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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
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 Dot.com Juggernaut is a surprisingly quick and absorbing account of the author's five-year stint as an editor at Amazon.com. Hired in 1996, in the early days of the e-tailer's historic march to world domination (Marcus was employee number 55), the author watched the value of his stock options explode in value...
Published on June 27, 2004 by Debra Hamel

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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where's the beef
As a book vendor to Amazon, I was keen to learn more about the company's formative years as well the inside scoop about the inner workings and politics of the current organization. Marcus writes about both issues, but for the most part he takes the high road and avoids kissing and telling. Can't blame the guy for still needing to use his former employer for references...
Published on May 27, 2004


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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rediscovering the 90's with a great read, June 27, 2004
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This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
James Marcus's Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut is a surprisingly quick and absorbing account of the author's five-year stint as an editor at Amazon.com. Hired in 1996, in the early days of the e-tailer's historic march to world domination (Marcus was employee number 55), the author watched the value of his stock options explode in value during his tenure, and he saw his job as a provider of editorial content become increasingly marginalized as Amazon turned to "personalization widgets" to automate the content of its pages.

For an Amazon enthusiast like myself (I placed my first order--for a copy of Alison Weir's The Wars of the Roses--relatively early, in October of 1997, and have handed over bagfuls of money to the company since), Amazonia offers a titillating view of life behind the web site. Have you ever wondered, for example, what a professional Amazonian's take on the reviews of Harriet Klausner (Amazon's top-ranked reviewer) might be? But the book also reminds us of our recent history, which, given the frenetic pace of change in the computer age, seems very long ago indeed--those early days in the mid-90's when the average man on the street was only vaguely aware, if aware at all, of the wonders of the world wide web. Remember PlanetAll, for example, an online datebook service Amazon acquired back when PDAs weren't ubiquitous? I remembered, but vaguely, once Marcus jogged my memory. Reading Amazonia, then, is an experience akin to reminiscing with a rediscovered friend from grammar school. It's also a great read.

Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining look at a "utopian frat house"..., May 26, 2006
Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut by James Marcus is an entertaining little book about one man's experience working as a book reviewer for Amazon.

James Marcus signed up for Amazon as employee number 77 and watched the company soar to over 8000 employees. At the beginning, the author calls the company a "utopian frat house," and something that "resembled a science project executed by the smartest kid in the class." Jeff Bezos was going places, and working at Amazon in the beginning was as exciting as a thrill ride. While pay and benefits weren't always the best, the stock options were mind boggling. At one time, Marcus' stock options were worth $9 million on paper.

In the course of his five year tenure, the author wrote reviews, interviewed authors, selected featured books, took care of the homepage, and gave interviews to CNN on holiday book selections. When the holidays approached, almost all employees were expected to spend time in the warehouse. Marcus writes a witty account of working the conveyer belt trying to package book orders, "surely we were in Lucy-and-Ethel territory here."

Unfortunately, Amazon stumbled as it grew and it started accumulating other companies and trying new products. Soon they were selling toys, internet cards, tools, electronics, kitchen wares and featuring an on-line auction (similar to eBay). Some of these ventures sunk like a stone, and soon weeds were starting to take over this "high-tech hot house." The dot.com market also tumbled and Amazon stock prices went with it.

I thought that Amazonia could have included a little more about the author's personal life. He gives only very brief snippets of what is happening on that level. Also, Marcus likes to impress us with his giant vocabulary, which gets distracting at times. I also thought the comparisons between Emerson and the internet a stretch. But Amazonia is still a fine book and I walked away with a better understanding of the world of Amazon and the genius of Jeff Bezos. I also wrote down a number of book recommendations. Marcus also has a shrewd eye for observing books, authors and readers. One observation I liked is "READERS AND WRITERS: their mating rituals are as strange, as intricate and engrossing, as anything you'll ever see on the Discovery Channel." So, Amazonia is a must read for a serious Amazon reviewer.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Insider's View Of Right Here, August 31, 2004
This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
No one needs to be reminded that there has been a dot.com boom and bust. There has been a resultant boom (no bust yet) in books about the boom and bust. Can we stand one more? How about one by a serious professional book reviewer who goes to work for Amazon to pump up the "content" of the Amazon.com website? Sure, _Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut_ (The New Press) by James Marcus, has all the trimmings of books already in the genre: weird personalities afflicted by irrational affluence, ever-shifting work routines and schedules fueled by Starbucks, ambivalence about the worth of impersonal e-commerce, and of course, the deflation of stock options that turns paper millionaires into just regular yuppies. _Amazonia_ has a lot going for it, though. It is beautifully written, amused and sad, with an authoritative view from someone who was there at the beginning but no authoritative insistence on what it all means. It has welcome views of one of the most curious of entrepreneurs, Jeff Bezos, the irrepressible, inscrutable founder. It is a story of the inside workings of one of the most famous companies on Earth, told by one who was swept up in it but because he was hired for "content," remained a detached outsider as the management types tried new ways of pulling the "revenue levers" (that's official Amazon jargon).

