AMAZONIA by James Marcus


Five Years at the Epicenter of the Juggernaut
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Amiable memoir of’s dizzying rise and eventual earthbound return.

Marcus’s debut aptly captures his sense of riding an unforeseeable whirlwind. From 1996 to 2001, he was employed as “Senior Editor” at Amazon. He was the 55th hire, personally interviewed by founder and future billionaire Jeff Bezos, whom the author depicts as superficially easygoing but obsessed with a “Culture of Metrics”: Bezos believed that endless analysis of Amazon’s business numbers would insure its explosive growth—and, in fact, it did. Marcus found the halcyon early days at the perpetually expanding company a constant whirlwind of 60-hour weeks and eccentric, wonky co-workers, many of whom, like the author, temporarily became paper millionaires during the Boom. Marcus perceptively discusses the challenges in representing books through the ultra-mutable online medium and describes how Amazon and Bezos struggled to stay ahead of the maelstrom. (For instance, they developed a top-secret auction capability to compete with eBay.) Many such initiatives failed to deliver—online success seemingly depended on “First Mover” status—even as raconteurs like Henry Blodget hyped the company and ensured its stock would soar. As the company grew, Marcus became conscious of how few site visitors actually read his careful reviews: “We were creators, and we were clerks,” he ruefully notes. Even before the 2000 market crash, he realized the site’s drive to personalize itself to the needs of all customers would ultimately hobble his editorial vision, as data-mining programs overtook hands-on efforts. Bezos was named Time’s 1999 Person of the Year, and the company’s employee population exploded, but they couldn’t outrun the millennium: by June 2000, the stock had plunged, as erstwhile cheerleaders like Blodget ran for cover and its credit was assessed as “degrading.” After the company laid off 15 percent of the workforce in 2001, the burned-out but wistful Marcus decided it was time to go.

Rarely surprising, but amusing and intelligently written: a good exploration of how Amazon survived the crash and earned its longevity.

Pub Date: June 24th, 2004
ISBN: 1-56584-870-5
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2004


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