An insider tells what he saw at the online book-retail revolution.
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page BW02
Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut
By James Marcus. New Press. 261 pp. $24.95
Nearly a decade after it opened business in a California garage, Amazon.com seems at last to have gotten its feet on the ground. "Seems," that is, because in the world of e-commerce today's success can easily turn into tomorrow's flop, and "at last" because on more than one occasion Amazon was pronounced dead by various personages who fancy themselves authorities on matters of business. What began as an Internet bookstore has turned into Alice's Restaurant gone bonkers, where you can get just about everything you want from a hoe to a backpack to a potty seat to a -- yes! -- car, and where "your" home page is "personalized" to suit "your" very own special interests.
Never mind that when I just checked into "my" Amazon home page it didn't "recommend" a single thing in which I have the slightest interest: "Jumbo Knob Puzzle Farm," "Leo Daily Planets Horoscopes 2004 Calendar," et cetera. It remains that Amazon has changed the way Americans sell and buy consumer goods -- Americans today, the world tomorrow, as Jeff Bezos's brainchild extends its tentacles, Wal-Mart-like, into every corner of the Earth. Thanks to Amazon, people who used to buy things in the congestion of real-world stores and malls now do their shopping in the seclusion of their houses and offices, choosing from the vast cornucopia of American largesse with the mere click of a mouse.
Whether this is for good or ill doubtless is in the eye of the beholder, or the shopper. A good case can be made in either direction. My own experience with Amazon on the whole has been good -- huge selection, decent prices, fast shipping -- but people who worry about Americans bowling alone have all the more to fret over now that they're shopping alone. A nation that for decades has been on a binge of credit-card indebtedness certainly isn't going to cure itself when it can run up even more debt so painlessly it doesn't even know the money is being spent.
In its brief existence Amazon has inspired a steadily growing body of literature, or at least journalism: Robert Spector's Amazon.com, Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years, Paul Bausch's Amazon Hacks. Now James Marcus adds to the pile, with this smart, funny memoir of the five years he spent writing in-house book reviews for Amazon, and otherwise (at Amazon, "otherwise" covers a lot of ground) toiling in Bezos's vineyards. His is not a story from which any large morals can be drawn -- except, perhaps, the moral first postulated by Fats Waller: One never knows, do one? -- but it is an amusing inside glimpse at what is surely one of the world's strangest businesses.
Make that "was," not "is," because as Amazon has progressed from its unlikely origins in that Seattle garage to its present macro-eminence, it has shed much of its eccentricity and taken on the character of just another big business run by MBAs, bean counters and PR operatives. The place that had a few dozen employees when Marcus was hired in 1996 now has thousands, which means bureaucracy and everything attendant to it. Were Marcus of a sentimental or romantic turn of mind, he could have called his book Paradise Lost, though since Amazon never approximated paradise it's just as well he didn't.
But Marcus is right to say that "as the Internet becomes more and more of a mainstream phenomenon, it's easy to forget just how much utopian baggage it used to carry." The Internet has "a transcendental capacity to shrink time and distance" and "has ushered entire communities into being, and given a literal twist to the notion of kindred spirits," and it was out of such notions that Amazon was born. Bezos seems to have had imperial designs right from the beginning, but there was also an idealism, even a naiveté, to the company's origins. Bezos seems quite genuinely to have believed that he could sell books and do good at one and the same time.
Amazon certainly has changed, but even now it is "a hybrid: a bookstore, magazine and electronic agora all rolled into one." Bezos actually believed that it was possible for a bookseller to give customers fair, honest, objective opinions about books without compromising sales; indeed, he seems to have believed that in-house reviews would build business. So he established an "editorial" department the basic mission of which was to write brief notices of books in Amazon's catalogue, and he invested a significant amount of money in it. "With a staff of twenty-five editors," Marcus writes " -- bigger, in fact, than many a national magazine -- and a huge pool of freelancers, we were able to walk, talk, and even quack like a real publication."
More than that, Marcus insists that so long as the in-house editorial system existed, there was no pressure from Bezos or anyone else to soften reviews in the interest of increasing sales. For a while Marcus was put in charge of Amazon's home page (before each customer got that "personalized" home page) and was allowed to feature pretty much whatever he wanted. "I need to emphasize what a remarkably free hand I was given," he writes. "Here was a giant retail operation with a market capitalization in the billions, which was revolutionizing an entire industry. A more traditional management, with its eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, might have ruled the home page by diktat. . . . Instead, I was invited to feature whatever I liked. And there was nothing more satisfying than nudging a noncommercial title into the limelight. . . . These were hardly crass concessions to the marketplace. On the contrary, they telegraphed certain qualities that Jeff wanted to see associated with the site. They made us seem eclectic, funny, smart and discriminating, minus any hint of snobbish superiority."
Ultimately it was a business decision -- eclectic sells -- yet it ran contrary to just about everything that's taught in business school. It also, by no means incidentally, disproved the conventional business-world wisdom about books: that the publishing business is toast, that books can't survive in a technological marketplace, that only huge, assembly-line pop books can find buyers and readers. Amazon demonstrated beyond a doubt that the book market is remarkably healthy, and that the Internet makes it possible for customers to locate and purchase specialized titles that appeal to limited but highly motivated readerships. Amazon has been an almost unalloyed blessing for small publishers and university presses, which can reach potential customers on the Web in ways that conventional bookselling simply cannot offer. Amazon has plenty of faults, but it is a publisher's and a reader's dream -- a market where you can buy any book you want, where you can be informed about books you never knew existed yet are exactly what you want, where your purchases can be delivered speedily at little or no cost.
Marcus put in five years at Amazon, long enough to exercise his stock options, though by the time he quit in September 2001 the Internet bubble had burst, and his profits were modest by comparison with what they might have been a couple of years earlier. He admits to having been burned out, an understandable consequence of churning out mini-reviews by the truckload, but Amazon when he left it was a very different place from the one he had joined. The in-house reviews were being phased out in favor of the customer reviews that are designed to give customers a false sense of intimacy with the world of books, and the MBAs were taking over the place. Amazon, where Marcus for a long time had had a lot of fun and felt himself contributing to something larger than mere commerce, had turned into just another big, successful store with all the trappings of a conventional business. Doubtless that was both necessary and inevitable, but it's hard not to share Marcus's conviction that something good was lost in transition. •
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company