Marcus had been a translator and a freelance book critic. He was interviewed to come on board Amazon in 1996, and was the fifty-fifth employee hired (a further subtitle of the book is "A Tale of Internet Euphoria by Employee #55"); the operation truly was just starting up, because two years later it would have 8,000 employees. He was hired basically to write brief reviews of books that would appear on the site. It would be far more power than he had ever wielded as a book reviewer before, but he didn't like the idea when it was pitched to him: "I'm pimping for literature via the Internet." The wages were paltry, but the stock options were supposed to be spectacular. And on paper, they were. He became, on paper, a millionaire from book reviewing; on paper, during the NASDAQ exuberance, he had stock options worth $9 million. It didn't last, of course, but he didn't do too badly in the end. But it's not about the money. Marcus convincingly recounts how he did not turn into a snooty millionaire or a crestfallen loser, but it's the work, not the prospective wealth or loss thereof, that is what's important here. Marcus's real job, writing the reviews, was one he really liked. He worked there for five years, and wrote thousands of them. Many were "the haiku of book criticism," the 45-word review. He loved calling attention to good titles: "There was nothing more satisfying than nudging a noncommercial title into the limelight."

Of course, the job didn't keep its high attractiveness any more than the stock options did. The vigorously powerful editorial team was derailed by (surprise!) automated computer programs, under the label "personalization." Instead of reviews for the customer to browse, each customer made (by purchasing similar items) a personal store. A personalization engine, rather than an human editor, would make a customer's home page, and Marcus even had a John Henry-like contest to see which was more effective in sales. "Let the rotten little robot trawl through the database for hidden affinities: it wasn't going to beat this steam-drivin' man." Marcus lost. Eventually, personalization, driven by the MBAs Jeff was importing, took over. Reviews by staff of the books themselves ceased to be important, as Amazon shifted the emphasis to reviews written by customers, and customers were invited to vote on the helpfulness of the reviews, and the results produced a ranking of reviewers. In a wry episode near the end of the book, Marcus started submitting customer reviews under an alias, and won a $50 gift certificate prize for his work, which he eventually had to give back. Thus ended his foray into "the vox pop," the new way of doing things, and soon after he moved on to return to the more familiar bricks-and-mortar, paper-and-ink world. He had fun, made a little money, and maybe turned some customers on to good books, but with that all over, there is a mildly rueful tone to this sprightly, funny memoir. He loved literature, he had to do business, and it is sad he could not have found a closer match.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Who, What, and Culture of Amazon's Growth Years., August 18, 2004
This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
In 1996, James Marcus became Amazon.com's employee #55. He successfully navigated Amazon's unconventional interview process to become an editor at what was then a start-up, the first real store on the World Wide Web, that had almost absurdly grand ambitions: to become a successful purveyor of almost everything, products and information in every way, shape, and form. In many ways, Marcus was a fish out of water at Amazon. He was a writer in a company of techies. He wrote reviews, copy, interviews, and, for a while, was given free reign over the home page. This gave Marcus a perspective on Amazonian culture that might be different than that of more technically oriented employees who lived through the same years with the company. He doesn't talk about technological innovation, but about company culture and the individuals who created it. Perhaps his literary bent made him cynical of Amazon's Culture of Metrics or inclined to find humor where others might not. But an insider who is at once an outsider makes an interesting chronicler of history. This is his account of 5 years in the editorial department at Amazon.com, whose identity, itself, was constantly in flux, changing as e-commerce changed, as Amazon grew, as Amazon shifted its marketing strategy...several times. He lived through Get Big Fast, subsequent shrink (layoffs), the rise of the Customer Review, Ambot, and an absurd number of meetings. Like so many employees, he saw Amazon stock reach incredible heights before he could sell, achieving paper millionaire status. Then he watched it fall to unfortunate depths before he was fully vested. The picture he paints of Amazon is of a company that thrives on change and growth, sometimes with a peculiar disregard for reason, and that is obsessed with numbers -and I don't mean dollars. Amazon is odd. There will undoubtedly be many interesting stories to tell about the company that invented the online store, the shopping cart, and targeted e-mail, among other staples of our commercial lives, but "Amazonia" is insightful and entertaining -and currently one of only two useful books about Amazon, the other being Robert Spector's "Amazon.com: Get Big Fast".
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Insight - Stunningly Honest, February 3, 2007
This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
An exceptional, exclusive, and original look into the inner workings of the web retail giant Amazon. Follow Marcus from his initiation as employee #55 to the highs (and lows) of his lost $9 million dollar stock fortune, and finally, his frustuartion and eventual decision to leave Amazon. Though Marcus was one of the earliest employees to be hired at Amazon, beginning his career when CEO Bezos had only dreams of becoming a retail giant, he describes the company as if he were only a passerby, a spectator. This detachment is apparent especially as Marcus laments his lost fortune, and criticizes Amazon's "culture of metrics" and their constant hiring of MBA types while continuely pushing editors from office to office like a stack of old books in their corporate warehouse.

