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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir / internet / business


James Marcus

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To purchase Amazonia

Title: Amazonia
Author: James Marcus
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 278 pages
Availability: Amazonia - US
Amazonia - UK
Amazonia - Canada
Amazonia - India
Amazonia - Deutschland
  • Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut
  • The paperback edition includes a new Afterword, and a conversation with Henry Blodget

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Our Assessment:

A- : fun, well-written

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 2/10/2004 Catherine Taylor
The LA Times . 23/6/2004 Carmela Ciuraru
Salon . 14/7/2004 Andrew Leonard
San Francisco Chronicle . 17/6/2004 David Kipen
Sunday Telegraph . 8/8/2004 Geoffrey Owen
The Washington Post . 4/7/2004 Jonathan Yardley
Weekly Standard . 28/6/2004 Thomas Mallon

  Review Consensus:

  Nicely done

  From the Reviews:
  • "Marcus's memoir is wry, gently despairing, littered with philosophical musings and passages from Emerson, with a salient if quaint reminder that the earliest internet pioneers were once part of utopian communities." - Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

  • "(H)e's written a funny, contemplative, mildly disingenuous but mainly charming memoir of his five years inside the Amazonian jungle. (...) Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut is just too good to slam, partly because of Marcus' sensibilities as a book critic. (...) To extend the culture of metrics to Amazonia, we have here a business memoir that generates frequent smiles of recognition, occasional snorts of delight and, it seems safe to say, multiple customer referrals. If Marcus' book were any better, I'd almost be tempted to let him live." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(H)ighly entertaining" - Geoffrey Owen, Sunday Telegraph

  • "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 (...) but it is an amusing inside glimpse at what is surely one of the world's strangest businesses." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Amazonia is modest rather than manic, reticent instead of compulsively confessional. The author's troubled marriage and eventual separation are made more poignant by the sketchy discretion with which they're rendered. Afraid of losing his bearings as he rides the juggernaut of his subtitle, Marcus begins a prolonged reading of Emerson." - Thomas Mallon, Weekly Standard

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       James Marcus was Employee Number 55 at Amazon.com, hired in the early days of the online retailer, in 1996. He lasted for five years, and Amazonia is his account of what was a pretty wild ride there.
       The juggernaut that is Amazon started out as an online book store, and at his job interview Jeff Bezos told Marcus: "We'd be hiring you for your abilities as a book critic." Yes, in the early days original content and the human touch played an important role at Amazon -- and much of the fun of this book is in seeing how the company is transformed into the automated and metrics and MBA-dominated business it has become.
       Amazonia isn't meant to be a definitive history of the company. Many of the small and large changes, and things that they tried on the site (and businesses they bought) get only relatively brief mentions, and Marcus isn't that concerned with much of the business side. He focusses on what he knew and was involved in -- which, given his role in the long-dominant books section, and a long spell being responsible for the home page, provides an interesting if warped (or at least limited) picture of the company.
       Any company, especially a new and fast-growing one, will have its peculiarities; Amazon seems to have had more than most. The Christmas-rush madness, year after year, with everyone pitching in at the warehouse to get the orders out is an understandable all-hands-on-deck approach (and makes for entertaining reading, as those used to working with a keyboard try their hand at this different sort of manual labour). Other management decisions -- including the incredible secrecy surrounding the unveiling of a variety of new projects, with employees kept out of the loop for as long as possible -- are far less impressive.
       And, of course, there is also the money-factor, the fact that Amazon was a high-flying stock that made a lot of people who worked there, including Marcus, quite rich (at least on paper, at least for a while) -- and that the stock eventually crashed (though Amazon did not join the long, long list of dot.com busts). Marcus, often in quite considerable financial straits before getting hired at Amazon (and for the first few years there, before the options really kicked in), nicely conveys the uneasy feeling of such windfall wealth (which, of course, doesn't turn out to be quite as secure as hoped for). The company financing, venture capitalists, and flotation crop up in his account, but Marcus is fairly far removed from the corporate finance side -- though the occasional concern about how truly fragile this house of cards is (and the wonder at how sane people could think it worth so much) comes across.
       Marcus was an editor at Amazon, one of those responsible for the book reviews that they used to offer, and a creator of additional content, at a time when the business model was that original content could help sell books. From interviews with authors -- who, early on, had to be convinced this could possibly be worth their while -- to a writing contest for which John Updike furnished the first and last parts of a story to be filled by visitors to the site, Amazon tried to offer a different shopping experience. Of course, the expensive, labour-intensive method didn't do too well over the long-term: outsourcing -- buying reviews from the industry magazines, allowing customers to post their own reviews, etc. -- ultimately won the day.
       Amazon snowballed into a huge company -- though with a few jarring stops and reversals (downsizing came to Amazon, too) -- and Marcus does a good job of conveying the feeling of being there -- and especially of being there but not having control over very much, a niche-player who, even though he gets to decide for quite a while what appears on the first page practically every visitor who comes to the site sees, has little influence over the business decisions that shape the future of the company.
       It's all very nicely done: Marcus writes engagingly and well, and has a good story to tell. Its far from everything you want to know about Amazon, but it is still a fascinating account of working for five years at a very odd place. Recommended.

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Amazonia: Reviews: Amazon.com: James Marcus: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author and translator James Marcus worked at Amazon.com from 1996 to 2001.

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