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Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut [Paperback]

James Marcus
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 1 2005
The entertaining story of the first five years of, recounted by employee number 55.

"Americans with an eye cocked toward the markets were asked to believe that Amazon, a two-year-old bookseller, was worth more than the combined values of Sears and US Steel."—from Amazonia

James Marcus was hired as a senior editor at 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 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. Why, he asks, did Jeff Bezos's brainchild become the key symbol of Internet euphoria? 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 work of rare wit and razor-sharp observation, and a superlative guide to America's lost world of the nineties.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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From Publishers Weekly

With firmly established as one of the leaders in e-commerce, it is easy to forget the company's early roots as a struggling online bookstore. Marcus, who was employee 55 and one of Amazon's first editors, provides a captivating, witty account of how the fledgling e-retailer transformed itself from a startup that generated $16 million in sales in 1996 to a behemoth with revenue of $5.3 billion in 2003. The early days of Amazon, Marcus recounts, were full of a do-it-yourself attitude, with everyone at the company encouraged to try different ways to drive customers to the site. In Marcus's case, it was writing and assigning reviews, the content designed to make people decide what to buy. But although Amazon founder Jeff Bezos began as a firm believer in the power of content, his philosophy gradually changed to what Marcus calls the "culture of metrics," in which everything connected to the site could be measured. And as Amazon added more and more products, the importance of content slipped away. It's clear Marcus's most satisfying time at Amazon was in the early years, even if that meant picking and packing books during the holiday rush. There is even a bit of nostalgia in his tone, which people in the book industry can especially appreciate: once upon a time there was a company whose employees scrambled to sell books over this new thing called the Internet. Today the company has become a software and retailing machine dedicated to selling as many widgets as efficiently as possible.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Marcus, an accomplished writer of magazine articles and five books, was hired in 1996 as a senior editor at, which was just being recognized as the first Internet bookstore. The company hadn't even gone public yet, and no one had any idea that Amazon would become the poster child for the Internet stock frenzy, but the excitement was already palpable among the young, casually dressed workforce. Marcus began by cranking out thousands of online book reviews, and before long he was doing online author interviews and managing the content of the home page. He spent five years at the company, during which time his stock options made him a paper millionaire, only to watch in anguish as most of it evaporated before his eyes. Marcus tells his story with wit and candor, revealing what it was really like to live in the New Paradigm, where you "monetized eyeballs" and "leveraged your verbiage" to reach an "inflection point" (make money). Although the company survived both the NASDAQ crash and 9/11, the journey was not without loss of artistic freedom: the home page, no longer shaped by human talent, is now simply programmed to display content based on the user's buying habits. David Siegfried
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get an insider's view into Amazon's growth July 19 2004
For somebody working in the Internet industry for a long time it is great to read about how a company like Amazon developed itself. Not from a pure marketing or financial perspective, but from a people and organizational perspective. Anyone interested in finding out how it was or would have been to go through the growth stages of an Internet start up that executed on a vision and succeeded with that, this is a great book. It is easy to read, not too long or too short. With the departure of the author from Amazon in the early 2000's you wonder how life in Amazon has changed since then. But anybody familiar with the rollercoaster ride of the late nineties will attest that that surely was the most interesting period. Go read!
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'amazonia' by former senior editor James Marcus is a memoir of that company's fifty-fifth employee, hired just a few months after the company moved from founder Jeff Bezos' garage in Seattle, the home of tech giant Microsoft and the fast becoming mythical Bill Gates.
In spite of the high tech world in which moved, it's operation, at least from what the reader can glean from these pages, was remarkably low-tech, and this may be a source of disappointment to some readers of this book, which is much, much more of a personal memoir than it is a chronicle of the company and its times. It is also done from the perspective of a non-technical literary editor who, in 1996, was not conversant with the few tech totems encountered in the book such as HTML and UNIX.
One of the very few insights into's technology was given when, in that same year, early in his employment, Marcus had to rotate the content of the site, thereby bringing the current internet content off-line and bringing an updated copy of the site content on line. By 1996, this technique is incredibly primitive, and the fact that it is being done by a copy editor signals an utterly 'fly by the seat of your pants' operation. It is an expected relief to a frequent user and customer to have the author say that times changed and the company Information Technology staff soon would not let a copy editor within two solid doors of a terminal capable of doing this task. Even so, this is pretty tame stuff. In 1996, working in Information Technology for a pharmaceutical company, we were doing database based content which was more sophisticated than this, and our business was drugs, not Internet content.
