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Amazonia, by James Marcus

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It’s another insider memoir of the dot com boom and bust. Amazonia is better than most both because the author is actually a writer, and because he was employee #55 at Amazon.com.

Employee 55 was James Marcus, a free-lance writer who was hired as a Senior Editor in 1996. He was one of the first hires in the rapidly expanding editorial department that would provide content for the site — book review, blurbs, author interviews and more. He was hired for his literary capabilities and not for his technological expertise, as he recounts with trepidation the first time he “flipped the site” where all the new files and pages are uploaded at the end of the day.

A good deal of the book deals with the low-level conflict between the Editorial Department, who would have loved nothing better than extolling their favorite books, and the business side, which was of course interested in maximizing the number of books they sold, not the quality. As Marcus says in recounting his first day at work

Over the next five years I would write thousands of reviews, articles, interviews, and miscellaneous bits of copy for Amazon, and was proud to sign my name to just about all of it. Still, there’s something poignant, and telling, about the fact that I spent my first afternoon there engaged in hack work. For even as the company blew millions and millions of dollars on content — even as Jeff hired an editorial staff larger than that of most magazines, and gambled that this SWAT team of eggheads would be good for something — it was clear that art and commerce weren’t necessarily the comfiest of bedfellow. You could, like me, ignore the potential friction. You could aim your work at some ideal, book-besotted reader and let retail take care of itself. But when you were writing something for Amazon — where, incidentally, nobody ever told me to make nice to a single title — you couldn’t avoid the suspicion that your opinions were succumbing to the gravitational tug of the marketplace.

Nowadays, Amazon’s home page, if you are identified as an Amazon customer, is uniquely tailored to your past buying habits and suggestions for future purchases based on some data-mining algorithm. But in the 1990s, the home page was crafted by humans, and ultimately by Marcus, who became the Home Page editor. If you visited back then, you would see book suggestions from him and his co-workers, as well as links to editorial features written by them. In the early days, editors did even more, including customer service. And during the Christmas rush the editorial department, the techhies, and even Jeff Bezos would pull shifts down at the warehouse, helping to get the orders out.

Most of his book is a straightforward tale of how Amazon went from 55 employees to 8,000 in a little more than a year; how they crested the boom, and fell with the crash. He captures the feeling of a company that grew so fast, and then has to watch wave after wave of layoffs hit. He left Amazon in 2001, so he doesn’t cover Amazon’s recovery, although he acknowledges it in an Epilogue.

There are some organizational oddities to the book. He takes most of the coverage of his, and his co-workers, stock options and segregates it into one chapter. Although he wasn’t vested, and thus couldn’t exercize them all, at one time he had options worth some $9 million. While he doesn’t give the final amount, his take appears to be far, far less than that. He spends a little more time throughout the book talking about the fact that, while you had the paper profits from your options, you had to live on a comparatively meager salary in pricey Seattle. I think he also spent more time talking about Ralph Waldo Emerson than he does about his marriage breaking up, which he treats almost as an aside.

Many of us writers on the web have hitched ourselves to Amazon in some way, in the hopes of making some money. Blogcritics is one example, and many of us have websites that belong to the Amazon Associates program. Reading this book won’t help you make more money from it, but it does give you some appreciation for how Amazon got to the position it is in today.

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