March 2006

Ryan Klos

nonfiction

Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut by James Marcus

There’s something undeniably intriguing about the whole dot.com, e-commerce explosion and eventual implosion. Merger after merger, buyout after buyout, hundreds of dot.coms dissolved into the electronic ether while others thrived. Among the most notable on the thriving side: Amazon.com, the carnivorous e-bookstore gone wholly retail.

Amazonia is James Marcus’s story of his “five years at the epicenter of the dot.com juggernaut.” He recounts his tenure as employee number 55 in 1996 wearing the official title: Editor. The title, as he’d come to find out, included responsibilities most normal editors never imagine. At one point he was responsible for updating Amazon’s homepage on a daily basis.

Marcus watched the company’s growth amazed at the pace it gobbled up dozens of smaller dot coms and businesses. CEO Jeff Bezos -- the innovative, risk-taking strategist behind the mega-seller’s successes -- had an insatiable desire for more, more, more. By 1998 the mega-seller’s payroll boasted 8,000 employees, “that meant the company had to hire an average of eight people every day.” The constant mergers, buyouts and additional employees meant constant restructuring and moving to larger facilities. After numerous title changes, reorgs, and restructures, Marcus notes Amazon’s growing pains made it difficult to do his job, much less know what exactly it was. But the money was excellent.

Employees holding stock options became paper millionaires literally overnight once the company went public. Most of them would never touch a fraction of that real money. As they waited for their options to vest, the bottom slipped out and dot.coms all across the net deflated. Amazon included.

Marcus’s story, albeit interesting in the sense of business and marketing, lacks personality. It’s full of astounding statistics and numbers, but the personal elements of memoir aren’t there. He talks about the company’s ups and downs and reorgs and buyouts, but rarely do we see human reaction on a personal level. More than half way in we find out, through a conversation with a co-worker, Marcus’s wife has moved out. Was this company destroying anyone else’s lives? Then, near the end, Marcus mentions a new girlfriend in another city as briefly as his wife’s exodus. Memoir can be many things, but what makes them personal is the ability to connect on a visceral level and tap into the human condition as a result of the “story.” In Amazonia, we’re dazzled by statistics and the business side of Amazon instead of the human. The real story, the visceral story of the destruction Amazon did to Marcus’s life, remains untold.

Then, further removing the reader from any personal universality, Marcus uses chapter nineteen as an ode to Emerson and his personal philosophies. The chapter comes straight out of left field -- a waving of brains to show off intellect and research -- and doesn’t contribute much of anything to the story. He even admits in the afterword that it might have been too much. Still, he, and his editors, left it in.

As a first-person business profile, Amazonia is a success. As a memoir, it lacks the human connection and begs the question, why should we care?

In the end, what kept pages turning was the need to know why, after five years, Marcus could no longer work for the mammoth online retailer that made him a millionaire.

Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut by James Marcus
The New Press
ISBN: 1595580247
270 pages