Reviews — From the December 2013 issue

The Mercenary Position

Can Amazon change its predatory ways?

( 2 of 5 )

Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born on January 12, 1964, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The surname on his birth certificate was not Bezos but Jorgensen — after his biological father, Ted, surely one of the few professional unicyclists to figure in entrepreneurial history, even as a footnote. His mother, Jacklyn Gise, had married Jorgensen while she was still in high school, but the marriage soon fell apart. In 1968, Gise married a petroleum engineer named Miguel Bezos and moved to Houston, where her new husband worked for Exxon.

From his adoptive father, who had fled Castro’s Cuba as a teenager, Bezos inherited what Stone calls “a libertarian aversion to government intrusion into the private lives and enterprises of citizens.” From his maternal grandfather, a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission official who retired early to a ranch in Cotulla, Texas, he learned to repair windmills, grade roads, and castrate bulls.

The young Bezos quoted Star Trek episodes from memory and built a succession of robots, hovercraft, and booby traps, as well as a battery-powered gizmo with rotating mirrors he called an “infinity cube.” (The last was modeled on a similar item at Radio Shack, but, Bezos bragged, his was much cheaper.)

(Bezos was valedictorian of his high school, and in 1986 he earned a degree in electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton. A few years after graduating he began working at D. E. Shaw & Co., a hedge fund whose hiring criteria, according to Stone, favored “big brains with unusual backgrounds, lofty academic credentials, and more than a touch of social cluelessness.” The firm’s founder, David Shaw, was also a computer scientist, and he treated his business as a laboratory for high-tech innovation.

Bezos was assigned to look for investment opportunities arising from the growth of the Internet — Web traffic in 1994 was expanding at an annual rate of 230,000 percent. Shaw would later help create Juno, among the earliest free email services, and FarSight Financial Services, an online stock-trading platform that he sold to Merrill Lynch. But his underling latched on to e-commerce and the idea of an “everything store” whose flagship product — the thin end of the industry-destroying wedge — would be books.

For a brief period, Bezos considered launching his online bookstore under the auspices of D. E. Shaw. But in the end, he struck out on his own, inspired in part by Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, from which Bezos distilled what he called a “regret-minimization framework” — an unusual response to Ishiguro’s soft-spoken, melancholy narrative.

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.

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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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