT. Here’s the original NYT story). I wish I could be more surprised and outraged at this, but the Kindle is a proprietary device and uses proprietary software with Amazon’s own file format. In this case, incredible irony aside, the publishers of the Orwell works asked and they received: the inexpensive versions from a public domain supplier were pulled, since it was not yet public domain. Perhaps Amazon felt that the refunds would assuage the books suddenly disappearing from who knows how many Kindle-owners’ devices, but it was most definitely noticed.  Amazon has judged public sentiment wrongly in the past about about their business practices. For example, their reworking of book rankings to suddenly exclude all GLBT books was quickly noticed by Amazon patrons and authors, some of whom use Amazon rank to track their sales. Of course what was or wasn’t GLBT literature was defined by Amazon, which meant some odd inclusions–poetry by Mark Doty, for instance. Amazon later backtracked to the previous rankings method, and even later denied that the exclusion was done intentionally at all, first trying to palm it off as a outside hacker attack and finally calling it an unauthorized act by an employee. They must have been satisfied with that method because they are trying it again: an update to the NYT commentary notes that as of 8:41 PM 7/17/09, Amazon announced that “it would not automatically remove purchased copies of Kindle books if a similar situation arose in the future.” Of course, if Amazon customers had not cared, it’s possible the story would have played out differently.

And that is the crazy-stupid part of the current story. Amazon customers read. it could even be argued that they are more literate than any other mass consumer group. Kindle owners would count as perhaps even more literate when you consider that they paid $299 -$500 for a device that is for reading, something they could easily do without the device, albeit with more of a need for shelves and book bags. GIven this, thinking even for a small pixel-like speck of a moment that Kindle owners who had already bought the Orwell books would not make the mental connection between the books’ disappearance and the revisionist, draconic, supposedly futuristic society shown in those books was well, not that bright. Perhaps they need to up their own literacy level within their corporate ranks so that decisions like this, which may have been unavoidable, could at least have been handled differently. Something along the lines of…

…we know pulling these particular books will appear ironic in the worst possible sense, but unlike the societies represented within these books, we have choices. Because of that, we at Amazon are replacing the book you purchased with the copyrighted version, at a net loss to us, but a loss that we feel is worth it in the long run to keep our reputation and that of the Kindle as a reliable way to buy books and to read. Be assured, when you buy books for the Kindle, they are yours–just like the paper versions.

On the surface,Amazon’s decision to pull the books from the Kindle sounds like a clear choice on their part, not matter how badly executed. Their backtracking and current assertion that they won’t ever pull books from the Kindle again shows that they now know it was a bad choice. However, the result of all this will be to make the Kindle look like a less reasonable choice for book-lovers running out of shelf-space. I’ve been using the Kindle for iPhone and have been considering the Kindle DX or the next-gen if it increases PDF-functionality. Links in PDF documents don’t work on the Kindle, so that and the latest drama about 1984 and corporations that embrace revisionist history will keep me from buying a Kindle until those issues are resolved.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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