Marketing Basics: The rule of unintended consequences


When the Kindle II was released earlier this year, it included something Amazon touted as a “read-aloud” feature. Here’s a quote from’s live-blog coverage of the release event on February 2: “Any book, blog, magazine or personal document can be read aloud,” Mr. Bezos said. “It’s very easy to go back and forth between reading and listening.”

Bezos & Co. chose to position the feature as something new and unique.

Unfortunately, publishers and authors, heard the announced feature as being something that could easily cannibalize the highly profitable “audible book” market. (I haven’t heard the Kindle II automated voice, but I feel certain it would never cannibalize a customer considering the choice between a computerized digital voice and, say, James Earl Jones reading the Bible.)

Obviously (and it should have been obvious then), Amazon should have positioned the “voice-over” service as an accessibility utility that is exactly the same type of utility that can be found on any computer, be it a Mac, Windows or Linux. In other words (the words Amazon should have used at the announcement if it wanted to bring up the feature), Amazon was providing those with vision impairments the same accessibility they have when using other technology. Let me try this again: Any e-book on a computer can be “listened to” using free accessibility utilities.

But no, Amazon blew it. They characterized the utility as “a feature” and created a backlash among publishers and authors who saw it as an assault on their high-margin audible books. So all hell broke loose with the Authors Guild. They immediately issued a statement blasting the “speaking” Kindle. And so, Amazon backed down and announced that authors and publishers could disable the feature.

And then, people who have fought hard for such accessibility tools on technology jumped into the fray. So then, the Guild’s president, humorist Roy Blount penned a New York Times op-ed trying to explain why the Guild was protesting. His piece featured his wry wit, but his argument hinged primarily on the fact he knows Andy Aaron of IBM who once told him that IBM’s text-to-speech technology could one day produce a southern accent. Again, witty, but proof Blount’s skills may be better for NPR game show repartee than serious policy debate.

And now, not only is Amazon catching it for trying to market “an accessibility utility” as a unique “feature,” but the Authors Guild is under-fire for its strong-arm tactics.

Such is the rule of unintended consequences.

And on it goes. Yesterday, a disability advocacy group called “The Reading Rights Coalition” staged a protest outside of the Authors Guild’s New York offices to protest.

And CNN “iReporters” were there to catch the action:

Things would have been so much simpler had Amazon marketers and the Authors Guild had eyes to see and ears to hear. Next lesson: How to respond to lawsuits and ADA investigations.