Marcus reveals the less pretty side of giant corporations, even ones who exist in the web world, and he destroys any perception of Amazon as a caring book company which exists only to serve you to find new and creative books. Instead, Marcus paints a picture of Amazon as a money frenzied monster manipulating visitors into buying books and items sponsored by their companies, not reccomended by Amazon editors or staff.

Overall, Marcus's ramblings must be taken with a grain of salt. (Remember, he did miss out on $9 million from this company, and he was being mistreated increasingly in his last years). But, this insight into Amazon and other corporations is valuable, and insightful. Its a quick read, and it will change the way you look at Amazon - for better or worse, read it.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Where's the beef, May 27, 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
As a book vendor to Amazon, I was keen to learn more about the company's formative years as well the inside scoop about the inner workings and politics of the current organization. Marcus writes about both issues, but for the most part he takes the high road and avoids kissing and telling. Can't blame the guy for still needing to use his former employer for references. Despite my wanting more, the book was an enjoyable, quick read. Marcus's discussion of the "Culture of Metrics", editorial objectivity being usurped by technology, and the true purpose and worth of coop dollars was refreshingly frank. Marcus is clearly a talented writer with a thorough knowledge of literature. At times this knowledge got in the way of story telling. For instance the chapter dedicated to Emerson bored me to tears. And I was an English major.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE RISE OF A RETAIL GIANT..., June 16, 2005
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This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
This is a marvelously written book about the early days of Amazon by one who was employed there in the capacity of editor. This is an insider's observation of an e-commerce leviathan's rise from obscurity. The author reflects on the heady, halcyon days when Amazon was just a newly minted internet book seller, hoping to make its mark. The reader can almost taste the author's enthusiasm for the time he spent working for Amazon in those early days. Who wouldn't be enthusiastic, having worked for a company that gave its employees stock options that, at the height of the dot.com craze, were worth millions.

It was not, however, just about the money. It was also about the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a business that would change the retailing community forever. It was about the camaraderie and the solidarity in those early days, as the employees all wore many hats. The author lets the reader sneak a peek at job interviews. He allows the reader to sit in on staff meetings with him, as well as trade shows, corporate picnics, and retreats that were like pep rallies. It is a most intriguing birds-eye view.

As Amazon grew and changed, so did the author's position as editor. Then, the death knell began ringing for the editors, when the concept of customer reviews developed and grew, becoming a cultural phenomenon unto itself, laying the groundwork for the obsolescence of the job of editor as it was originally constituted. Moreover, the freewheeling, by the seat of your pants operation of Amazon had given over to a more corporate structure. The author worked at Amazon from 1996 to 2001, and his nostalgic reminiscences make for absorbing reading. Those who are devotees of Amazon will find this well-written book heady stuff, indeed.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful writer, a wonderful book, June 13, 2004
By 
Rick Ayre (Bellevue, WA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
Marcus swept me off my feet with this tale of what it was like to work at Amazon during the golden years. I should have seen it coming, should have known someone with his skill and sensitivites would be the one to document this tale. Frankly, I didn't, and am thrilled to death I didn't, because I dove into this with few expectations, and devoured it in one sitting. Totally satisfied, I can only thank him for his honesty and perspective. And, oh yes, did I mention the guy can write?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars James captures the virtual insanity of the dot.com era, July 29, 2006
This book does far more than tell the story of one person's career experiences in the middle of the dot.com Amazon boom era. James captures throughout the book the psychological roller coaster of the paper money insanity that was the late 90's gold rush. Speculation drove insane price multiples for companies with no assets and no profits, creating millions in wealth for book editors who also spent time time packing books into boxes.

The book is written well as a first person narrative, and is quite interesting to read. James shares the events and emotions and blends them so the reader experiences some of what it was like from the trenches. I laughed out loud at his depiction of MBAs and absurd corporate speak which started to permeate the once pureness of literary service provided by Amazon on line editors. While most of the moves Jeff Bezos made paid off for Amazon, it was hard for the author to write about some of the dot.com ventures and the insane prices paid for acquisitions, many of which are comical in retrospect.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book is the manner in which he captures the conflicting emotions of paper wealth created by the dot.com frenzy. He depicts the simmering resentment of other corporate employees as Amazon moved to an office building downtown and the unconventional Amazon employees, with their paper millions, began to rub elbows with banking employees working hard for normal wages.

The only complaint I had was when he veered off subject with a chapter long diatribe on literary commentary. Granted, he was a book editor and therefore is knowledgeable on the subject, but it seemed a bit pedantic and detracted from the commentary on the company.

Overall, I really enjoyed the prose and the internal perspective on the rise of one of the dot.com survivors. Writing a review on Amazon, on a book about Amazon, by an editor of books for Amazon, is a bit surreal. The irony aside, I recommend this book as a fun personal story and a historical retrospective on a unique era.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How to Get Rich Reviewing Books, July 3, 2005
This review is from: Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut (Hardcover)
How could I resist Amazonia? I love memoirs, I love Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com 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, Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com bore.

Marcus describes the giddiness of the early Amazon.com 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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Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut
Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut by James Marcus (Hardcover - June 17, 2004)
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