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Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (2004)

by James Marcus

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1686116,650 (3.3)6
"James Marcus was hired as a senior editor at Amazon.com in 1996, giving him a ringside seat for the company's explosive rise and dismal wallet-busting swoon. Now - as the e-commerce giant makes an astonishing comeback - he tells all. Unlike the recent crop of dot.com memoirs, this is no tale of a bankrupt and brokenhearted entrepreneur. Marcus came aboard as a self-described "token humanist," and his take on the new economy juggernaut is predominantly a cultural one. How did the company change as it morphed from a miniscule start-up to a global, multibillion-dollar leviathan? Was the Web breaking more promises than it kept? And finally: What could an editor do to resist being transformed into a hyperventilating shill?" "In answering these questions, Marcus takes us to meetings, job interviews, trade shows, and corporate retreats. We spend a freezing holiday season at the warehouse, and a considerably warmer afternoon at the company's summer picnic - where Bezos himself mans the dunk tank. Amazonia is a guide to America's lost world of the nineties."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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» See also 6 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
This is a really interesting account of the 5 years that James Marcus spent as employee #55 at Amazon.Com. I've worked at startups and dot coms and I can see the headquarters of Amazon.Com out my living room window so possibly, I had a bit more interest in the topic than your average reader, but I think it has broad appeal. ( )
  susandennis | Jun 5, 2020 |
The Earthly Paradise

OK, let’s first scoot the elephant out of the room by conceding James Marcus is hot.

After losing his way from the narrow path of literary humanism, Marcus elegantly describes his mid-life journey through the corporate wilds of Amazon.com. He tells his story as ‘Employee No. 55’ with self-deprecating charm and offers a fascinating look into how Amazon worked in the early days (everybody was to be on-deck during the holidays to work in the shipping warehouse, and you could feel the cold of the cement floor through your shoes.) He doesn’t discuss company secrets and when he’s got something mean to say about someone he masks their identity. James Marcus is a likable, easy-going guy. Which is going to hurt his sales.

He traces Amazon from its early days as an exciting, cash-rich place that was getting big fast and encouraged innovation, through a time of experimentation and occasional failure, the rise of the MBA bean counters, and the eventual burst of the dotcom bubble and hard times for the company. As senior editor, he ran the Books page and had access to literary figures and a team of top-flight editors that most magazines could never hope to assemble. He was successful and the site was interesting (I remember it.) Success breeds complexity, and complexity draws MBAs, which in turn often breed more complexity. Eventually, Marcus and most of the editorial team were fired or quit after their five years were up and their stock options available.

Marcus remains aloof from the business side of Amazon and is slightly disparaging of his role in hawking James Patterson; but he realizes that more people buy Harry Potter than Ovid’s Metamorphosis. He also has an entertaining meltdown when he’s passed over for promotion, and gets his comeuppance by talking the talk and proving that he is the man for the job of pushing a wide spectrum of books into American homes. And here is the really salient point of the book (other than his hotness)- people sell books to people. Almost at the end of his time at Amazon, Marcus introduced a Classics Bestseller list which had a conversion rate (people who clicked on it then bought a book) of almost 16%, a staggeringly high number. After he left, the Classics Bestseller list was taken down (no doubt it didn’t integrate with a prevailing MBA algorithm.) People sell books; Amazon’s bookbot can’t offer the unexpected surprise or the refreshing affirmation. As a customer, I love Amazon and use it frequently, even when B&N is cheaper (but not when it’s MUCH cheaper.) I wish they would have retained the editorial team as a sales driver and not reduce the site to recommendations of the bookbot (if you liked this, then you’ll love this), which trots out the same books time after time and eventually is as forgettable as a news scroll marquee. Reed Elsivier does a good job of providing bright, often reliable descriptions, but the site has lost the human touch.

Oh, and Marcus loses most of his stock money when he sells at a low.
2 vote SomeGuyInVirginia | Aug 17, 2009 |
An interesting account of the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Amazon from a small company to a huge juggernaut of a store, the triumph of accountants over the book people and the triumph of Jeff Bezos' vision of an online book marketplace that has moved away from books and diversified.

James Marcus spent five years, starting quite early in the company's story, with amazon and he details a lot of what happened from his point of view. It's interesting and you can see some of the pangs of regret as his job takes over his life and his life suffers.

I was an early adopter of amazon and remember early days of shopping there but some of what he is proud of and remembers from then really didn't filter through all that well to my level. A shame really, but then again it was an interesting thing to watch from the outside then and interesting for me to watch from the inside now, looking back. Where amazon is going to go is anyone's guess but it has certainly carved a niche for itself in the world of books. ( )
1 vote wyvernfriend | Feb 16, 2009 |
A reminder: art is not a popularity contest.

pp 226 ( )
  dvf1976 | Apr 22, 2008 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James Marcusprimary authorall editionscalculated
Blodget, HenryContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freitag, AndreasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marcus, JamesAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. —Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
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One fine spring day in 1996, I took off from Portland, Oregon, in a prop plane the size of a toy, which seemed to touch down in Seattle only minutes later.
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