Reviews — From the December 2013 issue

The Mercenary Position

Can Amazon change its predatory ways?

Discussed in this essay:

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone. Little, Brown. 392 pages. $28.

“A shilling life will give you all the facts,” wrote W. H. Auden, tipping his hat to the biographer’s art while lamenting its utter inadequacy. Jeff Bezos, whose total conquest of e-commerce has made him one of the most famous people on the planet, has until now evaded any serious biographer. There have been shilling lives in the strictest sense, from the cut-and-paste job of Richard L. Brandt’s One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of to the YA hagiography of Josepha Sherman’s Jeff Bezos: King of (“From the time he was a toddler, Bezos was busy trying to change his world. He felt he was too old to sleep in a ‘baby’ crib, so he found a screwdriver and took the crib apart!”). But Bezos has tightly controlled the flow of information about himself and his company. What readers have encountered is the same small fund of recycled anecdotes, most of them focusing on his childhood (brilliant nerd, inveterate tinkerer, ardent Trekkie) and the creation myth of Amazon itself, complete with the now obligatory reference to the role played by the founder’s suburban garage.

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

Now, nearly twenty years after Bezos sold his first book online — for the record, it was Douglas Hofstadter’s appropriately brilliant and nerdy consideration of artificial intelligence Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies — a skilled, stubborn biographer has finally caught up with him. Brad Stone, a longtime technology reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek, has done some truly archaeological digging for The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. While his closed-mouth subject declined to be interviewed for the book, Bezos did allow Stone to speak with friends, family members, corporate viceroys, and former employees (members of the last group have traditionally been muzzled not only by nondisclosure agreements but also by a lasting fear of offending their ex-padrone).

At Amazon (where I worked from 1996 to 2001), there was hardly any distinction between Bezos and his creation. “In a way,” Stone writes, “the entire company is scaffolding built around his brain — an amplification machine meant to disseminate his ingenuity and drive across the greatest possible radius.” This suggests a megaphone, a lighthouse, maybe an antipersonnel mine of some sort. In any case, Stone delivers a thorough account of Amazon’s infancy, rude adolescence, and compulsively disruptive maturity — although Bezos would insist that the company is still in its early phase, what he likes to call Day One.

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is executive editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.

More from James Marcus:

Appraisal February 20, 2014, 8:00 am

Letting Go of the Beatles

A fan’s notes

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  • Damon

    I find Mr Marcus’s attitude toward consumerism both admirable and a mirror of my own.

    “If the choice is between paying an extra two dollars for a paperback and putting an entire industry to the torch, I’m willing to ante up.”

    Hear! Hear!

    However, the way he presents it, I believe he’s implying that a significant portion of the American consuming public would agree with him and behave accordingly.

    As much as I would love to believe this myself, my personal experience with friends and family–most of whom are supposedly as passionate about “sustainability” as myself–lend me to think that this is a fantasy. The vast majority of consumers would rather save $2.00–crowing loudly about that savings to all and sundry, in fact!–by buying from Amazon instead of purchasing more “sustainably”. Or at least more locally.

    This is the reality, unfortunately. Pinning one’s hopes on informed consumer behavior is no substitute to proper legislative and litigative oversight.

    • Dannyinsc

      If your are willing to pay an extra two dollars every time you buy a paperback it will not be long before you have bought nine books for the same money that would have bought you ten at a discount. Now you may not be torching an industry, but you are torching at least one author. I assume Damon, that you, like me, do not have unlimited funds to spend on books. Cheaper books means I can read more writers. I have never read a book because it came from a particular publisher or because it came from a certain bookstore. The writer is what matters. Everything between the author and the reader is just a delivery service. Cheers to anyone who can reduce those transaction costs. Remember that when paperbacks first appeared, they were denounced as a threat to the book industry for exactly the same reason – that they cut into the publishers’ and authors’ income.

      • Peter Turner

        Curious. Why do you ever buy from a bookstore, physical bookstore that is?

      • Damon

        You have to put your money where your mouth is, Dannyinsc. It’s just that simple. If you like books, then you owe it to yourself to do one of two things.

        1. Purchase from a local bookstore. Ideally not a massive chain like Barnes & Noble.

        2. Purchase directly from the author, if said author happens to be capable of distributing their work more or less directly.

        The first option maintains the very industry that Amazon is killing. And make no mistake: Amazon is quite literally squeezing out the publishing industry. I worked as a typesetter and editor for more than 9 years, and managed to get out just before my own pub house was bought up and torched by the very forces wielded by the likes of Amazon.

        If your choices are to support 9 authors and and the entire publishing industry, or to support 10 authors and the destruction of the publishing industry, the choice should be more than obvious.

        The second option is far rarer, obviously, but has the advantage of doing what you claim to care about most: support authors.

        Do whatever you like, but I strongly urge you to align your consumer habits with your values. It’s the only tool we plebeian consumers have to influence the evils of the corporate marketplace.

        • Dannyinsc

          What local bookstore? Even Books-a Million has deserted my area, and Barnes & Noble will be gone after Christmas. if there is an independent bookstore nearby I have never heard of it. Three malls, three smaller shopping centers, numerous strip malls, all along major roads in an affluent suburban community. No bookstores. No Pontiac dealers either. Or A&P’s, or Western Auto’s, Can’t find a Zenith TV at the local department store. Come to think, department stores are getting scarce too. Can’t get a room at Howard Johnson’s (the restaurant of the motor inn is still standing, now serving Indian food). Plebeian consumers killed all these evil corporations simply by changing buying habits. Now they are killing the corporations that dominated book publishing. But life and business will take new forms and maybe even civilization will survive.

  • Sanford Gray Thatcher

    As a victim of the Gazelle Project while director of a smaller university press. I can testify from personal experience that Jeff Bezos is no missionary, but rather the worst of mercenaries. Not only that, but his own actions reveal his hypocrisy, which he claims to be not cool, as he has many times had his company defeat the “tiny guys.” In principle, I will never buy anything from Amazon, so this is one customer he has not satisfied.


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