But, this is all a symptom of the fact that this book is not about technology.
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There was no way I was not going to read Amazonia. I love memoirs, I love, and a story about a book reviewer who gets rich reviewing books for Amazon, well that sounds just fine to me.
The first half of Amazonia is fast and fun. James Marcus gets his first "real" job as is taking off, when it is still an upstart company staffed by enthusiastic and smart people (Jeff Bezos asked all potential employees what their SAT scores were). He is hired as an editor, but finds he spends a lot of time working on web pages and packing books. It's okay though, because everyone has a stake in the company's success.
By the second half of the book, has become a grownup company where everyone speaks in management cliches and tries not to brag about all the cool stuff they are buying now that they are fabulously rich. Marcus spends all of his time at work or with people from work and his marriage is on the rocks. No wonder. He has become an bore.
Marcus describes the giddiness of the early years well, as the young employees throw themselves into a project that is as likely to go belly up as it is to make them millions. It's a huge gamble and you want them to succeed as much as they do themselves.
Marcus, a great fan of literature, goes off on egghead-y tangents from time to time. If you are not a modern literature geek, then these parts are easily skipped. He also gets rather involved in the technical aspects of the web site a bit more than seems entirely necessary.
Amazonia brings to mind David Denby's recent American Sucker, but Marcus avoids the worst of Denby's wallowing in self-pity, and doesn't dwell on his foundering marriage and only hints at an affair with an Amazon colleague.
Amazonia is a fun book for people who like rags-to-riches stories, especially those who dream of making their fortunes at something as unlikely as book reviewing.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Irrationally Exuberant Account July 2 2004
This is a gripping nonfiction account of the author's tenure at Amazon between 1996 and 2001 as Employee #55. Unlike other works that cover similar territory, Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim's 2001 film and Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years (the one man show), the protagonist and author, James Marcus comes across as a thoughtful, likable person. As a Senior Editor, Marcus reviewed and championed obscure and overlooked books and authors. The list of works he recommends is worth the price of the book. After finishing the book, I regretted that Amazon has stopped thinking of itself as a bookstore and scotched much of the editorial content Marcus was responsible for. One quibble with the author-he never questions his own credentials as a reviewer, while admitting to the fact that few of his reviews were pans. When measured on the barometer of critical independence, the Amazon customer reviewers that he dismisses are at times more worthy than Amazon's editorial reviews. This Amazon customer does not simply want recommendations from reviews but seeks criticism as well.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Being a literary editor at Amazon in the heyday
There are "editors" at Amazon today, but what they mostly do is censor reviews by customers. Read more
Published on July 19 2004 by Dennis Littrell
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific, Funny, Amusing Read!
..And there are moments of serious thought here too! After Mr. Marcus flies from Portland to Seattle for his first interview, he is asked his thoughts about possibly working 60... Read more
Published on July 1 2004 by Hans Castorp
5.0 out of 5 stars Rediscovering the 90's with a great read
James Marcus's Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Juggernaut is a surprisingly quick and absorbing account of the author's five-year stint as an editor at... Read more
Published on June 27 2004 by Debra Hamel
5.0 out of 5 stars Must-buy from a writer to watch
A long time since I read *any* book at a single sitting, let alone 262pp of non-fiction when I could least afford to be propping eyes open at 4am. Read more
Published on June 26 2004 by Chris Holmes
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine writing, informative and entertaining
It was the editorial content of in the late 1990s that originally drew me to the site. It was literate, it was cool. I badly wanted a job there. Read more
Published on June 25 2004 by C. Ebeling
5.0 out of 5 stars Smart...insightful...well-crafted...
The story of has been all too well covered, by insiders and outsiders alike. What Marcus gives us is an actual piece of stylish writing, a series of essays, really, on... Read more
Published on June 23 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Bravo!
I devoured "Amazonia" in one sitting. James has a gift for words and is a master at pacing. Read more
Published on June 17 2004 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars A memoir, not a history
Marcus writes honestly about what it was like for him to be an early employee at Amazon. It's not a definitive history of the company, and it doesn't claim to be. Read more
Published on June 14 2004 by David desJardins
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful writer, a wonderful book
Marcus swept me off my feet with this tale of what it was like to work at Amazon during the golden years. Read more
Published on June 13 2004 by Rick Ayre
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